Chapter 1 / Sharing Stories
The Final Destination of our Unwanted Clothes
How many garbage bags do you fill with clothes after a closet clear out, destined for the thrift store? Out-of-shape jeans, a sale jacket with tags still on, shirts with cuff buttons missing and the odd 5k run finisher tee will find their way bundled into the sack, ready for a second life. The last place we’d expect them to end up is in the ocean or burning in a landfill overseas.
Second-hand clothing stores exist as a popular, responsible method for disposing unwanted clothes without being wasteful. And rightly so: the money from the resale often aids a charitable cause, the clothes have averted landfill, and a shopper on a budget can fill their closets with your cast-offs. But with the average American buying five times as many clothes today than in the 1980’s - only wearing a garment an average of seven times before replacing it - thrift stores in North America receive up to 4.7 billion pounds of clothing a year. With a never-ending supply of donations, it’s no surprise that only around 25% of clothes are sold in the store. Even the clothes that make it out to the shop floor, as noted by the Salvation Army, have a four-week shelf life before being replaced by the next wave of donations. So what happens to the rest of it?
The remaining millions of tonnes of clothing are sold on to for-profit textile recycling companies and sent away on one of three journeys: they’re recycled for industrial use (torn up for insulation or rags), taken to landfill, or sold in bales to overseas second-hand clothing markets. If you were an old pair of sneakers, you’d probably cross your laces for the last option. Or would you?
Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana’s capital, is West Africa’s biggest second-hand clothing market. The market trades ‘Obroni w'awu’, a Ghanaian expression translating to ‘the white man has died’ clothes. The term was first coined because locals assumed that someone had to have died to donate so many clothes; it wasn’t fathomed that the person could still be alive and discard so much.
In the market, thousands of traders buy and sell over 15 million items of used clothing every week from developed nations including the USA, Canada, UK and Germany. Roughly five million pounds - the weight of twelve Boeing-747 planes - in clothes are packaged, transported and carried in bales through just one market in Ghana, every week.
The OR Foundation, a non-profit organization researching the social and environmental impact of the second-hand clothing market in Accra, have estimated that nearly half of each bale of clothing ends up as waste. Why? Consider the fact that many of the items have already been through two or three rounds of judgement and castaway in their country of origin. The items are often damaged, heavily worn, poor quality, or are the wrong style or size to be resold. They’re discarded as waste, and the trader loses money.
Large amounts of textile waste isn’t easy to handle sustainably. Most developing countries haven’t the means of disposing clothes in an environmentally friendly way; even in wealthier nations, textile recycling technology is a rare commodity. Clothing waste has swamped the local landfill in Accra where it is burnt, endangering the health of the communities surrounding it. And because the landfill is full, millions of garments and shoes end up dumped in the ocean or buried in the sand, shedding plastic microfibers and chemical dyes into the marine environment.
"Clothing waste [in Accra] is more than an environmental problem: it’s a social problem."
Clothing waste in Accra is more than an environmental problem: it’s a social problem. Every bale of clothes bought by a trader is a gamble; some bales contain more high quality items than others, but over the past few years, there has been an increase in poor quality, unsellable clothes. Only around 18% of the clothes are in good enough condition to be sold on, meaning they are either new with tags, high quality, or lightly worn and in trend. The traders make their money back from first grade clothes, often only breaking even from the purchase price of the bale. This hasn’t always been the way.
When the second-hand clothing market began in Africa around the 1960s, there was more of a beneficial trade-off for either side. Clothes were generally better quality and discarded in smaller volumes, which meant a more sustainable flow of items through the markets with a high sell-rate. ‘When Ghana gained independence in 1957, wearing “western” clothing was a symbol of prestige, so there was a market eager to purchase obroni w’awu’, says OR co-founder Liz Ricketts in Fashion Revolution, ‘Secondhand clothing was considered high quality in terms of finishing details, fit and durability.’ But in the past decade, garments are reported to be of poorer and poorer quality, coinciding with the saturation of fast fashion. ‘Today, there is too much clothing of low quality. Today, importers and retailers alike have asked me to tell you to stop sending them your rubbish’ says Ricketts.
Markets such as Kantanamo exist as a necessary extension to the fast fashion business model. In order to buy new clothes and keep the fast fashion industry thriving, we have to throw stuff away to make space for more of it. ‘With virtually no limits on production, and no regulation on import volumes in Ghana, Kantamanto serves as an open valve, not a bottleneck, to continued growth and profit in the Global North. The benefits remain lopsided’ reminds Ricketts. Cleansing our closets has even been harnessed by popular culture as a form of therapy: the famous Marie Kondo method advocates for discarding our possessions that don’t ‘spark joy’ in order to achieve better mental health and wellbeing, leading to a flood in thrift store clothing donations.
Becoming a conscious consumer
The same mantra applies for all global waste issues: in reducing the amount we consume, we’d have less to throw less away. But instead of concentrating on the how much we buy, real change will only come from focusing on why. Instead of seeing clothes as disposable and replaceable, our wardrobes must become collections of long-term investments. By owning fewer clothes that are high quality, durable, and aesthetically timeless, we could reduce textile waste, save money, and only pass on to others clothes that are fit for a second life.
So how do we decide what enters and exits our closets? Here’s a start in shopping best practice. Take a look at your closet and think about what you haven’t worn over the past few years. Go through each garment and ask yourself why it’s collecting dust: has it lost its shape? Is it a product of an old trend? Or is it just damaged and irreparable? Take these issues and draw on them the next time you go to buy clothes. Focus on the flaws with your current unworn clothes and judge the new garment: is it poor quality? Is it a product of a fleeting fashion trend? These are the mental steps involved in becoming conscious about spontaneous purchases destined for a short lifespan.
It goes undisputed that buying high quality goods means a pricier spend - but like a good piece of furniture or a decent car, the decision saves you money in the long run. Many of us have already arrived at the realization that spending $250 on one well-made pair of jeans instead of the numerous cheaper, poor quality pairs that are replaced time and time again is more affordable overall. Owning clothes of value and quality will also mean preserving them more, given the monetary and sentimental value affixed to them.
The responsibility to be sustainable doesn’t only lie with the consumer: brands have an equally important role to play by reshaping their business models. Brands that prioritize quality and longevity in clothing (for example, many brands now offer free in-house repairs for their products) must become normalized to take precedence over disposable fast fashion. Such principles form the foundations of OCIN. OCIN’s swimsuits are thoughtfully designed to be functional, aesthetically timeless and resilient. Women’s pieces are made with high-quality Econyl fabric and are equipped with robust stitching for activities like surfing and swimming, meaning they can stand the test of time. And if you no longer want your suit, the swimsuit recycling program means the materials are recycled and no fabric goes to waste. If all brands adapted a model of circularity, as highlighted by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, it could divert textile waste and financially benefit both the customer and business in the long run.
Despite all efforts to maintain a sustainable wardrobe, the question still remains of how to dispose of unwanted clothes without creating waste. The environmental and social issues facing second-hand clothing markets shouldn’t discourage clothing donations: donating clothes is still important both locally and internationally. As well as being a vital monetary income for local charities, the international second-hand clothing market is a thriving economy in many countries, and local communities depend on our donations for their livelihoods. The message here isn’t to stop donating, it’s to contribute only the good stuff: clothes that aren’t torn, stained, out of shape or poorly made. If it’s unrepairable, try repurposing un-donateable fabrics into anything from cleaning rags to pet bedding. Determine a garment’s wearability by asking yourself: is this good enough to give to a friend? If not, don’t donate it. If your friend doesn’t want it, why would anyone else?