When Lotte de Haan first arrived in Zambia three years ago, she spotted someone wearing a soccer club T-shirt from the Dutch village where she grew up. “I was so surprised. It is a super-local soccer club.” At the time, de Haan wondered how the T-shirt got to Zambia. But during her visit, she became aware of the proliferation of Western clothing and the scale of the secondhand clothing trade from the West to Africa.

A few years later de Haan returned to Zambia to work on a design project called Salaula, a Zambian word for “selecting by rummaging through a pile”. The trade, according to Common Objective, in donated secondhand clothes from the west to Africa is worth $5 billion per year. Eight billion kilograms of unwanted garments are transformed into a new commodity. Yet vast amounts of these clothes end up in landfills.

De Haan’s intention was to find out about the shifting value of clothing waste by tracing its journey from junk to commodity to junk. She followed clothes from collection points in the Netherlands to where they are sorted and compressed and finally to Lusaka’s Salaula market.

Before travelling back to Zambia, De Haan visited a warehouse in The Netherlands where unwanted clothes collected by charities are sorted and compressed. “I was astonished how much clothing I saw at the commercial sorting plant,” says de Haan.

To add value to the unwanted clothes, they are sorted into carry-able bales of between 45 and 70 kilograms according to categories, like, for instance, different textiles, what’s in fashion and what’s out of fashion. At this stage, many clothes have to be thrown out because they have been badly looked after, or if they have become contaminated in the trash. De Haan says that because clothes are so cheaply made now, people no longer care for them and of how they get rid of them. Bales she saw in Europe were of reasonably good value, but in Zambia some bales arrived from other countries of very mixed value.

Market vendors have to buy a bale judging its value by the clothes on the outside, but often the clothes on the inside of the bale are of poor quality. De Haan says, that in this case, the vendors “have to throw away about 70% of the bale.” The unwanted clothes are either burnt or thrown into unmanaged landfills.

Collaborating with wholesalers, clothing pickers, vendors and tailors in Lusaka, de Haan created seven skirts from old clothes which became a series of umbrellas each portraying a geographic territory and the impact of its discarded textiles in Zambia. Together, they represent the global geography of the used clothing market. The seven umbrellas represent the areas from where the garments originated: European Union, Canada, USA, UK, Middle East, Asia (excluding China) and China. These were exhibited at the Geo-Design: Junk exhibition as part of Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. The exhibition explored global systems of discarded things through 18 strikingly different investigations by alumni from Design Academy Eindhoven.

De Haan says that people in Zambia love the international brands, which were once Western people’s trash. “They are unique and cheap, compared to locally produced clothing,” she said. But, she says, the downside to this market is that there is no longer a Zambian textile industry. The country’s booming Salaula markets have pushed out local textile and fashion businesses, which are unable to compete with the secondhand industry and low-quality clothing imported from China.

In her artist’s statement, De Haan writes, “Donated garments, discarded as undesirable by their original owner, dress Zambians and create a local trade while simultaneously suppressing the development of an independent industry”.

Credits

Tailors:
David, Kabaso, Mwepia, Dorothy Chikwemba

Salaula Vendors:
Abel Chipoya, David, Rabson, Golden, Imano

Models:
Nana, Beenzu, Lombe Jenny, Akakandelwa, Esther, Ngosa

Lusaka Dumpsite:
Mr Chikwemba

Ministry of Commerce, Trade and Industry Zambia:
Mr M. Ngosa, Industry Department

Movement for African Unity

Global Youth Platform
Mutetelenu Kalama

Photography:
Bichriphoto

Clothing collection and sorting:
Sympany, Leger Des Heils – reshare, Wieland Textiel

Welding:
Adam Bialek