Kantamanto Market in Accra, the capital of Ghana, is the center of West Africa for second-hand clothes from the West. Here, merchants hastily sort piles of clothes daily in order to get the best deal. But often, there are more rags than riches.
“We didn’t get any good clothes at all,” a dealer told DW after one of these hasty measures.
Recently, deliveries from the West have been increasingly focused on so-called fast fashion items. These garments usually wear out after only a few weeks. For some traders, this is actually a compulsion to scrutinize,.
“The goods that are coming now are already affecting our business,” said another trader, stressing that such cheap goods cannot be resold in the local market.
An environmental disaster in the making
While most of these used clothing are usually donated in good faith from industrialized countries, much of it is now an environmental hazard in Ghana and beyond.
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The OR Corporation, a non-governmental organization from the United States, estimated that about 15 million individual items of second-hand clothing now arrive in Ghana per week, while 40% end up due to poor quality. With no use for them, discarded clothing first ends up in landfills and then travels to the ocean.
Environmental activists say this is a major disaster in the making; Groups such as the Ghana Water and Sanitation Journalists Network (GWJN) are trying to raise awareness about this underreported issue.
“Because it’s used clothing, some of it wears out really quickly, and then gets dumped all over the place. You get to a landfill, and you find a lot of it dumped there,” Judge Adoboe, the organization’s national coordinator, told DW.
“When you get close to bodies of water, you realize that as rain and erosion happen, you (carry) a lot of this waste of used clothing towards bodies of water,” added Adobo, noting that some items contain toxic dyes.” (from the water) downstream they may drink not only water but chemicals.”
Moreover, the clothes that are later discarded at sea are washed again on the beaches of the country. For UN Goodwill Ambassador Roberta Annan, this is a disaster in the making for marine life:
“You can’t get it out. You have to dig. It’s buried. It’s stuck. Some of these clothes are made of polyester and, I would say, synthetic fabrics that also go into the waterway and suffocate the fish and marine life in there,” Annan told DW, trying to take some off the clothes. On the beach in Accra.
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Find alternative uses for clothing waste
at the same time. Some fashion designers are looking for alternative solutions to this growing problem. Elisha Ofori Bamfo focuses on recycling discarded used clothing. But even he is unhappy with the quality of some of the clothes he’s found recently.
It is difficult to recycle and recycle some of the second-hand clothes that are imported into the country these days, Bamfu told DW: “Sometimes when you go to the market there are some clothes that can’t be recycled or can’t be recycled. Local authorities take the lead and ensure that only high-quality used clothes are imported.”
Other African countries have already taken a more proactive and bold approach – particularly on the part of authorities and regulations – when it comes to waste from second-hand clothing, issuing bans. Rwanda, for example, banned the import of second-hand clothing in 2018 in order to boost its textile industry. Other countries followed suit.
Ban or not ban?
When the coronavirus pandemic appeared in 2020, Kenya also banned the import of used clothing to prevent the possible spread of the virus. However, this ban has since been lifted due to its economic impact on people’s livelihoods.
Bampho agrees that in Ghana, an absolute ban on these products is likely to impose additional economic hardship on many of the people who depend on them: “Thousands of people depend on second-hand clothing for survival to feed their families,” he said.
Adoboe meanwhile believes Ghana could indeed benefit from a blanket ban, but says there is no political will to see such an initiative through. He believes that until political leaders begin to take seriously the impact of these second-hand clothes on the environment, Ghana will remain powerless in this fight against pollution.
However, Roberta Annan is adamant in her desire for a quick fix not only to protect the environment but also the local fashion industry: “The fashion industry actually loses US$500 billion annually due to fashion waste.” Annan said.
The Ghana government has so far been silent on the issue, and there is no indication that it might take any action to deal with used endemic clothing and its impact on the local textile industry as well as the environment.
When the authorities want to make the decision to join the fight against this growing cause, it may be too late.