This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
Around 15 million garments per week flow through Kantamanto, one of the largest secondhand clothing markets in the world. The shopping center is located in Accra, the capital of Ghana, and is stocked with once-donated clothing that arrives in hundred-pound bundles, mostly from the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. Retailers take out substantial loans to purchase the bundles, hoping to find worthwhile garments in sellable condition. Yet almost half of what is bought is thrown away.
The excess clothing waste piles up in the streets, on the beaches, and in dumpsites around Accra. One landfill in Old Fadama sits next to a river and is over 30 feet tall, containing mostly secondhand clothing from the market. The water near the dump is toxic, causing the surface to ripple and bubble as if it were constantly raining. Some of this foreign clothing flows into the sea, wrapping around itself and other waste to create tentacles up to 25 feet long. These tangled masses put local fishermen in danger, ensnaring their boats’ motors and weighing down nets, which can leave them stranded or capsized. Clogged gutters from the clothing waste lead to flooding and standing water, even after only a light rain, increasing the risk of cholera and malaria for those in the community.
Why is there so much secondhand clothing? Increasingly, it’s built into the way we dress: fast fashion, the trendy, mass-produced clothing that can be made quickly and at low cost, has had disastrous consequences for the planet, while making the industry more profitable than ever. In 1960, around 95 percent of American clothing was made in the United States. As this labor began to be outsourced overseas, brands were able to cut costs while substantially raising production levels. By 1989, The New York Times coined the term “fast fashion” in reference to the 15-day period between an idea’s inception and when the physical garment hit the racks. The Times described the target market as “young fashion followers on a budget who nonetheless change their clothes as often as the color of their lipstick.”
Since then, fashion has only gotten faster. Accelerating trend cycles necessitate wardrobe changes for the style-conscious and upwardly mobile at the pace of a Las Vegas revue, creating a demand for both more manufacturing and a timeline of planned obsolescence. Thanks to fast fashion, the average person purchased 60 percent more clothing in 2014 compared to 2000, while each garment was kept for only half as long, according to a study by McKinsey & Company.
Liz Ricketts, cofounder of the OR Foundation, a charity that advocates for alternatives to the current wasteful fashion model, has been observing the secondhand clothing trade and its impact on Ghana for a decade. Fueled by colonialism and unsustainable business practices, the production of waste has only been increasing. “I saw how the acceleration of fast fashion was creating a toxic disposable culture across the entire industry,” Ricketts told The Nation. “Not just at the fast fashion level, but at every price point and at every segment of the industry.”
On a planet with finite resources but a global economy attempting to produce infinite commodities, that surplus has to go somewhere. “Under colonial rule, Ghanaians were basically required to conform to professional dress codes defined by the British,” said Ricketts. “And that was the entry point for Western dress and for the secondhand clothing trade.” But even after the country’s independence in 1957, the desire for Western clothing remained, entrenched by perceptions of style, power, and wealth. Meanwhile, the Western world needed more space to contain its underused clothing, as the level of churn increased. Buy new, donate used. Out of sight, out of mind.
Earlier this month, fast fashion outlet H&M released a new commercial with Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams. After a CGI-heavy sequence accompanied by nonsensical sci-fi-style narration about evolution and the future, superimposed text said the brand’s goal is “for all H&M materials to either be recycled or sourced more sustainably by 2030.” The YouTube comments section for the ad was disabled.
The truth is, while the transportation industry gets the bulk of the coverage around climate change, clothing production accounts for 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. In response to increasing criticisms, fast fashion brands like Uniqlo, Zara, and Urban Outfitters have launched lines with a sustainable veneer: collections made with recycled materials and sold alongside their standard, poorly made options. The practice is referred to by critics—or just those who aren’t on a brand’s board of directors—as “greenwashing.”
Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standard Institute, a fashion think tank that analyzes claims of sustainability, says that brands are attempting to commodify a movement started by young people. “I’ve seen decks get passed to me where the trend teams of brands are saying, ‘These are the new trends to sell to.’ And it’s leopard print, military, and sustainable,” she said. Over the past few years, H&M launched a donation program in many of its stores, with the underlying goal ultimately being to sell more clothing: “For every bag of textiles you drop off, you’ll receive a discount card for 15 percent off your next in-store purchase.”
“They’re making things that no one needs and that we don’t have infrastructure to do anything with,” said Ricketts. “The fact that these companies continue to overproduce while claiming to be working towards sustainability is just ridiculous.” Zara, for example, offers around 20 new clothing collections each year, and the company’s founder was briefly the richest person in the world in 2017.
The root of the problem, overproduction, is dismissed in favor of green myth making and continued profit. Bédat blames this on a lack of legal requirements, making sustainability completely voluntary to an industry that would rather encourage continuous consumption. To combat this, the New Standard Institute says it is currently partnering with legislators to draft much-needed regulations. “Fashion is a resource intensive process,” says Bédat. “To make that process exist within planetary bounds and where workers are not exploited along the way is going to take some rule-setting.”
So far, the only emerging changes are coming from Europe, with France adopting an anti-waste law early last year. But this law is likely to exacerbate existing issues in places like Accra. Under the law, companies are prohibited from disposing of unsold products, including clothing, through incineration or sending them to landfills. Instead, they are required to recycle or donate the surplus instead. These donations are likely to be bundled up and sent abroad. As a result, for those sent to markets like Kantamanto, much of clothing will still end up in a landfill—just not one in France.
From the point of view of environmental scholars and activists, instead of redirecting our excess, the goal of any policy on the intersection of climate and fashion production should be degrowth. Ricketts proposes a solution that would expand upon the traditional Three Rs kids are taught in schools—Reuse, Reduce, and Recycle—by adding Reckoning, Recovery, and Reparations. “If we don’t reckon with the roots of this crisis, then we will just design a system that perpetuates those destructive power dynamics,” said Ricketts.
Rather than waiting for an uncertain future with advanced recycling technologies, Ricketts argues, we should focus on helping those in the present. “We are seeing millions of garments go into the ocean every day,” she explained. “We are seeing people starving and going into debt. We are seeing people being killed by this clothing waste. So who is going to take responsibility for that?” Lasting change would require acknowledging the secondhand clothing market as part of these companies’ supply chains—an easy thing for those companies to disavow, when they don’t make a direct profit from them. Extended producer responsibility policies would have to include ecological reparations for communities like those in Accra.
When a single T-shirt requires 3,000 gallons of water to produce, keeping a garment in use for longer will do far more for the environment than any new purchase. This circularity, which would have to be planned for at the point of production on an industrial scale, is the lesson to learn from Kantamanto. Ironically, while fast fashion brands claim to support refurbishment, reuse, and upcycling, the hundreds of tailors and seamstresses working in the market have actually achieved it. Residents of the city are conscientious and deliberate reusers and recyclers of clothing, with millions of garments finding a second life.
“Kantamanto is the largest reuse and upcycling economy in the world,” said Ricketts. “It’s a model of everything that anyone in the Global North is talking about wanting to see within the fashion system.” In order to make fashion truly sustainable, the world will require Westerners to radically shift our relationship to clothing itself. If we don’t want to see clothes piling up in landfills and oceans, we’ll have to put them where they belong: on our own backs.