In the markets of Ghana, there’s a saying: “obroni wawu.” It means “dead white man’s clothes,” and it refers to the millions of second-hand garments that arrive at its shores from the West every week.
While donating clothes is often touted as a sustainable, ethical alternative to throwing them in the trash, unfortunately, the reality is not that straightforward.
In the U.S. and the U.K., thrift stores and charity shops simply cannot cope with the level of donations they receive. And as a result, they end up being shipped overseas, many of them to African countries. But the quality of these (mostly fast fashion) garments is so poor, and the volume so great, that most of them end up in already overflowing, toxic landfills.
So, what can be done? To really cut down on second-hand clothing waste, fast fashion giants need to stop producing so much. But also, as consumers, we need to stop buying (and in turn, donating) this type of clothing, because the textile waste crisis is getting out of control.
Overproduction and overconsumption leads to over-donation
The fast fashion industry, which is responsible for much of the second-hand clothing in the West, has always focused on producing as many clothes as possible, as quickly as possible. Recently, with the emergence of ultra-fast fashion brands like Shein, Cider, and Zaful, this model has intensified even more.
According to the Guardian, Shein (which is based in China but is the number one fast fashion brand in the U.S.), can produce around 10,000 new items in just one day. And, to state the obvious, most of these are not made to last. But they’re not bought to last either. In the U.S., one item of clothing is only worn seven times on average. In 2017, one study found more than 40 percent of young people in the U.K. feel pressure to wear different clothes every time they go out.
Clearly, this level of production and consumption is not sustainable, and at some point, wardrobes have to give. So, piles of old clothing are flung into a bag, taken to the charity shop or thrift store, and never thought about again.
Donated fast fashion often ends up in landfill
But the reality is, those in the global south are having to deal with the burden. Western countries ship 15 million second-hand garments to Ghana every week. Some get sold in markets, but many just go to the landfill, as a recent investigation by the Telegraph can testify.
The publication found that items from some of the U.K.’s biggest charity shops, including Oxfam, the Red Cross, and Mind, were being sold at the country’s biggest market, Kantamanto in Accra. But, due to poor quality and condition, many were sorted into sellers’ “low-value piles.” The publication was told that these items were unlikely to be bought. Instead, they would be dumped.
This is a big problem. Fast fashion is mostly made with cheap, durable, plastic-derived fabrics like polyester, which do not biodegrade. Instead, they sit around in the landfill, contributing to the release of potent greenhouse gasses, like methane and carbon dioxide.
And toxins from landfills aren’t just harmful to the planet, they are also dangerous for humans. Research shows that for those living close to landfills, the risk of diseases like asthma, cholera, tuberculosis, and malaria is higher.
What can be done?
In response to the clothing waste crisis, climate groups, like Greenpeace and WRAP, are calling for fast fashion brands to stop making so many clothes and move to a more circular model of production (which keeps clothes in use for longer).
But there are things that consumers can do to reduce the amount of clothing that gets sent overseas.
Organizing or attending a clothing swap, for example, is one way to stop clothes from entering charity shops and thrift stores. This is simply a gathering of friends, family members, or neighbors who all exchange the clothes they don’t wear anymore. Utilizing resale apps, like Depop or Vinted, is another option for a more sustainable wardrobe purge.
If the quality is no longer up to scratch, upcycling is another option. Sites like Pinterest, for example, are full of DIY upcycle ideas, like these coasters made from an old pair of jeans, or these tote bags made from old t-shirts. If you’re not feeling thrifty, local animal shelters will sometimes take donations of things like old sweaters and towels for example, which can be turned into bedding.
Buying less can make the biggest difference
But, the most important action of all actually involves very little effort. Buying fewer clothes, so there is less to throw out in the first place, is a simple yet effective way of reducing the amount of clothing you need to get rid of in the long run.
Thinking twice before purchasing or donating a $5 shirt from a fast-fashion brand is only going to make your clothing habits greener, and in turn, the world around you too.
But ultimately, it’s not on individuals to solve the entirety of the textile waste crisis. In reality, it’s going to take the world’s biggest fashion brands to step up, produce less, and clean up their mess.
Learn more at Dead White Man’s Clothes.
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