We publish the winning investigation of the Mani Tese Award for Investigative and Social Journalism 2020 which aimed to support the production of original surveys on issues concerning the impacts of business activities on human rights and the environment. The 2020 edition of the award was created as part of the "Change Fashion" project with the contribution of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS) within Mani Tese’s program MADE IN JUSTICE.
The journey of second hand clothes from the West to East Africa.
by MARTINA DI PIRRO and MAGED SROUR
Illustrations by FRANCESCA FERRARA
1. THE "CLEAN DRUG" IN THE SHADOW OF VESUVIUS
There is a smell of wet earth and garbage. Vesuvius dominates the light of the setting sun, which hardly illuminates thirteen abandoned warehouses in the hinterland of Pompeii, subject to seizure since 2018. About six thousand tons of special waste, including used clothing, clothing accessories, work rags, and textile scraps, emerge from the semi-open doors' cracks.
The seizure was just the starting point. Since that day, a series of investigative activities have started, conducted by the Torre Annunziata group's Finance Police and coordinated by the Naples anti-mafia district directorate. And, in July 2020, as part of the 'Hercules' operation, illegal waste trafficking was ascertained in the territory of Naples, Melito di Napoli, Boscotrecase, Terzigno, Pompei, and Castellammare di Stabia: 12 thousand tons of waste stacked in warehouses scattered in the countryside of the territory. All out in the open. Between houses, garages, and chicory fields.
An order issued by the public prosecutor against 17 people - one of whom ended up in prison, ten under house arrest, and six reached by the precautionary mandatory measure to appear in front of the judicial police - which brings with it a precise accusation: criminal organization to the realization of huge illicit traffic of special waste. The disposal is illegal and carried out without respecting the procedures laid down by environmental legislation. From the circumstantial framework drawn up by the Finance Police (Guardia di Finanza) of Torre Annunziata, what emerges is the existence of a systematic collection and handling of waste, coming from textile and clothing companies working in the related treatment and disposal sector.
The dynamic is simple: the over 12 thousand tons of special waste, thanks to the involvement of haulers, are illegally stored in huge warehouses rented by unsuspecting owners (to whom the partnership sometimes does not even pay the agreed rent), and that once filled, are abandoned. A modus operandi that is repeated every time organized crime gets its hands on the second-hand clothing sector. To understand this business's interests, the Caponnetto anti-mafia foundation warned that 110 thousand tons of clothes are collected every year in Italy, an average of 1.8 kilos per inhabitant. Captain Giuliano Ciotta, who led the Torre Annunziata's Finance Police operation, confirms an essential point: used clothing is part of an extremely profitable sector, capable, at times, of bringing greater profits than the drug trade. The "clean drug," as it is defined in some wiretappings. And on this traffic, made up of gray areas and fixers, the operation of the Anti-Mafia Directorate District (Dda) of Naples and the core of Torre Annunziata are shedding light.
A modus operandi that repeats itself. In December 2020, the Finance Police of Nola seized 46 tons of clothes, shoes, and other material still stored in waste bags, declared "secondhand items" and found on some trucks coming from Switzerland without respecting the rules of waste transportation.
These operations have precedents. In 2011, the Dda of Florence had carried out about a hundred arrests in the area of Prato. The reason was illicit trafficking in used clothing, which came from the collection carried out in Campania. Edoardo Amerini, originally from Friuli and resident in Treviso, president of the Consortium of used clothes (Conau) and president and 50% owner of Tesmapri SpA, a leader in the marketing of used clothing and active since 1980, ended up in the operation of the Dda of Florence. During a hearing with the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry on Ecomafie, Andrea Fluttero, current President of CONAU, stated that, following the investigation, Amerini, convicted of illicit waste trafficking in the first degree, had appealed to the sentence and resigned from the role of President, remaining in the Consortium as a partner.
For a long time, the leading company in Italy, Tesmapri worked with the many diocesan Caritas in the area and with the cooperatives part of the Caritas network to collect used clothing. In 2017, the Dda of Florence's operation ordered a seize of the Tesmapri premises, followed by a first-instance conviction in 2018 for the crime of illegal waste trafficking. The competent authorities verified irregularities in the transport and handling phases of some loads of used clothing. Tesmapri, which in 2018 had a turnover of more than EUR 12 million, alone processed about a third of all the clothes collected in Italy. However, a significant point that could suggest a real connection between Tesmapri SpA and organized crime were the relations with the commercial partner called Eurotrading International Srl, a company seized and then liquidated, led by Ciro Ascione, son of Vincenzo Ascione known as "Babbalaccone," a hegemonic boss in Herculaneum, considered by the investigators as the referent in Tuscany of the Birra-Iacomino Camorra clan.
In short, threads are connected, difficult to untangle, and yet united by the used-clothing trade. To date, Ciro Ascione is the head of AVC International, a company engaged in the processing and collecting rags and used clothing. Vincenzo Ascione is instead a fugitive in Tunisia. Tesmapri continues to operate but no longer has relations with the cooperatives linked to the Caritas circuit and the diocesan Caritas.
As the National Anti-Mafia Directorate already explained in 2014 in its annual report, "a large part of the donations of used clothing that citizens make out for solidarity, end up fueling an illicit business from which the Camorra and backers of the Camorra obtain large profits." Most of the used clothes put for solidarity in the bins across Italy can end up in the hands of organized crime, which takes advantage of the collection cooperatives and the companies responsible for managing it, sometimes literally transformed into shipping houses specialized in illegal export.
The 12 thousand tons piled up in warehouses in the Caserta area, and the Tesmapri affair serves as a forerunner to understand the role of organized crime, especially the Camorra, within the second-hand clothing chain. A business worth millions of euros, and that appeals to many. A clean drug, which brings high profits. The essential point is to find the flaw in the clothing supply chain, to find the gray area in a legal and yet not so transparent sector. Many investigations by the judiciary have highlighted the link between organized crime and the second-hand sector. In one way or another, the clans involved, especially the Birra-Iacomino and Ascione clans, have survived almost all the investigations against them.
2. THE ROLE OF ORGANIZED CRIME AND THE WORK OF THE PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEE OF INQUIRY ON ECOMAFIE
«Social cooperatives with a charitable background often manage the collection of clothes through road bins which in more than one case display the Caritas logo - says Stefano Vignaroli, President of the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry on Ecomafie since 2018. Used clothes rarely go to the poor: they are almost always sold, and the revenues are not always used for charitable purposes ». In a report sent to the Committee, the National Anti-Mafia Prosecutor Federico Cafiero De Raho cites some important inquiries carried out by the district offices' magistrates in Rome, Milan, Potenza. "There are two main poles of the used clothing supply chain in Italy," continues Vignaroli. "One is Prato, and the other one is the Campania region, the homeland of the Camorra families who keep the sector in check." A well-known affair: in 2012, in front of the parliamentarians of the Anti-Mafia Committee, the judge Ettore Squillace Greco affirmed, "The Campania people know very well that in Herculaneum they don't sell rags unless they are linked to the Birra-Iacomino».
3. YOU MUST HAVE RELATIONS WITH CAMORRA
Many journalistic investigations reveal that there are Camorra infiltrations within the cooperatives operating in the second-hand clothing sector. Lastly, that of "Le Iene," broadcasted in October 2019.
Doing (any) business is like a golden asset for the Camorra, and that is no longer a secret. An anonymous source, a former worker within a social cooperative active in collecting used clothing in Rome's territory, denounces the complex and ambiguous world of cooperatives and goes beyond what has been reported so far by previous investigations. According to the source, working within one of these cooperatives means having a clear understanding of the territory's division and the fact that sanitation practices are not carried out most of the time. The source explains that the cooperative he worked for, after emptying the bins located in some areas, brought the contents to an R13 (Put in Reserve for the Purpose of Recovery), a warehouse meant to store textile waste.
After the garments have been collected and transported to the R13, to be "converted" from waste to products aimed at retailing, private companies working in the buying-and-selling of used clothes got in this supply chain game.
The source also mentions the hiring of disadvantaged individuals who come from the Camorra clans. He also mentions the leading role of Caritas in positioning its logo (without specifying which Caritas). He speaks about some individuals' ability to lead the cooperatives to connect with political personalities of different alignments, bypassing public administration's announcements. Finally, the source states that many workers in the sector know about the relations with the Camorra. Even more well-known is the relationship between the Camorra's affiliates, some cooperatives, and charities.
4. THE ROLE OF CARITAS: A BIT OF CLARITY
The name of Caritas, a well-known religious body, appears several times, directly and indirectly, in many parliamentary hearings held before the Inquiry Committee. This is because Caritas is the point of reference organization in Italy for the collection of used clothing. The garments placed in the bins are periodically collected by social cooperatives linked to the Caritas network and then undergo a first selection. Non-reusable fabrics are purchased by companies that transform them into yarns, which are used to make new. On the other hand, the garments in good status are sent to specialized companies that deal with sanitation, selection, and sending to third-level markets (especially in Africa) to be resold.
However, in recent years, the name of Caritas and the annexed cooperatives have often been associated with numerous investigations by the authorities and has been the focus of journalistic investigations.
For journalistic accuracy, it is necessary to clarify a few points. The first confusing point is the generic and inaccurate use of the name "Caritas." Caritas is a territorial ecclesial body. Each diocese of Caritas is autonomous in terms of organization, budget management and ultimately reports to its local bishop. Caritas Italiana coordinates the single Diocesan Caritas, but it is incorrect to consider Caritas as a single entity that identically acts throughout the country.
Luciano Gualzetti, director of Caritas Ambrosiana, and therefore of the Diocese of Milan's ecclesial body that operates in Milan, Monza, Lecco, Varese, and their related provinces, answered some questions that help clarify some points.
Q: Director, what is the normal supply chain of used clothes that end up in the yellow bins with the Caritas logo?
A: First, we must distinguish between the bins for collecting clothing placed in the parishes and those placed on public land, subject to public authorities' authorization. The bins placed in the parishes are used to support the parishes' distribution centers: the given clothes are delivered directly to people in need. However, because the number of given clothes is much higher than those effectively needed by those [people] in difficulty, Caritas Ambrosiana has promoted a second collection system through the yellow bins placed on public land. This collection is entrusted to social cooperatives to employ disadvantaged people, obtain value from the collected garments, and convert this value into social projects to benefit weak people who live in the area where Caritas Ambrosiana operates. Therefore, all the clothes and accessories collected through the bins on public land are marketed by the same cooperatives that manage the service entrusted to them through a public administration invitation to tender. The amount of money that the cooperatives earn from the sale, net of management costs and necessary investments, is used to finance social projects promoted by Caritas Ambrosiana. Therefore, Caritas Ambrosiana does NOT have any operational or commercial role yet guarantees that the value obtained from this commercial activity is used for social purposes. The logo on the bin testifies the proximity and support of Caritas Ambrosiana to the cooperatives that carry out the service and attests that the rewards from the collection are used in the diocesan territory to support solidarity projects shared or promoted by Caritas Ambrosiana.
Q: What is the relationship between Caritas and the cooperatives that manage the contents of the bins?
A: There is a relationship of sharing and collaboration. Caritas Ambrosiana verifies that the employment, solidarity, and educational purposes of the project are guaranteed but does not participate in the operational management of the project or in any commercial transaction related to the sale of the material collected through the bins. There is a regular exchange of information, but the technical/operational and entrepreneurial management is entirely a responsibility of the social cooperatives. And therefore, it is the cooperatives that have commercial relations with companies working in the sector. Caritas Ambrosiana guarantees that cooperatives do everything that a private subject, such as the cooperatives, can do to ensure the full legitimacy of their work: certifications, authorizations, protocols. The history of these 22 years has shown that NO cooperative in the territory of the Diocese of Milan has committed administrative or criminal offenses, and all the investigations have shown the full legitimacy of the cooperatives' work.
Q: Do you think the clothing chain as described is a transparent one? Therefore not subject to any [criminal] infiltration?
A: For years, we have been denouncing the limits of this supply chain to the authorities: the lack of adequate plants in Italy, the absence of public support for this separate collection, and the great dependence on foreign plants for the treatment of a large part of the collected and selected material in Italy. We would expect answers on these issues from representatives of the institutions. It would also be good if both public opinion and public administrations began to raise awareness on these issues so that solutions can be found. There is not much time left since starting from January 2022, the separate collection of textile waste will be a legal obligation.
Q: During a hearing before the Committee of Inquiry on Ecomafie, Caritas Italiana stated that the control of the logo is very difficult but that it was improving this portion of management. How does Caritas Ambrosiana respond to this point?
A: Since at least 1998, Caritas Ambrosiana has allowed the use of the logo to social cooperatives that comply with precise standards. Since 2012, with the establishment of the RIUSE Network (Collection of Solidarity and Ethics Used Clothing), the service's quality standards have significantly improved, strengthening the cooperatives' work that do the collection.
The R.I.U.S.E. Network, which Gualzetti mentions, gathers those cooperatives of the Caritas network, which manages the yellow bins in the dioceses of Milan, Brescia, and Bergamo for the collection of used clothing aimed for reuse. According to public data updated to 2019, the RIUSE Network directly oversees the collection with 2,076 road bins, permanently employs 89 workers of which 29 are disadvantaged, collects about 12,170 tons of used clothing at no cost to the community, allocates important resources to solidarity projects in the territory of the two Dioceses (in 2019 € 456,059 in the Diocese of Milan and € 104,947 in the Diocese of Brescia). From 1998 to 2018, it guaranteed contributions to solidarity projects for around EUR 4 million.
Yet, Stefano Vignaroli, referring to the company Nuova Tessil Pezzame SAS and its owner Carmine Scarano - who is the subject of an investigation from which irregularities emerged in the management of used clothing that allegedly was not sanitized before being sold as used goods - says, «Carmine Scarano of Nuova Tessile Pezzame was arrested for environmental crimes. From the wiretapping transcribed in the arrest warrant, it was clear how strong was the link between Scarano and the Director of the R.I.U.S.E. Carmine Guanci. Besides that, the Tesmapri company and all its shareholders were convicted in the first instance for the same environmental offenses, at the end of a trial that started in 2011. In February 2017, Tesmapri's shareholders had been sent to trial for criminal association with the Camorra-man Vincenzo Ascione».
5. THE ROLE OF THE COOPERATIVES
To understand the cooperatives' role and why the line between those who work for solidarity and those who don't is so thin, it is useful to mention the statement by President Vignaroli. In November 2017, Nuova Tessil Pezzame SAS and its owner Carmine Scarano were the subjects of an investigation by the judiciary coordinated by the Milan DDA, which then led to the arrests of Scarano and Guglielmo Giusti, vice president of the non-profit organization L'Africa Nel Cuore. The two positioned the bins for the collection of used clothes with the non-profit organization's brand. The clothes collected were marketed and resold in Campania and Tunisia without being sanitized after being collected, a procedure that, at the time, was mandatory by law. And the bins were 95% irregular, which means they were positioned without the Municipality's necessary agreement. According to the Gip's (the investigating judge) reconstruction, 68% of the clothes that were declared entering Nuova Tessil Pezzame came from the cooperative "Vesti Solidale," a cooperative belonging to the R.I.U.S.E.
Carmine Guanci, appointed by Vignaroli as director of the RIUSE Network, and Matteo Lovatti, Chairman of the Board of Vesti Solidale, agreed to answer some questions to clarify some essential points finally.
Q: What does Vesti Solidale do? Is Vesti Solidale part of the R.I.U.S.E Network?
A: Vesti Solidale is a type-B Social Cooperative promoted/supported by Caritas Ambrosiana. Since 1998, it has been serving in the environmental sector to generate employment for weaker shares of the population and promote emancipation that passes through services that are useful for the community and protect the environment in which we live. We have been part of the RIUSE network since its inception in 2012.
Q: What is the route that the clothes collected by Vesti Solidale take? To which companies are they given, and in what percentage?
A: The clothes collected by Vesti Solidale are selected to be sent for reuse in a small part. Most of the clothes collected are sold to companies authorized for selection, sorting, and marketing both in Italy and abroad under Italian environmental and tax regulations. Regarding the companies' names, we do not believe we can provide this detail for commercial and market positioning reasons. We can say that 90% of them are Italian companies, and 10% are European companies. For three years, through the European network TESS (of which we are founding members), we have been trying to trade with non-profit companies in Africa and Central America. We are working so that this supply chain can progressively grow from a quantitative point of view.
Q: What position do you have regarding the affair involving Nuova Tessil Pezzame SAS? Was Vesti Solidali aware of these inquiries and that a portion of the collected clothes ended up in that round?
A: The arrest of the owner of Nuova Tessil Pezzame has profoundly worried us since the company was one of our buyers, and its conduct in the "Africa nel Cuore" affair, as it appears from the journalistic reconstructions, is completely incompatible with the purposes of Vesti Solidale. Thus, as soon as we received the news from the media, the RIUSE Network, of whom Vesti Solidale is a member, immediately canceled all relations with that company. However, obviously, the cooperatives of the R.I.U.S.E network were completely unrelated to the disputed facts. The decision taken caused economic damage to the cooperatives. Still, we did not hesitate to support it to eliminate even the slightest doubt about our work's transparency. We want to point out that Nuova Tessil Pezzame had the authorization in the ordinary procedure for the storage and processing of used clothing issued by the competent authorities responsible for carrying out the checks. For the record, it should also be said that, as far as we know, the trial is still ongoing, and we are awaiting the first instance judgment.
Q: And what can you tell us about the relationships with the Tesmapri company?
A: The RIUSE Network sold used clothing to the Tesmapri company until 2018. Until that time, [Tesmapri] was the leading company in the Italian market. It used to sell used clothing collected across several Italian regions. Furthermore, the company had all the permissions required by the legislation, and it was allowed to carry out those activities. It is hard to assume that the authorities in charge did not monitor such a prominent company and that it could not respect the rules. In any case, once the first level of judgment was closed and the shareholders were convicted, the RIUSE Network precautionary decided NOT to have further trade relations with Tesmapri SpA. We want to underline that this decision was taken although the same company could continue to work legally. In this case, too, as it had happened with Nuova Tessil Pezzame, the Riuse network cooperatives have had no hesitation in adopting a more severe approach than the one the law would have required. We want it to be understood that neither Tesmapri nor Nuova Tessil Pessame and no other purchaser linked with the Riuse network has been convicted or accused of being part of organized crime or of laundering drug-trafficking money. As for the Tesmapri logo on the Riuse network's bins until 2018, that logo actually referred to the Conau consortium (which both the Riuse network and Tesmapri had joined) with an indication of the main commercial partner at that time (indeed, Tesmapri) to which about 50% of the collected material was destined.
Q: To date, what criteria does your Network use to choose buyers, and which hallmarks do you adopt?
A: To protect our reputation, we require buyers to provide much more rigorous documentation than is ordinarily required in usual commercial transactions. Regarding the guarantees on the buyers who purchase the clothes, each has been previously authorized by the authorities in charge to operate under current regulations. We have been asking the legislator to establish a Register of authorized plants under public control for some time. This would serve as a greater assurance for both citizens and honest organizations working in the sector. Furthermore, it would prevent some agents from exploiting these events, perhaps to overcome larger market shares.
A second-hand garment has three chances of rebirth when the original user decides to drop it.
- A second-hand garment has three chances of rebirth when the original user decides to drop it. The first option is resale. This means that after being collected and sorted, the clothes end up being sold, returning to the market as a commodity.
- The second option is reuse, and this is the one that best reflects the charitable aspect: the user decides to donate used garments to less wealthy people.
- Then there is the option of recycling. Italy has a huge gap in this practice. It has never developed an advanced recycling chain, neither on textiles nor on other types of waste. Indeed, what happens is that the garments thrown into the bins are sorted: the best quality stocks remain in Italy and enter the resale and reuse chains, while the vast majority, having no economic value for the Italian market, are instead exported to developing countries, entering a second-hand market. The further remaining part, the final waste, is aimed at disposal.
6. NEW RULES ON THE WAY: THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE EU DIRECTIVES ON THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY. WHAT WILL CHANGE FOR TEXTILES?
There is important news on the way. Through a government decree approved on 26 September 2020, Italy has implemented the European Union (EU) legislation on waste to execute specific European directives (2018/851/EU and 2018/852/EU). The decree implements the Circular Economy Package, which was adopted by the EU in July 2018.
The directives provide for a separate collection of textile and hazardous waste (such as paints, pesticides, oils, and solvents) from 2025.
«In the section concerning used clothing, the most significant change is represented by the provision of a mandatory separate collection of textiles,» confirms Roberto Cavallo, CEO of Erica Soc. Coop, an organization working in waste reduction, and vice president of the Scientific Committee for implementing and developing the National Waste Prevention Plan of the Italian Minister of the Environment, in office until 2017.
Before implementing European legislation, the Italian municipalities had no obligation. They could exempt themselves from carrying out a separate collection of textiles. This is no longer the case. The legislative decree provides that, by 2025, the separate collection of the textile fraction of urban waste, now optional, will become mandatory. Italy has even decided to require an earlier deadline on the implementing decree, January 1, 2022.
7. CLASSIFICATIONS OF TEXTILES: AMBIGUITY
It is on the subject of classification that textile waste remains in limbo. The decree introduces the decision to consider as municipal waste also those deriving from undifferentiated collection from non-domestic users but which are "similar in nature and composition" to domestic waste. This means that with the new standard, many special waste becomes urban by law. «The textile waste coming from the selection operations of the collections carried out by companies specialized in the subsequent sale was and remains special waste», explains Cavallo. «The fact that the textile waste produced by companies specialized in the sale of used clothing does not fall within the new definition of municipal waste, could therefore seem a first contradiction (or ambiguity) of the Italian legislation, since these are activities that produce every year several tons of textile waste, often disposed of illegally. In the coming months, however, it will be necessary to define more clearly what to classify exactly under the umbrella of 'textile waste'».
8. ITALIAN LEGISLATION: IS SOMETHING MISSING?
However, according to Cavallo, there are some potential problems. The new law introduces in Italy the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (ERP), a strategy that increases the direct accountability for the producer, not only of the waste but also of what that waste will become afterward.
According to this strategy, environmental pollution has a cost that must be paid by those who produce the pollution itself. For textiles, it means placing more durable, reusable, easily separable, and recyclable products on the market. This shift looks like an excellent plan, but at the same time, it places the world of social cooperatives at risk. «The risk is that the big clothing and textile producers can combine into huge associations, cutting off all the social cooperatives from the collection chain, as they would not be able to compete against these huge corporations», explains Cavallo. «The initiative, although good in principle, could put thousands of jobs at risk».
It could also happen that the waste-collection system in Italy may suffer the increased quantity of 'new' city waste deriving from the 'forced' assimilation of 'special waste' to 'urban waste,' a detail that could create problems for the urban waste management of municipalities and regions.
«I think the system is partially ready, and partially it must still equip itself,» says Cavallo. «In particular, some recycling plants are missing. I am thinking about the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), End of Life Tires (ELTs), plastics, and, indeed, textiles. In some cases, it is necessary to rebalance the plants positioning across the country; in particular, it is crucial to building composting plants in the southern regions, as a way to respect the principle of proximity, which is often disregarded».
9. GOOD PRACTICES: HUMANA PEOPLE TO PEOPLE ANDE THE MUNICIPALITY OF ALBANO LAZIALE
«The important thing is to guarantee the transparency of the chain», says Karin Bolin, President of HUMANA People to People Italia, a leading humanitarian organization in rags recycling. Our used-clothing collection is carried out on our own account with our own vehicles and employees. This enables us to have an internal audit which prevents [criminal] infiltrations».
In Italy, bins with the HUMANA logo are located in 1,148 municipalities. And thanks to more than 5,600 bins across 43 provinces, HUMANA's qualified service reaches more than 19.5 million citizens for free. «The collection is carried out free of charge for municipal administrations», continues Bolin. «We are certified as category 1 class A in the National Register of Environmental Managers, and we transport the clothes to our plants across Italy. In the sorting phase, we can also use our offices, which means sorting either in Italy or in other countries where we have facilities. Through recycling of used clothing, we finance long-term international humanitarian projects in the South of the world as well as socio-environmental projects in Italy, directly managed by us». Thanks to our investments in the sorting activity, we can also increase the number of employees, improve the sorting abilities, and have more comprehensive control of the entire chain.
In 2019, HUMANA collected around 27,000 tons of clothes. Those that cannot be resold as clothing in Humana's stores are recycled to recover their fibers, ensuring their environmental sustainability. At the same time, only a small share is intended for energy recovery because it is too worn. «Some of the clothes we don't sell in Italy or Europe are sent to Africa - explains Bolin - to the local projects we support, which can then resell them. This creates a virtuous cycle: clothes become jobs, creating a clean business with a social purpose, which ultimately enhances the donated garment».
However, HUMANA does not have any branch in Rome. It did not participate in the tender announced by the Municipality. What happened in 2019 might serve as an explanation: three vans transporting used clothes had caught fire in Pomezia, not far from Rome, where they were heading to. The Carabinieri police force had no doubts: the vans had been sent on fire.
«We constantly try to communicate to our users how the supply works. We even describe [the supply] on our bins, as a demonstration of our maximum transparency», concludes Bolin.
In 2013, HUMANA People to People began collecting used clothes in Albano Laziale, a town south of Rome of about 40,000 inhabitants. It was not a positive year for the cooperatives: the Mafia-Capitale scandal had just come out. A report by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Resource Management in the context of the ECAP (European Clothing Action Plan), the first EU project on clothing collection sustainability, indicated Albano as a virtuous example of the reuse of clothing.
Luca Andreassi, municipal councilor of Albano Laziale with responsibility for waste management, says that HUMANA's story in the territory is a success story, good practices, and a continuous relationship with the citizens.
«Albano Laziale went from a collection of used clothes of about 1 kg/year per capita to almost 5.5 kg/year per capita in three years, becoming the second municipality in Italy among those served by HUMANA for the absolute quantity of used clothing », says Andreassi. «But it's not just a matter of numbers. The essential point is the involvement of the citizens. Every year, HUMANA makes a symbolic amount of money available for book purchase vouchers distributed to all third-year secondary school students who come out with good grades. The 13-year-old boy from Albano is linked with the boy from one of the sub-Saharan African countries in which HUMANA operates».
10. THE GATEWAY TO AFRICA
What happens to these clothes? Where do they end up once thrown into the bins, collected by social cooperatives, and bought by private companies? The vast majority of these garments are sold abroad by the private companies that bought them. The main destination of Italian exports is Tunis. Then, from Tunis, the entrance to East Africa opens up. This is a land of sale and confrontation among several international powers.
11. FROM VESUVIUS TO KILIMANJARO
The second-hand clothing market in Moshi, in northern Tanzania, just below the slopes of Kilimanjaro, is a labyrinth of busy streets and stalls. Every hour, trucks full of bales of garments from Dar es Salaam markets arrive, and then they are sorted based on quality in the small warehouses that surround the stalls. Moshi claims one of the largest sort and sales hubs in Tanzania, just after the Manzese market, in Dar es Salaam. Big Mama is one of the many wholesalers frantically waiting for the trucks to arrive. Like a business manager, she directs her subordinates, divides the bales by type of clothes, and waits for retailers to purchase her products.
From now on, used clothes stop being called like that. The name used is "Mitumba," which in Kiswahili means "second hand," but in East Africa, it has taken on the meaning of "clothes from Western countries." This is a word that links Vesuvius to Kilimanjaro and outlines the geography of the most globalized sector: from transport to storage, mitumba travel the world more than any other commodity. The mitumba trade has grown exponentially over the past decade. According to the UN Comtrade, the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database, world exports reached USD 4.8 billion, and East Africa alone imported used clothes and shoes worth USD 151 million.
Big Mama buys the bales without being able to see the content. The higher the quality, the higher the cost. A bale of 45 kg can cost 600 thousand Tanzanian shillings (about EUR 220). The quality of the bale is decided earlier in the chain, depending on the packaging and origin of the clothes. Big Mama has no choice, as does the trader who will buy it from her: take it or leave it. It is not possible to know how many and which clothes it contains, and if they will all be usable. What is sure is that Big Mama guarantees a job to over 50 people, including sorters, merchants, and those who open the bales. Far more than the workers employed in any local textile factory. The blind bales suits everyone.
The Covid-19 pandemic hasn't changed this production line. Tanzania is one of the least developed countries in the world - it ranks 151st out of 188, according to the United Nations - with very high levels of poverty: the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) shows that 64% of the population in Tanzania lives in poverty conditions and 31.3% in extreme poverty. The impact of Covid-19 on the country's economy was significant, but not as much as one could assume. The President of Tanzania, John Magufuli, in power since 2015, declared Covid-19 defeated in April 2020, reopening the country to tourism - the only one in East Africa - by halting swabs or serological tests and by not sending reports to the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization. According to the World Bank, this resulted in mild economic growth, which brought Tanzania from being a low-income to a middle-income country.
This is also relevant for the mitumba economy, which has suffered few losses thanks to this mechanism. On the other hand, mitumba is the first import item, and 90% of the population dresses second-hand. According to the Tanzanian Ministry of Commerce, this sector fills the void left by the local textile sector, not able to meet the demand for clothes yet. It is a supply chain that employs millions of people. And it brings income to the government, which obtains 25% of import taxes and 20% of the VAT on products from this trade. Across Africa, up to 30% of informal work (commonly referred to as "black work") revolves around the trade in used clothing.
According to a report by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the second-hand market in East Africa alone reaches USD 230 million in profits for a total of 355,000 jobs.
Today, the continent imports products even if it has availability of the same. This is due both to the storage and movement challenges and the obstacles posed by borders and infra-African customs. Trade barriers between African countries are now 6% higher than those between the latter and the rest of the world. From July 1, 2020, after years of negotiations, an African Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) should have entered into force. The agreement focused on reducing trade tariffs that preclude the development of intra-African trade, still a minority share - around 19% - of African states' commercial exchanges. However, something did not work. The beginning of operations of the African Continental Free Trade Area has been moved to January 1, 2021, by the Assembly of Heads of State of the African Union.
12. HUMAN RIGHTS, WOMEN AND WORK
Manzese is the largest market in Dar es Salaam. It is a coming-and-going of trucks carrying bales to the north, south, east, and west of the country to supply it with mitumba. Just like in Moshi, walking here among the stalls of used clothes means making your way through hundreds of people for miles and miles. The counters are divided by type: jeans, men's suits, women's suits, children's area, shoes. Some jeans are more expensive, costing up to USD 5, and buyers are familiar with the brands, the stalls, and where to find the items. Depending on how much they want to spend, they know who to go to. Sizes also make a difference: smaller ones cost more, larger ones have a lower value. This is like an open-air mall. People in the United States, which - together with India and Pakistan are the largest exporter of mitumba to Tanzania - are used to eating more than in other countries. This means that clothes from the US have quite large sizes, larger than what would be needed for the Tanzanian population.
Sizes also make a difference: smaller ones cost more, larger ones have a lower value. A sort of open-air shopping center. In the United States, the major exporters to Tanzania, along with India and Pakistan, eat more and it is easier for larger sizes to arrive than Tanzanian needs.There is also a difference between men's suits and women's suits. Jennifer, a seller who works among the deepest stalls of the market, is convinced that women's dresses and girls' dresses are the ones that, in the West, are treated better.
«Buying bales that contain women's clothes is worthwhile. There is more chance of finding garments in good condition. Men use things more, and therefore their [clothes] come in worse conditions», she says, putting away shirts and pants. Jennifer has a family to take care of, and she has been working with mitumba for over twelve years. Twelve hours of work a day, like Edrina and the others who have stalls next to each other. Some tailors mend the patches, others clean the stains, thus adapting Western clothes to the Tanzanians' build. There are no schedules, job contracts, or any work-type dynamic to be respected. The job is informal, underpaid, with large employment of women. Getting to the end of the day with tired hands is the daily rule. Everyone is an entrepreneur; everyone buys and sells at their own risk. And to bring something home, you have to work harder and work better than others in competitive conditions, at the lowest possible price.
13. THE LARGEST MITUMBA'S EXPORTER: THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
This is not about Italy only. Walking along the busy Morogoro road, US brands are the first to be displayed. According to estimates by the East African Community (EAC), the intergovernmental regional organization made up of six partner States (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda), the mitumba flow from the United States increases so much every year that US companies involved in this business can increase their annual revenue by 60%. This is such an important trade, which has led several companies to form trade associations that have been recycling, repairing, and distributing used material for decades. Among these, the most important one is the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART), which brings together 40 entrepreneurial realities (mostly North American, but not only), united by the recycling, reuse, and export of textile materials.
The United States' collection system is not so different from that in Italy or other European countries. The bins are positioned throughout the country, often with the logos of some charities. The bins' contents are bought in many cases by the SMART members, who, among other things, purchase and sell used clothes. In short, they buy the clothes from charities and export them abroad. Sometimes, they sell second-hand clothes to large national retailers. In some cases, the system has a "vertically integrated" structure, which means that collectors and exporters coincide. This is the Salvation Army case, an international evangelical movement founded in London in 1865 with other North America branches. It deals, among other things, with the collection and sale of used clothing. In these cases, the profit allowance is considerable because the transaction between the charity and the exporting entrepreneur is eliminated.
14. THE BAN ON SECOND-HAND CLOTHES: "AMERICA FIRST" AND AFRICA LAST?
The East African Community (EAC) headquarter is next to the center of Arusha, the town that, for tourists, is Tanzania's safari capital. The EAC is where the heads of state of the six partner states gather for economic summits during which they discuss the future of their economies and local entrepreneurship. Surveillance is maximum, and it is forbidden to photograph or film the entrance. Despite the greatest efforts, getting a mitumba-themed interview turns out to be more difficult than expected. The organization's officials, after agreeing to a meeting, back off. "Something makes us suspicious," they write. EAC has been in the spotlight - especially in the United States - since 2016 when the organization decided to adopt additional taxes on imported used clothing. The intention was clear: boost the local textile industry and completely ban the mitumba trade by 2019. According to an EAC press release, leaders during a Summit of Heads of State said: «Textiles, poultry processing, and automotive manufacturing are the sectors that need to be supported for industrial development and job creation in the region. To do this, it is necessary to eliminate the imports of used commodities. We are eager to encourage vertically-integrated-industries in the textile sector». Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania lead this awakening effort, strongly desired by local textile entrepreneurs. However, this strategy aimed at protecting local products and merchandise did not agree with the conservative agenda of the international powers interested in trade. And then SMART began to unleash a trade war: 40,000 jobs in the private sector, 150,000 in the third sector, and a USD 1 billion a year market for specialized US industries were at risk. The latter would have seen a decrease in their revenue by 70%.
2016 was also the year of Donald Trump's election as the 45th president of the United States. Taking advantage of the new administration's will to display a strong position within international trade, SMART decided to seize the opportunity. Following the EAC's tariff increase, the association lobbied Canadian and US government officials in order to persuade the EAC countries to back down. Here's how that happened.
In March 2017, SMART petitioned the US Trade Representative (USTR) to ask for a review of trade agreements with EAC countries. In short: SMART wanted to know with extreme precision if the countries promoting the call - Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania - carrying out that type of request, would continue to meet the eligibility criteria established by the so-called AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act), a preferential trade agreement between the United States and some sub-Saharan African countries, which allows reduced or zero duties on approximately 6,500 types of goods exported to America from 38 African countries. This economic pressure was based on a simple idea: East Africa raises tariffs, US trade associations respond by threatening to raise tariffs on all products that are part of the agreement.
«The point is straightforward, the AGOA has been signed by both parties - says Jackie King, Executive Director of SMART - and one of the obligations under the agreement is to eliminate barriers to US trade and investment. The ban on the import of second-hand clothing clearly contradicts the requirement.» What is sure is that placing an import ban was not easy for the East Africa countries. Not only the pressure of the trade associations, but neither the internal market was ready. In Tanzania, tens of thousands of informal workers and their families were dependent on the second-hand clothing business, already suffering from falling imports due to tariffs' increase in 2016. If the pressures might cause alarm, the economic losses and benefits can do that even more.
A US official, who was an observer of those proceedings within the USTR, is convinced that the retaliation against African countries would have been excessive. «In those months I was informally providing advice to the Kenyan government - he said during an interview in which he preferred to remain anonymous - I remember having suggested to government officials to adapt to the pressure from Washington and aim for a compromise; otherwise, the consequences and sanctions would have been disastrous». The EAC countries, including Tanzania, did not, in fact, have a sufficient domestic garment production base to meet the needs of the market through local or regional production alone. Therefore, cheap imports from countries such as the United States had the function of bridging the gap between the domestic market and demand. The potential threat of social and economic loss that would have occurred if they had been completely excluded from the AGOA was too big to face.
In short, there are valid reasons to think that Washington actually used the AGOA to control what should be economic allies. For example, Paul Ryberg, Washington-based attorney, international trade expert, and president of the African Coalition of Trade (ACT), a non-profit trade association of African companies and associations engaged in trade with the United States within the AGOA, is convinced: «the duties did not violate the terms of the AGOA. The garments in question, in most cases, were produced outside the United States and therefore could not qualify as US exports. To be considered US-branded exports, they would at least have had to undergo some processing within the United States, which hasn't happened». The EAC countries announced in February 2018 that the partner states would focus on building the internal textile sector in a way that would not jeopardize the AGOA. That dream of freedom that they wanted to achieve from 2019 has never come true. And this was what happened for everyone, except for Rwanda.
The extortion of trade associations did not work for everyone. The Rwandan government, under the leadership of Paul Kagame, has not backed down. «It is a matter of choosing,» said Kagame. «Do we choose to receive second-hand clothes under the threat of the AGOA, or to grow the textile industry that the Rwandans deserve?». Unlike the neighboring countries involved, Rwanda can afford to make such a claim: according to Finance Minister Uzziel Ndagijimana, the country's GDP has quadrupled over the past 18 years, the average annual growth is 8%, and per capita income multiplied by 3.5. According to government data, from 2000 to 2018, the population below the poverty line plunged from 60% to 38%, while life expectancy rose from 49 to 67 years. In short, 84% of all Rwanda's domestic product is self-sufficient from Western powers. The country is not afraid of retaliation or economic retaliation. In 2016, it imported the equivalent of USD 15 million in second-hand clothes. Since that year, it has begun to raise tariffs on importing used clothing from USD 0.20 to USD 2.50 per kg. No Big Mama could have afforded those prices. This would have gradually led to the elimination of mitumba from any trade. Kigali wanted to promote "made in Rwanda" clothing to fill the trade deficit by reducing imports of products such as shoes and clothes, which could be produced locally. Since then, the import of second-hand clothes has fallen by one third. However,difficulties are still evident: the biggest loss concerns the jobs: the local clothing industry creates 25 thousand jobs, the mitumba industry over 300 thousand, considering the entire distribution chain. But what really matters to Rwandans is the constructive idea, the resistance of this small landlocked country that could be the answer and the testing ground to the question of whether Africa can survive without the rags' economy. Above all, whether it is possible to survive without trade agreements with the United States and the West.
A seamstress in the Kimironko market makes dresses with local fabrics. Rwanda was the only country not to back down in the face of US blackmail and is working to completely stop the import of used clothes.
15. «IT'S LIKE A CASINO ANDE THE DEALER ALWAYS WINS: THE WEST WINS AND BIG MAMA LOSES
According to estimates collected by Let's Recycle, an information and analysis channel on the topic of recycling and reuse in the United Kingdom, between April and May 2020, the estimated price for a 45 kg bale of clothes, paid by those working in the used clothes business in the UK, suddenly plunged to a range between zero to three dollars a bale (from the USD 16 previously reported). The reasons could be many. First of all, the Covid-19 pandemic. Some African countries have again introduced small restrictions on the mitumba imports, worrying that they could be a contagion vehicle. Furthermore, the generalized closures of storage and sanitation facilities due to restrictive anti-Covid-19 measures have put an additional brake on the business. All of this caused a collapse in demand, causing a consequent drop in the value of the clothes collected. And here is explained the price.
But something is still not clear. And to understand this, we need to think back to the wholesaler named Big Mama and her 45kg bales paid up to 600,000 Tanzanian shillings (USD 258, or EUR 220). If we consider the final value of a bale in the West as a reference (in April-May 2020, that value was between USD 47 and USD 50), including the packaging and shipping costs, then, according to data from Let's Recycle, the margin of profit for used clothing exporters can be as high as USD 208 per bale.
«African traders, whether they are wholesalers or retailers, are operating in a market with very high prices, while in the West, prices have suddenly dropped», says Kate Bahen of Charity Intelligence, an independent Canadian organization that monitors charities' activities. Those who work in this business of buying and selling used clothes had, therefore, the opportunity to grow their profits exponentially in just a few months. Charities had to sell at low prices due to lack of demand. Still, exporters continued to sell to African countries at high prices, making the profit margin incredibly high.
«It's like a casino. Wholesalers and traders in Tanzania will bet with an 'all-in.' At the same time, the bank - in these cases represented by Western exporters - always wins», concludes Bahen.
16. LOCAL PRODUCTIONS: IS IT POSSIBLE TO DO IT ALONE?
Surrendering to Western pressure has meant a lot to Tanzania. Seeing neighboring Rwanda ready to take off has brought many questions for Dar es Salaam and Moshi citizens. However, the economy linked to mitumba has been part of daily culture since the mid-1980s. Entire families feed their children with the earning coming from used clothing. The aim to ban imports by 2019 was not feasible for Tanzania. Fast fashion did not help the process: much attention is paid to the garment's durability and little to its quality, causing it to be used and thrown away quite soon. Tons of clothing come from cheap brands of common use - H&M, Zara, Gap, etc. - and, with such a drastic reduction in the average time of use, you understand how these garments will end up in the bales managed by Big Mama.
17. THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
Next to those thirteen warehouses, arranged in single file in the shadow of Vesuvius, there is a sour smell of abandonment. The used clothes that come out of the warehouses' cracks, so full that they seem to explode, look like the same ones that fill the landfills located all over East Africa. The environmental impact of the unsold and the unsellable is tremendous, and the thousands of tons of waste produced are highly toxic. The garments carry plates of well-known brands: H&M, Zara, Gap, are just some of the most visible ones.
In general, the fashion industry alone can move more than USD 2.5 trillion worldwide, a figure equivalent to France's GDP. The fast-fashion - low-cost clothes - revealed how quickly the idea of mindful consumption could disappear. Thanks to the low prices of the 'ready-to-wear' (or prêt-à-porter) items and the stocks that imitate the big brands, the final products are more likely to be of lower quality and, as a consequence, to be worn out soon. The idea is simple: while traditional fashion offers two collections a year, fast fashion can produce up to fifty different series into the market in the same range of time. The desire to buy is thus constantly encouraged and favored by how cheap the product is in the stores.
From 1975 to 2018, production increased from 6 to 13 kg of clothes per person globally. To speed up this type of production and increase its consumption, producers use polyester materials, which every year causes greenhouse gases equal to those released by 185 coal-fired power plants (over 700 billion kg). Producers also use cotton, which needs huge amounts of water to be cultivated (20 thousand liters per kilo). Its production uses about 2.5% of the world's arable land. In addition to water, large quantities of pesticides and fertilizers are required for its cultivation. Furthermore, cotton requires more energy resources to be processed than synthetic fibers.
Over the past fifteen years, the average life of a garment has decreased by 36%. Recent research named “The environmental price of fast fashion”, published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, explains how with 4,000-5,000 million tons of CO2 released annually into the atmosphere, the fashion industry as a whole (textiles, clothing, accessories, footwear and so on) is responsible for around 8-10% of global emissions. With 190,000 tons, it accounts for more than one-third of microplastics in the oceans. The industry also contributes 20% to industrial water contamination worldwide and produces more than 92,000 tons of textile waste annually. Among this textile waste, there are the unsold garments, such as those piled in the warehouses under the Vesuvius or located across the Tanzanian-Kenyan border, as well as in other African landfills.
Indeed, the second most polluting industry in the world after the oil one is fashion. According to a United Nations report, fashion produces more greenhouse gas emissions than aviation and shipping combined; 85% of the clothes produced end up in landfills. Only 1% is recycled, not counting the approximately 80 billion clothes discarded each year due to manufacturing imperfections. This is an environmental cost that is no longer sustainable. The WWF, in its rating dell’industria tessile estimates that more than half of the companies working in this sector have not adopted any real green schemes. Meanwhile, the demand for clothing will continue to grow, going from 62 million tons in 2015 to 102 million in 2030. Consequently, pollution and risks to the environment will increase.
«If it was well managed, the correct disposal of second-hand clothes could actually revive entire economies», explains Elena Mazzoni, an environmental activist. «Usually, the fashion industry is the least sustainable in terms of resources and waste. On the other hand, used clothing reduces the environmental impact by limiting CO2 emissions and the use of pesticides and fertilizers, reducing the waste of billions of liters of water that, otherwise, would be needed to produce new clothes. Therefore, it is time to rethink the model. It is necessary to slow down the pace of production, to guarantee a higher quality of the products, to make sure that they last longer».
It is estimated that around 600 kilos of used clothing would reduce 2250 kilos of CO2 emissions and save about 3.6 billion liters of water. Clearly, as in any marketing sector, it is the demand that brings up the offer.
«Perhaps what matters the most is that consumers change their consumption habits», Mazzoni concludes. «Change is always individual. So, instead of throwing away our clothes, perhaps it would be better to find out how to recycle them. With today's information, the search for materials with low environmental impact is possible. Prolonging the average life of clothing items, using them for a longer time, fixing them if they are damaged, or re-inventing them is also the right move. With this slow fashion, the speed of creation and production of the fashion industry would gradually decrease, raising the quality standards of the product, industry and workers' conditions».
The contents of this publication and the opinions expressed are the sole responsibility of the authors Martina Di Pirro, Maged Srour and Francesca Ferrara and do not necessarily represent the views of Mani Tese and AICS which, therefore, do not assume any responsibility. Reproduction of the investigation is carried out with the authorization of the authors themselves.