Do you know where the clothes you donate to charity end up?
Textile waste is a massive concern for the environment. An estimated 245 million garments went to landfill last spring alone. Is this really surprising given the hold that fast fashion has? All of these items decompose and release methane gas; a contributor to climate change, which is reason enough to be concerned.
Here are a few statistics about our unwanted clothes:
Donating to charity
After my Nan passed away last autumn, I spent almost a month clearing her bungalow. This was no easy task given our family’s propensity for holding onto things “just in case”. This resulted in a determination to beat this almost genetic trait and giving my own wardrobe the Kon-Mari treatment (the rest of the house is still a work in progress). The result was overwhelming, I must have had at least 4 black bags of clothing alone, never mind the shoes, handbags, jewellery… I didn’t want to just throw any of it out, if in a good condition. So, like many of us, I took everything along to a local charity shop. Donating to charity is a win all round surely; you get some space back and feel better about discarding items whilst the charity makes some money to continue its work.
The Secret Life of Your Clothes
Filmed in 2013, The Secret Life of Your Clothes explores what happens to the garments we donate to charity with good intentions. Ade Adepitan travels to Ghana to investigate and the result is a truly fascinating documentary. Sadly it’s no longer available on iPlayer, but can be watched via CuriosityStream. (Confession: I took a month’s free trial via Amazon to watch it.)
We spend around £60bn a year on clothes in Britain. Let’s not even get into the fact that we probably don’t even need or wear a great deal of those, or that we don’t know about the conditions they were made in. Let’s focus instead on the average of 19 items we discard from our wardrobes each year. Of those 19 items, it’s estimated that 7 end up in landfill, so we must assume that the rest get donated to charity. What happens next?
We assume that the charity shop sell donated garments to an end customer. Of course, this absolutely does happen, but a vast majority of donated clothes and shoes actually go on a much longer journey to get to new owners.
Welcome to Ghana
Amazingly, a great deal of our donated clothing travels overseas to Africa. The Secret Life of Your Clothes focuses on the secondhand clothes market in Ghana, but it’s happening all over Africa. So much so, in fact, that six African nations have decided to ban foreign imports of used clothing within the next two years.
I was surprised to learn that 30,000 tonnes of secondhand clothing arrive into Ghana, from Britain, every year. This makes Ghana the largest importer of our unwanted garments and equates to thousands of bales of clothing arriving every three days. It turns out that charity shops only sell a fraction of what is donated. Charity shops can sell these unwanted items to recycling businesses who then sell them to wholesalers in Ghana. I’m pretty sure that all those “charity” bags we get through the door are actually these recycling businesses too.
These bales of clothing arrive in Accra, the capital, where an extremely lucrative new economy has been established. One wholesaler says that he can make the equivalent of £25,000 on a good day with the clothes he buys. Not surprising really, when you consider that the secondhand clothes trade is worth a staggering £50m a year.
Ghanaian people refer to our secondhand clothing as “obroni wawu”, or dead white man’s clothes. Obroni wawu is what the majority of people in Ghana are wearing; over 50% of all garments bought in Africa are imported from Western countries.
Plenty of the obroni wawu is sold in Accra’s market. Clothing is split into three classes dependent on the label and condition of the item. The largest market in Ghana is in Kumasi; the majority of garments are driven there from Accra and sold on to traders. Traders take a real risk investing around £40 per bale as they buy them unseen. Many traders sell their garments onto to others who sell them in smaller villages, but there are also thousands of market stalls in Kumasi.
It’s a real shame that Kumasi market has changed beyond all recognition in the last 20 or so years. Once, it was far more traditional and had many beautiful African textiles, and traditional garments. Not any more. Ghanaian shoppers can even buy western wedding dresses at bargain prices. On the up side, there is a new industry in repairing, alternating and upcycling obroni wawu and plenty of people are making a living from this secondhand industry. On the down side, traditional clothing is becoming a rare sight which has had a knock on effect on Ghana’s textile manufacturers and garment makers.
Why do our secondhand clothes hold such appeal? Simple. They’re cheaper. Just as fast fashion appeals to so many here for the same reason. A woman asked by Ade Adepitan says that she prefers obroni wawu because the clothes are ready to wear, but having something traditional made costs more. In a country where some of the poorest earn £1 per day, you can see the appeal of items for as little as 25 pence. Obroni wawu is simply more affordable.
The global trade in secondhand clothing is a £1bn industry and is fed with our addiction to fast fashion. On the face of it, secondhand clothing has been empowering to the Ghanaian economy. It has created employment, with all the benefits that brings and given people a way to express themselves through unique clothing. But it has also decimated the country’s clothing industry, from textile manufacturers to tailors. Add to that the increasing westernisation of Ghana and the loss of the tradition that makes it such a vibrant and unique place. The carbon footprint being caused is also a concern.
So what are your thoughts? Bearing in mind the toxic effect of textile waste in landfill, clearly we do need to find a better use for our unwanted clothing, but is donating it the answer? Personally I think the best solution is to slow down on the amount of clothing that we’re buying in the first place.