What really happens to our unwanted clothes?

24 July 2021

Illegal dumping is largely unaccepted in Ireland. Remember two years ago when that video of the man attempting to dump a mattress in a bog went viral? Twitter was euphoric for a day or two in response.

Sure, occasionally we may see items illegally discarded on a roadside or at the beach, but this is the exception rather than the norm. As a developed economy we have the infrastructure to dispose of our waste in a way that minimises this.

Except are we really minimising it or are we just shifting the problem onto someone else’s land?

Every year in Europe we throw away 2 million tonnes of textiles. To put that in perspective, that’s equivalent to the weight of over 166,000 double decker buses.

It’s part of our culture in Ireland, and in high-income countries generally, to donate our unwanted clothes to charity. We do this with good intentions but despite this, Oxfam estimate that 70% of what we donate is shipped to Africa for resale. This is down to a mix of two things.

Firstly, charity shops often struggle to sell the sheer volume of clothes they receive as donations, even if the quality is good. Secondly, they often receive clothes that are soiled, ripped or not fit for purchase in some other way.

Both of these groups of clothes are then sold to commercial resellers, which means that the charity does still make some money from them but instead of disposing of the clothes that aren’t fit for use here, the problem is instead exported to African countries.

Yvonne Ntiamoah grew up in the UK and worked there for 15 years as a fashion designer before returning to Ghana in 2011. Since then she has headed the fashion department in Accra’s Radford University and now heads the Board of Fashion Ghana, a not-for-profit institution that promotes the African fashion industry. We sat down with her (over zoom) to find out more about what impact the second hand clothing trade is having on the ground in Ghana.

Ms. Ntiamoah explains that circularity has always been a defining feature when it comes to Ghanaian’s relationship with clothes, telling The Green News, “You inherit printed fabrics and so on from your grandparents and it gets handed down until it can’t be worn anymore.”

Traditionally, things are handed down and not thrown away. Indeed, 90% of the clothes worn by Ghanaians are second-hand, with the second-hand clothing industry worth £50.5 million. So while there is a market there for imports of good-quality second hand clothing, there is not a market for the scraps of clothing that so often ends up shipped there. 

In Accra, Kantamanto market is one of the biggest second-hand clothing markets in Western Africa with over 30,000 sellers working there. It is the Oxford Street of shopping in Ghana, according to Ms. Ntiamoah.

Sellers there buy bails of imported second-hand clothes and seamstresses also work to upcycle and mend any clothes that are not in good enough condition to sell as they are. While Kantamanto is a bustling hub in Accra that makes affordable clothing accessible to people, it is not the sustainable dream that commercial resellers here would have us believe.

On average, 40 per cent of the clothing in the imported bails is not fit for sale. Without the opportunity to inspect the clothes before buying this means that sellers often end up in debt having bought goods that they cannot sell.

“It’s very costly for the traders”

This also means that there is a huge waste problem. 25 per cent of clothing from Kantamanto is sent to landfill while 15 per cent is collected by unregulated and informal private vendors who often dump the waste illegally on roadsides, beaches and in waterways.

“Just think, if you’ve got 40 per cent of your imported stock not saleable, that’s your profit and your trading capital gone and then you’ve got to pay also to get the garments disposed of. That’s crazy. It’s very costly for the traders. So they try and get rid of it [the waste] as quickly as they can so they can move on and get the next bail”, Ms Ntiamoah said.   

We wanted to know how visible an issue this is in Accra and if the government is taking action to tackle it.  

According to Ms. Ntiamoah it’s a very visible issue, as there are “places in Britain where you will see somebody has dumped something because they just can’t be bothered to bring it to the dump or pay to have it disposed of properly. Imagine that sort of stuff happening on a regular basis on a large scale. It’s very damaging.”

In terms of dealing with the excess of waste though, the government simply doesn’t have the capacity because the volume of waste is so big. The infrastructure is just not there to deal with it. 

Despite the damage this waste does to the local environment and the effect it has on public health, the average person living in Ghana often has more pressing things to deal with.

“When you have an economy where a lot of people are just trying to make ends meet you will find a few people who care and want to preserve what they have and preserve their communities but it can’t be at the forefront of their thoughts on a daily basis because they need to feed their families and they need to keep shelter. So these are the most important things to them on a daily basis. The environment unfortunately comes down to the people who have those things and then are thinking of the next”, Ms. Ntiamoah tells us.

A lot of Ms. Ntiamoah’s research focuses on the decolonisation of fashion and in her view this current system where countries in the global north are effectively shifting the burden of textile waste disposal to countries in the global south is part of the colonial legacy.

“The second-hand model came into play during colonial times when the British were trying to gentrify the natives. Wanting the natives to wear shirts and office wear and dress like an English gentlemen rather than wearing the cloth,” Ms. Ntiamoah said.

While traditional cloth is still worn, it is largely reserved for special occasions. In addition to this, the importation of second hand clothing also has a negative effect on the indigenous fashion industry.

“In terms of local designers and local apparel industry it’s damaging. We have seen our textile mills closing at a very fast rate, and the demand for local textiles has halved”, according to Ms. Ntiamoah. In neighbouring Nigeria, the government there has had some success in imposing some restrictions on imported second-hand clothing and their printed textile industry seems to be moving better than Ghana’s as a result.

There’s no one quick fix to solve these issues, particular considering the role the second hand clothing industry plays in Ghana, but in Ms. Ntiamoah’s view the issues surrounding waste and pollution can be resolved through legislation on the side of the exporters. 

In 2018, Rwanda imposed a ban on all used clothing imports. Kenya and some other East African countries also proposed a ban in 2015 but they pulled out due to US trade restrictions. This illustrates how it is often difficult for action to be taken on the importing countries side.

As Ms. Ntiamoah put it, “If the clothes were properly regulated the problem wouldn’t exist in Africa in the first place. If they are regulated and the clothes that come into the country were of good standard then the environmental damage wouldn’t happen.” 

By Jane Matthews