§ Trade data as of 2020 has shown that Ghana has become the biggest dumping ground of used clothing in the last decade.
§ “The UK alone shipped over $70m worth of used clothing to Ghana in 2020, accounting for close to 40 percent of the country’s import of used clothing.”
ACCRA, Ghana — One is greeted with tangled pieces of textiles and discarded clothing washed up at the Korle-Gonno beach in Accra.
These tangled clothing are repeatedly swept along the shores by the changing tides. A closer examination shows that these clothes are burrowed deep into the sand like a new geological formation. “They go as deep as six feet,” said a local fisherman.
“Studies have shown that we have a lot more of such textile waste on the ocean bed,” Solomon Noi, Director of Waste Management for the Accra Metropolitan Assembly said. “This poses a significant threat to aquatic life.”
With the “choked landfills and limited control” over unwanted clothing exports into Ghana, Mr. Noi argues that managing discarded used clothing in Accra has become a “huge burden” for the city authorities.
“This is an area nobody is talking about, this is a real crisis,” he said.
A four-month investigation by Gideon Sarpong has shown that the negative impact of discarded used clothing on Ghana’s environment is fueled by unscrupulous merchants and charities, unsuspecting donors, and the global fast fashion business. Inaction on the part of government officials in Ghana and the UK has also contributed to this crisis.
Kantamanto – A morgue for UK’s used clothing
Kantamanto, the largest used clothing market in West Africa is its own market, distinct from many other markets in Ghana. On a typical day, you should expect to hear sounds of sellers hustling to lure consumers with many yelling things like, “five cedis, four cedis, pants and trousers.”
The market looks like a maze, with several rows of vendors selling their wares. There is a covered indoor market that extends onto surrounding sidewalks. Like any department store in the West, the market also has sections and a general sense of order.
Over the years, Kantamanto, located in Accra’s business district, has transformed into a morgue for UK’s used clothing. It now performs the final retail rites before 40 percent of the 15 million used clothes it receives each week are sent to the graveyard — at choked landfills at Old Fadama, and its surrounding areas in Accra.
Land fill at Old Fadama. Old Fadama is a large slum on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana with over 80000 residents.
Samuel Antwi Oteng, a researcher with The OR Foundation, an NGO which focuses on the intersection of environmental justice and fashion development. He explained how the overwhelming quantity of used clothing imported into Ghana every week was unsustainable for the population.
“Ghana has a population of about 31 million people, so thinking about the ratio between the people living in the country and the quantity (15 million) of clothing that is coming in every week, shows there is a great disconnect.”
The textile trash collected from Kantamanto is the “single largest consolidated waste stream in the entire city of Accra,” according to the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA).
Nana Amo, a used clothing importer and trader at the Kantamanto market admitted to the negative impact of used clothing on the environment, describing clothing importation as a “risk-taking” business.
“The bale I import is sealed and i do not know what is inside. So, if you are a buyer and you detect that there are unusable clothes in there, there is little you can do but discard them and make a loss,” he said. “Unfortunately, improper disposal of these clothes means all our gutters are choked, with very negative consequences for us all.”
Trade data as of 2020 has shown that Ghana has become the biggest dumping ground of used clothing in the last decade. The value of worn clothing shipped into the country has tripled during the last decade from $65m in 2010 to over $180m in 2020.
The UK alone shipped over $70m worth of used clothing to Ghana in 2020, accounting for close to 40 percent of the country’s imports and the UK’s biggest export product to Ghana.
Not everybody who donates their clothing to charities in the UK understands how charities like Oxfam sell donated clothes to merchants and retailers in nations like Ghana and Nigeria, many of which wind up in landfills, the ocean, and drains and harm the environment.
Ghana’s trade minister, Alan Kyerematen did not respond to several requests for comment on the dumping of used clothes in the country and his ministry’s actions to end it.
Samuel Antwi Oteng attributed a large part of the problem to the commercial practices of the fashion industry, which promote excessive consumption and waste.
“All of these fashion brands like Boohoo, Asos, Nike, H&M, Adidas, they produce clothes in excess, more than people need and so they build waste into their models. But there is a whole business built around donations and buybacks programs, where people and companies collect these clothes, sort them, bail them and ship them to countries like Ghana,” he explained.
In 2019, a UK House of Commons audit report on fast fashion found that fast fashion and consumption in the UK leaves developing countries, “with the bulk of the environmental and social costs.”
“There are too many UK fashion businesses who acknowledge the negative impacts of their operations on workers and the environment but do little or nothing to mitigate the harm they are causing,” said Dr. Mark Sumner, a lecturer in sustainability and fashion at the University of Leeds in a statement to the UK parliament.
Despite the environmental harm facing many societies as a result of fast fashion, the British government following the release of the audit report on “Fixing Fashion,” rejected recommendations made by a cross-political party committee to regulate the supply chain. This included the Government saying it wouldn’t consider improved clothing collection and sorting until 2025.
The report urged the British government to put more pressure on brands and retailers to take more responsibility for the global epidemic of throwaway clothing, including by imposing a tax on fashion manufacturers and requiring high-earning fashion stores to meet mandatory environmental standards.
Katharine Hamnett, a British activist and designer, described the government’s response as “tragic,” adding that the study “hadn’t been hard-hitting enough anyhow.”
Globally, the fashion industry is responsible for around 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations, and consumes more energy than the international aviation and shipping industries combined.
Madeleine Cobbing, a researcher at Greenpeace explained that most clothes are not designed for recycling.
According to her, most clothes are “blends of synthetic and natural fibers which are difficult to recycle, while the huge volumes of fashion being bought and thrown away prevent any meaningful attempt at circularity.”
Boohoo, and some other top UK fashion companies are currently under investigation by the UK competition watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority for potential “greenwashing”, following concerns about the way the company’s products are being marketed as eco-friendly and sustainable when this is not the case.
However, Frank Egleton, corporate affairs manager of Boohoo, in an email insisted that “10 percent” of its cotton use is sourced from “Better Cotton farmers who produce cotton in a way that respects people and the environment and improves livelihoods.”
Unemployment, used clothing trade and Ghana’s government inaction
Meanwhile, in Ghana, where the restriction on the importation of used undergarments has been in place for over three decades, the government has failed significantly to stem the flow of these used clothing. A recent Ghanaweb report showed traders openly selling these banned undergarments in Kantamanto despite the potential harm to the customers and caution from health experts.
Facing one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the region of close to 40 percent, the government risks “incurring the wrath of workers” in the informal sector if it imposes a complete ban on used clothing said trader, Nana Amo.
“What jobs have the state created and what job will the government expect us to do if it bans the sale of used clothing,” he demanded. “After the state bans the sale and importation of used clothing, it should show us what we should do.”
The second-hand clothing industry directly employs over 35,000 in Ghana.
Samuel Antwi Oteng, argues that the problem of used clothing imports into Ghana, which dates to the 1960s, is far more complicated and needs to be addressed on a variety of levels, including cultural and socioeconomic.
He said: “sometimes when we discuss this issue, we overly focus on a complete ban but there are so many layers to it. We must look at past influences, and how colonialism has influenced. How politics affects it and how the neglect of the informal economy influences it.”
“If you think about the Kantamanto market, it is not as if the current president or previous ones created these jobs for the people there. The people that work there created these jobs for themselves,” he added.
In designing any lasting solution, Samuel recommends that: “we must include the secondhand community itself in the conversation. Thinking about the unemployment situation in the country, what other opportunities are out there if people want to leave the trade?”
For Solomon Noi whose responsibility it is to ensure that Accra always remains clean, the solution lies with producer tax and strict enforcement of textile standards.
“We must have external producer responsibility, so that right from the manufacturer, I think there should some percentage of cost that should be a slap on the product for disposal at the final destination of the product” he said.
Ghana, he maintained should, “tighten” its laws so that we adhere to “strict standards.”
“Beyond a certain minimum standard, the quality of the textile should be rejected.”
“If these cannot be achieved, then Europeans should rather dispose of worn-out clothing in their countries, they have the technology for it, rather than bringing it here [Ghana].”
Report by Gideon Sarpong. | Follow @gideonsarpong
Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi, Alix Smidman and Daniel Abugre Anyorigya contributed to this report.
This investigation was supported by Journalismfund.eu.