Business Maverick

CIRCULAR ECONOMY

New startup gives unwanted European fashion a ‘second life’ in South Africa

New startup gives unwanted European fashion a ‘second life’ in South Africa
“Recommerce” platform, Faro is helping brands sell their obsolete — yet quality — stock to consumers in Africa at greatly discounted prices as a more sustainable alternative to dumping. (Photo: Supplied)

Africa has been the West’s dumping ground for far too long: a new recommerce enterprise aims to sell last season’s high fashion at significantly lower prices.

It used to be that fashion brands would produce four clearly defined lines each year: winter, spring, summer and autumn. Now, since at least the mid-2000s, fast fashion brands are flooding the market with one collection per week of cheaply produced, low-quality apparel, enabled by fossil-fuel-based synthetic fibres. 

That’s driving an annual production of around 100 billion new pieces of garments, fuelling the waste crisis in the Global South. In the Nimby West, it’s a largely inconspicuous crisis because it exports its unwanted apparel, masked as “second-hand”, to countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania, where a Greenpeace report estimates a truckload of garments ends up in landfill or on a pyre every second, clogging up the waterways, destroying marine life and blackening the skies. 

About six billion tonnes of fashion waste ends up in Africa each year — 23% of which is immediately disposed of.

Up to 40% of clothing that arrives in Africa is “dead on arrival”: ripped, shredded and stained garments that are unsellable.

In Ghana, these bales of imported clothing are dubbed “obroni wawu” (“the white man has died clothes”). 

A new deal

A new “recommerce” platform, Faro, is helping brands sell their obsolete — yet quality — stock to consumers in Africa at greatly discounted prices as a more sustainable alternative to dumping. It also helps brands to own the customer experience and combat piracy because it protects their equity.

By linking a new market with highly discounted fashion from Europe, Faro plans to stop the unsold apparel from ending up as waste and giving it a “second” life in the retail cycle. 

Thanks to one of South Africa’s largest pre-seed funding rounds, Faro is planning a rapid store roll-out, with the first outlet scheduled to open in Mitchells Plain in November, followed by 20 stores countrywide in the next 18 months.

Set up by serial entrepreneur David Torr (who co-founded the food retailer UCOOK), Amber Penney (who has held leadership roles in prominent African tech ventures), and William McCarren (formerly with Amazon and Jumia), Faro buys overstock and returns from the Danish-based Bestseller group, whose brands include Jack & Jones, Vero Moda, Vila and Noisy May. This unsold new stock will be available to the South African market, at a substantially reduced price.

McCarren, who co-founded and built ZUMI (Africa’s largest B2B platform for clothing), cut his teeth in the sector after spending eight years in Kenya before shutting ZUMI down. At its peak, it sold more than three million garments a month but was unable to stop the amount of waste in the ecosystem because various players were discouraged from cleaning up their act.

McCarren shut down ZUMI six months ago and, starting afresh, worked with his partners at Faro to build their own supply chain, where they control the supply that they are sourcing from brands and collecting customer data.

In a LinkedIn post, he wrote: “The current macro environment has made fundraising extremely difficult, and unfortunately, our business was not able to achieve sustainability in time to survive.

“I am incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished at ZUMI — building a marketplace for apparel merchants to secure inventory and financial services, achieving over $20-million in sales, and acquiring 5,000 loyal customers…

“This journey has been the most challenging, yet rewarding experience of my life. We started out as an online magazine in 2016 and pivoted into an e-commerce platform for apparel. We persevered through Covid-19, a ban on apparel imports, and countless near-death experiences. Building businesses in emerging markets requires a special blend of ambition, grit, and craziness, and I’m incredibly grateful for the experience.”

Quality, at a discount

The industry’s obsession with newness has forced a narrative of value and quantity over quality, Penney explains. 

“This obviously has a major environmental impact in terms of waste. So what we will do is partner with the fashion brands globally to redistribute their overstock of clothes, accessories and shoes that they can’t sell. It’s brand new, unworn items that would have gone straight into the landfills. We redistribute that here to people who would never be able to afford that kind of quality fashion.”

Faro has partnered with African Collect Textiles in Kenya, which is working to solve the problem of waste in landfills by diverting used textiles and footwear, supporting the environment and creating jobs.

“For every kilogram of the quality clothing that we sell, we are going to be doing textile waste removal and recycling from clothing in the landfills in Kenya.”

It’s projected that one purchase can prevent up to 30g of waste and 2.13kg of carbon emissions.

Torr says their commitment to the circular economy goes beyond waste prevention because they are dedicated to addressing the existing problem. “For every kilo of high-quality sustainable clothing we sell, Faro Impact [their textile recycling initiative] will recycle an equivalent kilo of textile waste.”

Each store will act as a distribution hub for a network of “micro-merchants” or retail agents. “This gives Faro deeper penetration into peri-urban markets, but, more importantly, it means that every store directly enables the township economy and the entrepreneurs who trade within it,”  says Faro brand manager Michelle Sibanda. DM

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  • Max Ozinsky says:

    More dumping by the global north of their waste in Africa. This is sure to damage the clothing industry in these countries. And DM thinks this is good move.

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      The article read a little like a press release! SA retailers have spent a huge amount of time, effort and money developing the South and southern African clothing manufacturing chain over the last few years after it was decimated by cheap imports from China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other low-cost producers. It’s been working really well, clawing back some of the tens of thousands of jobs lost. It’s under threat again. Now, we’re going to get dumping dressed up (sorry!) as circular economy? Dumping of low cost garments from Asia, combined with dumping of used clothing from the USA and Europe destroyed African clothing and textile industries in the late 90s, to the point where about 85% of all clothing is now imported used clothing. Maybe the rich world could stop demanding so much cheap, disposable clothing – or pay countries they dump it into compensation for the waste. It’s the same with e-waste, dumped into west Africa causing untold misery and degradation. Cars, tyres and auto parts from Japan and Europe as well, dumped into Africa. Sub-standard consumer goods and industrial inputs (cement, steel and other products) dumped into Africa from Asia. Doesn’t help that governments in Africa are either unable or unwilling to stop it, although when Rwanda refused to back down on their sharp rise in tariffs on used clothing, the US removed them from AGOA. We had to allow US chicken to be dumped into SA to keep our AGOA benefits.

  • Helen Lachenicht says:

    Please DM give us a list of proudly SA manufactured clothing brands, including the many small entrepreneurs?

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