We usually give away our used or undersized clothes to Charities and Clothing recycling companies such as Oxfam, Emmaus. But where do all our second hand clothes end up?
Some of those clothes are recycled (rather down-cycled) into insulation materials. Some are being incinerated. Another part goes to high street charity shops. But around 70% of the donated clothes are exported overseas. Some people might claim that exporting second-hand clothes around the world is beneficial since the clothes get another life, rather than being burned or thrown in a landfill. But this ecological argument often overlooks an important question: what is the impact of second-hand clothes abroad?
Second-hand clothes from many developed countries dominate local market stalls in sub-Saharan Africa. Across the African continent, second-hand clothes are a mainstay of informal traders, accounting for the majority of clothing sales in most countries. Meaning, the second-hand clothes are a bigger market than the local clothing. This has several negative effect on the African economy. By 2005, the international textile, garment and leather workers’ federation estimated that more than 250.000 jobs in the textile sector had been lost in Africa.
Maybe that’s why in Mozambique they call the donated clothes from Europe & America 'calamity clothes'.
Trash or treasure?
Africans have little influence on the second-hand clothes available for sale. They get shipped in tightly wrapped bales and you can only truly know what is inside of them once you buy one and open it. It’s a lottery.
Which brings us to another point: There is a common misconception that old clothes donated to charities are distributed for free in developing countries. No, this is a business. How else would they be able to finance such frequent shipping across continents? Local re-sellers pay as much as 95 dollars for a container upfront, with no guarantee if the clothes inside it are in good condition. But since the rise of cheap fabrics due to fast fashion, Second-hand clothes are often in a poor condition, making them difficult to re-sell, especially if the clothes were made for european body-types.
In addition to the economic consequences of second-hand imports, there are also social & political consequences. African countries have been under pressure from the World Bank and the IMF over many years. They undertook structural adjustment programmes that have effectively reduced subsidies designed to protect their home-grown industry and therefore opened up their markets to foreign trade; which has made it much easier for foreign clothing manufacturers to export to the African continent. Creating a relationship of dependence on the global north which prevents Africa from developing their own industries.
On the coast of West Africa, boats arrive day after day with never-ending cargo ships. Most of the clothes come from the UK, Europe, America and Australia. In Ghana, home to the Kantamanto market, one of the largest clothing markets in West Africa, nearly 40% of the clothes that arrive end up in the landfill as worthless waste every day. On Ghanaian beaches, there are tentacles of clothes washed up from the sea; an ugly byproduct of the second hand clothing industry. You can dig 15 feet in the sand and still find fragments of clothing. The textiles which are back onshore become so tangled in the sand that they’re almost impossible to dig out, which becomes dangerous for local people, for the natural habitat and its animals.
About 6 million garments leave the Kantamanto market each week as waste, and a huge proportion of all these garments are trucked two hours north of Accra and end up in the landfill. The pressure from the used clothing industry is relentless. The city of Accra then has to find a place to dispose over 160 tonnes of textile waste every day. The problem is that there is nowhere in Accra to dispose it. The city's only alternative is a growing network of informal and unregulated dumps. There the synthetic textiles can take hundreds of thousands of years to decompose. These mountains of waste are likely to cast their foul shadow on these neighborhoods for generations to come. People already living in poverty have to live within waste they did not create. Much of this unwanted clothing is simply burned, releasing toxic chemicals into the air and the ground.
The world's major fashion houses are largely responsible for this situation, but we as consumers are creating the demand they need. It is up to the West to think more carefully about the quality of what we consume and/or give away. We have to be aware, not just of where our clothing was produced, but also where it ends up.