The effects of second-hand clothes

The palm-fringed beaches of Accra, Ghana’s capital, were once a paradise. Now, the fine sand is strewn with clothes that wash up by the thousands on the shores of the Gulf of Guinea, a sad postcard of our overconsumption. Every week, an average of 15 million pieces of clothing arrive by ship, mainly from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, but also from China, South Korea and Australia. While some of these items make their way to markets for resale, many end up in landfills, where they end up being washed away by rain into waterways and, inevitably, the ocean. These shipments include unsold items from various brands, but the bulk of them come from our own cabinets.

Most clothing donated to charity never sees the inside of a store. At Renaissance de Québec, for example, nearly 50% of the approximately 11,275 tonnes of clothing received last year could not be sold because they were in poor condition. To get rid of its enormous surplus, the organization uses a network of partners who buy the goods to transform it into rags or padding or resell it.

This is how your undersized t-shirt can end up on the African coast or in Chile, where the dunes of the Atacama desert are now polluted by millions of discarded objects. And that’s also how your t-shirt can end up in Kantamanto, the vast open-air second-hand market that Accra is famous for. In the maze of colorful stalls, some rejects from the West find new buyers. The rest – around 40% – will end up in landfills around the city.

Year after year, the standard of clothing arriving in Accra is declining due to shoddy fast fashion. “The problem is that it’s cheaper to send our waste overseas than to pay for it to be disposed of in a Canadian landfill,” says Kate Bahen, executive director of Charity Intelligence Canada, an organization that assesses charities to improve transparency in the sector. “Developing countries do not want our rags, but all attempts to stop [these exports] are welcomed with the strength of [second-hand resale companies] and their powerful international SMART [Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles] lobby.”

For vendors in Kantamanto, forced to buy bales of coins for their stalls without knowing what’s inside, this drop in quality has been devastating. Every purchase is a lottery that will either make ends meet or be of very little value. “Usually these sellers have the [means] to restore damaged items – whether by sewing, dyeing or removing stains – and prevent them from being thrown away,” says Liz Ricketts, co-founder and director of The Or Foundation, a US non-profit organization based in Accra who advocates for ethics and sustainable fashion at all levels of the industry. “However, as the quality of clothing has declined, the price of balls and expenses have increased during the pandemic; therefore sellers no longer have enough money to invest in basic services such as repairs, cleaning and ironing. This vicious circle has a direct impact on sales and the amount of discarded clothing, which is also increasing.