Fashion is a huge part of us as people and is a reflection of our beliefs and cultural expressions, but it has quickly turned into something that significantly endangers the environment. This year's Earth Day on the 22nd of focused on the theme, ‘planet vs. plastics.’ The goal was to advocate for widespread awareness on the health risks of plastics, rapidly phase out all single-use plastics, urgently push for a strong UN treaty on plastic pollution, and demand an end to fast fashion.

The fast fashion industry operates on a 'race to the bottom' model to produce the greatest number of garments at the lowest price. With cheap production, lowered costs and societal pressure to constantly consume clothing, fashion’s numbers are staggering: 100 billion garments made annually, 87% ending in landfills or incinerators and only 1% recycled.

Toxic textile processing pollutes freshwater systems harming connected ecosystems, and each year 200 million trees are razed for cellulosic fibres imperilling biodiversity. 69% of clothes are made from crude oil, and washing them accounts for 35% of the ocean's microplastics. Microfibers are in the food chain, air, soil, and appear deep in our organs and our bloodstreams threatening our existence.

The textile and apparel industry plays an important role in the global economy by providing jobs and income. In Kenya, the sector is the third largest exporter after horticulture and tea. It contributes to the nation’s economy, representing 0.6% of GDP and accounting for 6% of the manufacturing sector. It earns 7% of the country’s total export earnings. New clothes are manufactured in the export processing zone (EPZ), exported to the US, UK, and EU, and then re-imported into Kenya as second hand clothes.

The EPZs are managed by the export processing zones authority (EPZA) whose board of directors comprises members appointed from the private and public sectors. The board chairman is appointed by the President. EPZA is mandated to attract export-oriented manufacturing by setting aside physical areas where investors are given a range of incentives. The benefits include tax breaks, waivers of industry regulations, exemptions from import and export duties, suspension of rules requiring foreign investors to make investments in conjunction with local partners, strict guarantees against expropriation, assurances of physical security, and infrastructure.

There are no restrictions on who can invest in such zones. An EPZ firm may be 100% foreign owned, 100% Kenyan owned or any combination of foreign/Kenyan ownership. An EPZ firm is allowed to bring in foreign workers for training, technical, and managerial categories.

Big fashion brands, including Adidas, Fila, Puma, Kohl’s, and Calvin Klein are among the over 20 US fashion houses that order directly from such companies.The EPZ firms controls the entire value chain, from making the yarn in China, Taiwan, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Since many of the garment manufacturing firms are not Kenyan owned, they repatriate most of their profits to their countries of origin, namely China, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Many of the raw materials, such as polyester, buttons, zippers, and thread, are sourced from these countries and assembled in the EPZs.

The shift to synthetic fabrics has allowed for the mass production of low-cost fashion, where the people who make fast fashion clothing are often exploited and subject to working in poor, toxic conditions. The U.S. Department of Labor ought to strictly enforce a ban on the importation of clothing made with unfair practices for apparel workers working below minimum wage or under a piece-rate system and create multilateral accountability that holds not only factories but brands liable for unsafe conditions and unpaid wages.

Early in the year 2023, workers from Hela Clothing, the company that manufactures lingerie for European and United States markets, downed their tools over new payroll from management. They accused the company of illegal transferring and unlawful sacking. The firm is said to have planned an ownership change and made changes to their contract without workers’ knowledge. The targeted workers in the ongoing reforms at the firm were due for service benefits after serving the company for years, and the company had been sacking employees who questioned certain decisions made by management.

Textile manufacturing operations create large amounts of toxic and nontoxic solid waste. Fibres, hemp, yarn, and fabrics are solid waste that are created directly from production lines. The cones, looms, and cardboard reels used to hold fibres and textiles during manufacturing add to a factory’s solid waste pollution. Common toxic solid waste pollutants include the storage drums and plastic containers used to hold hazardous chemicals and solvents. Leftover powdered dyes and dye containers, scrap metal, oily cloths, and wastewater sludge can contaminate the soil and groundwater sources if not properly disposed of or released untreated.

The textile and garment industry is notorious for creating a lot of waste through general overproduction, cutting, sewing, and packaging. Garments are often packaged in plastic bags and other materials that are not easily recyclable. The local waste collection and distribution is also highly informal, causing a large share of textile waste to be dumped in landfills, polluting soils and causing toxic gas emissions.

There have been reports of environmental pollution related to some of the EPZ factories in Kenya. Some of these factories have been accused of releasing harmful pollutants, such as lead and other hazardous chemicals, into the environment.

Kenya has a thriving second-hand clothing industry involving many key actors along the value chain, including importers, wholesalers, retailers, sub-retailers (hawkers or street sellers), and downcyclers such as mop makers and furniture upholstery makers. Supporting actors include clearing and forwarding agents, transporters, godowns, and warehouse owners.

According to a research report titled 'Clothes Imported to Kenya and the Associated Environmental Impacts' by Professor Patrick Diamond from the Queen Mary University London, the second-hand clothing trade, commonly known as “mitumba” in Kenya, is a vital component of Kenya’s apparel market. It provides access to fashionable and quality garments at affordable prices to large sections of the population and plays a significant role in the local economy through job creation and revenue generation.

Of the 112 million items of used clothing shipped directly from the EU to Kenya each year, up to one in three contain plastic and are of such a low quality that they are immediately dumped or burned.

"The clothes are either too dirty, too damaged to be reused, culturally inappropriate, or not suitable for our climate. This creates serious environmental and health problems for vulnerable communities and it overburdens the Kenyan taxpayer with waste management costs," laments Mr Betterman Simidi Musasia, a businessman who sold his trucking business to start Clean Up Kenya, a national public sanitation advocacy organisation.

"Kenyan traders report clothing soiled by vomit, heavy stains, and animal hair. A McDonald’s uniform was found with the name badge still attached to it. An M&S item with the label 'recycle with Oxfam' was photographed being burnt to roast peanuts," reveals a report and documentary by Clean Up Kenya, titled "Trashion, the stealth export of waste plastic clothes to Kenya."

The report accuses charities that collect clothing from EU and UK citizens like British Heart Foundation, Oxfam, Cancer Research UK, Salvation Army, Barnardos, and Sue Ryder who are linked to the recycling companies that ship the waste to Kenya.

Estimates by the Charging Markets Foundation suggest that in recent years, over 300 million items of damaged or unsellable clothing made of synthetic or plastic fibres are exported to Kenya each year where they end up dumped, landfilled, or burned, exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis.

Clearly, Kenya is exporting clean unused clothes and imports the same as dirty used clothes which end up committing financial and environmental crimes. Kenya has recommended banning imports of used apparel since 2016 but has not enforced it.

There is need to hold the fashion industry responsible for cutting carbon emissions to achieve alignment with the 1.5 degree pathway set out by the 2015 Paris Agreement and enact an extended producer responsibility requirement for fashion brands to sustainably dispose of their waste.

France, along with Sweden and Denmark, are making a bold proposal to ban the export of secondhand clothes from the EU. What is missing is support of infrastructure and standard systems for consistent, convenient, and widespread collection and sorting of used clothing to prevent the waste of 17 million tons of textiles in the United States each year.

On record, SMART, a group of 40 used clothing exporters in the US, says that 40 000 American jobs in sorting and packing clothes, are at risk. Clothing thrown away by Americans, the association says, will end up in landfills in the U.S. and damage the environment if not sold abroad.

The organisation argues that the cut-off of these imports from the U.S. runs counter to the the African Growth and Opportunities Act’s prohibition against “barriers to U.S. trade.” Currently, Kenya is the leading textile exporter to the USA.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.