The Global North has adopted a strategy of disposing of its surplus production and end-of-cycle waste by systematically sending it to the Global South. Among this wave of polluting materials streaming out of the developed world, clothing stands out.
Fashion is the third most polluting industry worldwide, accounting for 10% of annual global carbon emissions. That is greater than the sum of all international air travel and maritime shipping combined.
Over-production and over-consumption define this industry and how the Global North consumes garments in a disposable fashion.
The North’s waste disposal policy for its clothing: How it impacts the Global South
When investigating the life cycle of clothing sold in the Global North, we see a dominant trend of the spoils of consumer waste being sent to the Global South. The term “waste colonialism” was first used in 1989 at the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) Basel Convention to articulate African nations’ concerns of high-GDP countries discarding harmful waste in low-GDP countries.
Waste colonialism is the practice of dominating formerly colonised lands with the disposal of former colonisers’ waste. This logic applies to the whole range of industrial production and can be applied to the global second-hand clothing industry.
The global second-hand clothing trade acts as a de-facto waste management strategy for the Global North, shifting responsibility to the South for the disposal of clothing that is no longer desirable.
The example of Ghana: How a once-flourishing second-hand clothing market turned into a polluting nightmare
Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana, is the largest second-hand clothing market in the world, extending across 20 acres of central Accra. The market has deep roots in its colonial past.
It emerged to meet the demands of Ghanaians to wear Western clothing for labour under the colonial state. While 1957 marked an end of colonial rule, the dynamics of colonial power remained with the Global North acting as the sender, and Ghana as the receiver.
In 2021, Ghana imported 213 million dollars of used clothes. The primary exporter of second-hand clothes to Ghana is the UK, followed by Canada, the US, the Netherlands, China, and then Korea.
Each week, approximately 15 million old garments are shipped to Ghana. The majority is made up of charity clothes donations, unwanted items bundled into bales to be dispatched to Ghana.
This market accommodates over 30,000 traders and is key to Accra’s economy. The market is a vibrant economic ecosystem, brimming with vendors, market stalls and retailers.
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The phrase “dead white man’s clothing” was coined in the 60s and 70s when the second-hand clothing trade began in Ghana. The stock was referred to as “broni we wu” (“the white person has died”). Arising from the notion that it was unreasonable for anyone to discard clothing in such good condition.
Since its early days, the Kantamato market has turned into a gloomy picture of trade. Around 40% of clothing that arrives in the market ends up in landfills, plunging the vendors into debt, as they are unable to cover the costs of the bales, and pushing Ghana towards an ecological disaster.
According to research, as much as 40 per cent of donated clothing arriving at Kantamanto immediately becomes waste. https://t.co/qrU7yxc20B
— GQ Magazine (@GQMagazine) July 24, 2023
This has happened because clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, exceeding 100 billion items of clothing in 2014. As a result, the amount of poor-quality clothing arriving in Katamanto enormously surpasses the capacity and demand of the market.
Mounds of clothes form a landscape of waste and a cascading waterfall channels through the mountains of H&M and Shein. Meanwhile, eruptions of flames are visible across the wastescape. With the landfill full to bursting, people turn to burning clothing waste.
The presence of this waste increases the risk of cholera, asthma, malaria and other deadly diseases.
As Stop Waste Colonialism proclaims: “The waste […] changes the relationship that people have with the ecosystem around them, and ultimately this waste is used to displace people, blaming communities closest to the disposal sites for the waste.”
Kanatamanto is both an example of circular fashion in action, reselling second-hand clothing, and a site of disaster, illustrating the ecological harms of overconsumption.
Working on the solutions: Or Foundation and Stop Waste Colonialism
Organisations such as the Or Foundation are working in Kantamanto with vendors to monitor the quality of imports, where the clothing comes from, and in what sort of condition. As well as finding new ways to repurpose the textiles to avoid landfill.
The Or Foundation’s partner organisation, Stop Waste Colonialism, published a report on February 14, 2023, “Leveraging Extended Producer Responsibility to Catalyze a Justice-led Circular Textiles Economy.” The report calls upon policymakers, industry leaders and organisations to implement Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs, for the textile industry, based on three key principles:
- Internalised Cost of Waste Management;
Producers must add to the market price the estimated environmental costs of clothing that arise throughout the production cycle, including the last stage of sending it to the landfill.
- Global Accountability;
The funds raised through EPR should be distributed globally to align with the reality of how waste is sent around the world, facilitating infrastructure to account for the damage already caused by excessive fashion waste. There should be a focus on under-resourced and climate-vulnerable communities.
- Disclosures to Drive Circularity Targets;
Companies must publicly disclose their production volumes and reduce production targets of new clothing by at least 40% over five years, balanced by the increase of reuse and remanufacturing of existing materials.
Currently, overproduction numbers are as high as 20- 40%. At such figures, these garments are destined for waste.
This proposal provides a framework for a more regulated future for the fashion industry and curbing the choke of second-hand clothes in landfills.
EPR forces producers to rethink their relationship to the life cycle of these garments and discourages falling back on the second-hand trade as a waste management strategy.
The second-hand clothing trade in Kantamanto is a nuanced affair. As the Or Foundation and Stop Waste Colonialism point out, the people of Kanramato are not calling for the end of this trade. The market provides thousands of jobs and gives second-hand clothing a new lease of life.
Yet it has become urgent to reduce the levels of consumption and stop using the second-hand clothing trade as a waste management solution. The current levels of over-consumption and over-production are environmentally disastrous.
How philanthropy can be misguided
Consider the notion of charitable clothing donations.
There is a disconnect between the consumers’ part in over-consumption and the clothing ending up in landfills. In the Global North, clothing donations are as easy as putting out the bin. Collection bags are placed through letter boxes and discreetly collected from their doorsteps.
Rapid and unnecessary consumption of clothes is rationalised by the “good deed” of donating to charity. If you open your eyes to the future of this donated garment, it becomes clear that this donation is an act of avoiding liability of disposal.
Art and activism
In a current exhibition at the British Textile Biennial, artists Sonny Dolat and Jeremy Hutchinson shed light on the issue of waste colonialism through the medium of textile, sculpture and film.
Sonny Dolats’ piece “Return to Sender” is a film composed of sounds recorded from second-hand clothing markets across Nairobi, Kenya. The film is displayed within a construction of second-hand clothing bales, emblematic of the mass quantity of second-hand clothing that goes to waste.
Jeremy Hutchisons’ installation, “Dead White Man,” displays Jemermy himself as the dead white man. In a series of sculptures and billboards, Jermey appears, swamped in a tower of second-hand clothing.
Talking in an interview with fashion historian, Amber Butchart, Jeremy makes the important point that the burden of fashion waste is not an issue of lack of technology and recycling infrastructure, but fundamentally an issue of overconsumption.
Author and Activist, Aja Barber, has written an Amazon best-selling book, Consumed, about the overconsumption of fast fashion and its effects on people and the planet. She focuses on how fashion perpetuates a racialised cycle of oppression; from exploitative production in countries such as Bangladesh to hazardous disposal in Ghana.
“Fast fashion is harming a non-white person in the Global South, both at the beginning of its cycle and in the end,” Barber said.
Patterns of overproduction and overconsumption in the fashion industry need to be limited, through EPR programmes as instructed by the Or Foundation and Stop Waste Colonialism, and through reclaiming consumer responsibility to collectively reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — Featured Photo Credit: Rawpixel.