It’s no secret that the fashion industry has a serious waste problem.
As more clothes are produced and consumed, more waste is created. But, how often do you think about where all that waste ends up?
The truth is, the fashion waste produced due to overproduction and overconsumption is what fuels the global secondhand clothing trade – a fashion supply chain with serious impacts on people and the planet.
In the slow fashion community, we often celebrate the joy and importance of choosing to buy preloved. This article from Eco-Age takes that conversation one step further by diving into the politics and business of the global trade in secondhand clothing and the story of what happens to our donated clothes.
Why are we always encouraged to donate our old clothes?
At some point in our lives, many of us will encounter the message that donating our old clothes – regardless of whether they are brand new and we’re simply bored of the style or whether they have been worn to pieces – is a win-win act of goodwill. This is underpinned by the fact that we’re led to believe that donating our clothing keeps it out of landfills by providing clothing for those in need.
While there are charities that use clothing donations for good and not all take-back programs are greenwashing circularity, most of the time clothing donations do not really end up being used for charitable purposes.
What is actually at play here is another ploy by the capitalist fashion system which needs us to keep buying with little thought for the consequences of this endless cycle of consumption and disposal.
We can’t buy new clothing if our closets are full. So, fast fashion teaches us to donate the old and buy the new, because it comes at no cost to us since clothing is artificially cheap and does not reflect its true social and ecological cost.
This push to donate clothes is perpetuated by the clothing deficit myth that maintains that there is a lack of clothing in the Global South and an excess in the Global North. But the reality is that there is too much clothing in the world.
Where do donated clothes go?
To put it simply, the secondhand clothing economy has always been for profit, and it was born out of the need to create an outlet for the excess clothing produced by and consumed in the Global North.
Donated clothing is sorted and the best quality items are selected to be sold in stores in the Global North – think of the vintage and charity stores where you may shop preloved.
In the US, 10 to 20% of donated clothing will be sold somewhere in the US and another 10 to 20% might be down-cycled into rags or insulation.
This is why shopping secondhand is encouraged in the slow fashion community because it is a way to recirculate clothing that may otherwise become waste.
The majority of donated clothing, which is not deemed “acceptable” for consumers in countries in the Global North, ends up in different corners of the globe – most often in countries in the Global South.
And, this is big business. Before the clothing ends up in its final destination, all the donated clothing has to be sorted, graded for quality, and then exported. This often occurs through several different entities which are often in different countries.
As the book Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and SecondHand Clothes explains, UK-based secondhand clothing organizations such as Choice Textiles, Oxfam Wastesaver, the Salvation Army, and the YMCA, and their US counterparts like Goodwill and Planet Aid, have highly organized corporate business models, and the people donating their clothes to these organizations are largely unaware of this.
Secondhand clothes that were intended for charity pass through complex global networks of charitable and commercial exchange that link people in the Global North to people in the Global South by turning waste into a commodity and shifting the burden away from those who create it.
‘Away’ is a place: The secondhand industry in the Global South
In the Global South, secondhand markets are flooded with used clothing. Secondhand clothing is a major clothing source in African countries with 70% of global donations ending up in Africa. The primary source of these clothes is the US, Canada, and the UK.
Secondhand clothing has a multitude of different names in different countries. In Zambia used clothing is salaula, a Bemba word meaning ‘selecting from a pile in the manner of rummaging’.
In Lagos, Nigeria, it is called kafa ulaya, ‘the clothes of the dead whites’. In Zimbabwe, the term mupedzanhamo, ‘where all problems end’, is used. In Accra, Ghana, it is known as Obroni Wawu, dead white man’s clothes’. These names tell a story on their own.
Most of the exported secondhand clothing is sold in shipping containers, each containing approximately 550 to 600 45 kg (99 lb) bales. Importers in the Global South purchase a container with a mix of different bales. They have to accept a mixed packing list of different categories of 45 kg (99 lb) clothing bales in container shipments. They have no say in which items they would prefer to receive.
The imported clothing ends up in sprawling secondhand markets such as the Owino Market in Kampala, Uganda and the Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana.
These markets are filled with clothing vendors, upcyclers, dyers, tailors, menders, and importers. Alive with commotion, music, and chatter, the markets are a whole ecosystem of people using innovative and creative methods to save waste (waste that was not created by them in the first place) from being sent to landfills.
These markets are thriving examples of circular textile economies and we should all be taking notes. While there is so much to learn from these markets, it is not all rosy.
Waste colonialism and the impacts of the global secondhand trade
The secondhand industry is a supply chain and it runs according to the same colonial values as the rest of the extractive fashion industry. It is the outlet necessary for fast fashion to thrive.
This power imbalance and exploitative system that upholds the notion that countries in the Global South are dumping grounds for waste created in the Global North, causing them to shoulder the burden and the consequences of a problem they did not create, is known as waste colonialism.
In the case of Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana, about 15 million garments enter the market every week, in a country of 30 million people. The sheer volume of waste has devastating ecological and social impacts.
As Liz Ricketts of The OR Foundation wrote in a letter to the fashion industry: “In Kantamanto, 30,000 people work six days a week to sell, repair, clean, and upcycle the Global North’s clothing waste. This should be applauded, but it should not be romanticized. These 30,000 people take on a level of risk that is unjust.”
In Kantamanto, many retailers take out loans with 35% interest rates to purchase bales of clothing that they have no guarantee about what they will be filled with, and only 20% of the retailers can make a profit.
And while a significant amount of clothing is repurposed by this circular ecosystem, 40% of the clothing that enters Kantamanto leaves the market as waste. This clothing waste is dumped in sprawling landfills of donated clothing and textile waste which emit damaging toxins.
If it does not end up in a landfill, it clogs the gutter systems (which causes flooding) or pollutes the seas in endless strands of clothing that washes up on beaches and gets caught in fisherman’s nets.
It’s not a pretty picture.
On top of these impacts, the influx of this vast quantity of secondhand clothes also impacts the local textile industries in the countries where the waste ends up.
Bobby Kolade and Nikissi Serumaga, of the Vintage or Violence podcast based in Uganda, say that secondhand clothing accounts for 81% of all clothing purchases in the country and this has crushed the local textile industry as well as the ability for job creation in those spaces.
What can we do to be a part of the solution?
This is one of those complex systems that has no simple solutions.
We need to give ourselves grace with the understanding that as individuals, we cannot carry the burden of these exploitative systems, but there are actions we can take to ensure we are part of a different fashion narrative.
The bottom line is that we need to produce and consume less.
As Liz Ricketts shared in a ‘Wardrobe Crisis’ podcast episode with Clare Press, one of the most radical things we can do in this system of over-consumption and greed is to work on healing our own relationship with fashion and move away from defining ourselves as ‘consumers’.
Liz shares that a great way to start this process is to try a ‘no buy year’.
During that time, we can try to teach ourselves a new skill, such as mending, natural dyeing, sewing, knitting, or hosting a clothing swap. This will allow us to see that we can exist (happily) with less and redefine yourself as someone capable of creatively engaging with your style, beyond just buying.
If you are going to donate your clothing, do your research and donate responsibly.
The key to responsible donations is to ensure that you are donating items that you can envision someone using and to donate them to an organization or charity that is specifically requesting those items. Also make sure that you wash your clothing and mend anything that needs a little extra love before donating.
Here are a few useful resources to help you donate more responsibly:
- This Conscious Life & Style Instagram post shares a category-by-category guide of places where you donate specific items.
- This blog post by Imperfect Idealist “11 ways to get rid of old clothes responsibly” shares some very useful tips on ways to make your loved clothes last and then a list of small charities and recycling organizations that you can donate your clothing to.
Still curious? Here is a list of resources where you can learn more:
There is still so much to learn, so here are a few great places to continue your learning journey:
- Slow Factory’s Open Education Webinar on ‘Fashion and Waste’
- Fashion Revolution’s Solidarity in the Secondhand Supply Chain Webinar
- Andrew Brooks’ book titled Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and SecondHand Clothes
- The Vintage or Violence podcast hosted by Bobby Kolade and Nikissi Serumaga, which explores the impacts of secondhand clothing in Uganda.
- The work of The OR Foundation. For the last four years The OR has conducted an in-depth analysis of Accra’s Kantamanto Market, the largest secondhand market in West Africa. Through this work, The OR has highlighted how Kantamanto is both a dumping ground for the Global North’s excess and a model of sustainability from which the Global North could learn.
- Pre-loved Podcast hosted by Emily Stochl has shared a conversation with Liz Ricketts (co-founder of The OR Foundation), as well as a conversation with Adams, Samuel Antwi Oteng, Yayra Agbofah, and Kwamena Boison, who all work in the Kantamanto Market in different capacities.
This article was not written to shame you for not knowing any better!
We are all learning together and this story helps us better understand the complexity of the fashion system that we are all a part of.
(Cover/preview image is from The OR Foundation.)
About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.