Textile banks are in every supermarket carpark, they’ve got them at tips, charities drop donation bags through your door every week, but have you ever wondered where your old clothes actually go? As wearers of vintage fashion a good amount will end up on your back through vintage stores and charity shops but what about the rest?
The fashion industry produces around 150 billion garments a year; new clothes for a new season or campaign. Fast fashion results in less space in the wardrobe so, in the spirit of charity, we should use one of these textile banks so our unwanted can go to those who need it most. This is where the clothing deficit myth benefits the large manufacturers: the idea that our unwanted clothes can be donated to those people who need it more means that we are happy to go out and buy more cheaply made clothes whilst safe in the knowledge we helping the less fortunate. There’s a prevailing notion that we have more access to clothes than those in developing countries when, in fact, this is where most of the waste clothing ends up. Piled high in landfills, spilling into rivers, and clogging the sewers.
Kantamanto Market in Accra is just one example of how, under the guise of sustainability, we are helping to create a serious problem. The market is one of the biggest resale economies in the world, with around 15 million items of clothing going through Kantamanto each week which seems like an economy that should be thriving, but this is simply not the case. Retailers cannot demand the prices that the large capitalist companies can, many of them referring to their selling as gambling only a small percentage make any profit. Then there is the huge waste problem: 40% of the garments that flow through the market end up as waste.
As victims and purveyors of fast fashion, we now buy 400% more clothes than we did in the 1980s and all that textile needs to end up somewhere, 85% find their way to a landfill. Out of sight, out of mind. The UK is the second biggest used clothing exporter in the world with 2013 figures stating trading of used clothes amounted to around £521m again betraying the myth that our donations are simply put on racks in charity shops or sent directly to some far-off country where clothing is scarce.
But how do charity donations end up being traded in for monetary gain?
Due to the sheer volume of donations, again thanks to fast fashion, not al of these items can be retailed in charity shops. Those that aren’t are sold on to massive textile merchants by weight: big warehouses with mountains of used clothes ready to be sorted and shipped. These sorting factories work through the old clothes to determine quality and type before being put through the baling machine. After the bales are placed in shipping containers which then head out to whichever country is in demand where they head to shops and markets such as Kantamanto to be further sorted and sold or, as is often the case, simply dumped.
The main source of income from this trading in the UK is Poland, followed closely by Ghana and Pakistan. The image of our clothes going directly to someone who needs them is completely obliterated when you think of the amount of money we make each year from trading used clothes. It’s easy also to think of the local economy that must be generated by the market traders but this is so often not the case; half of the problem comes with the decline of local textile industries. The Ghanaian textile workforce has become almost non-existent, jobs have disappeared, and none have replaced them. It is also the massive disparity between what the ‘gambling’ market traders are able to make and what the huge textile traders, and the fashion labels, are making.
The blame cannot be directed at the charities who must capitalise wherever they can in order to try and tackle the countless issues faced by people around the globe. Neither can we blame those using the clothing banks who surely have nothing but good intentions when donating their old clothes. The ones who further capitalise from here and the world of fast fashion are the ones who perpetuate myths and make huge profits from market demand and at the expense of the whole world. Not only does this cycle contribute to greater poverty but it is having huge impact on the climate crisis and pollution.
85% of discarded clothing ends up in landfills, estimated at around 11m tons. The cheap materials used in fast fashion mean that textiles can take 100s of years to decompose, or in some cases will never break down, in landfills that are being filled at a staggering rate of 10000 items every 5 minutes just in the UK. Add to this the clothing that is going into landfills around the globe, particularly those in developing countries where, once full, they will simply dump the waste into surrounding settlements of the poorer areas as is common around the Kantamanto market. It will here spill out into rivers, oceans, polluting waters with dyes and chemicals as the landfills grow. A high percentage are also burned, particularly in those poorer countries, in the open and releasing those same pollutants into the air. Not only is cheap, poorly made fashion drowning Ghana and countless other countries, it’s literally smothering the earth.
Mass-produced clothes are about having an endless chain for a seemingly endless market. It is these mass-produced items that landfills and, as a result, oceans are filled with. As long as people continue to line the pockets of the super rich, at the expense of the most vulnerable, then this cycle will continue. Fast fashion is just that: the need for clothing, the market demand, and throwaway items. It’s almost unfair to call it fashion in any sense, these clothes are not made to last because, if they lasted and people kept them, there would be no demand anymore. It’s a profit-driven industry with no mercy for those in its way.
It is getting worse every day. As populations increase and the companies seek to capitalise on constant demand, clothes are being made poorly with cheap labour and cheap fabrics. This means that even the clothes that arrive at markets such as Kantamanto are often too damaged to be sold. Not only does this further impact the waste problem but it means that the market traders who buy bales without viewing their contents, often make little to no money from their initial output. In fact many complain of working at a loss due to the condition of their clothes. This is why they refer to themselves as gamblers: buying bales at around £80 to £250 in order to sell even the highest quality items at no more than a couple of pound is struggle enough. Add to this the increasing poor quality of the garments, often torn beyond repair, and traders are finding it increasingly difficult to make anything resembling a living.
There are activists trying to tackle the crisis who are studying the impact of fast fashion on the environment. The Or Foundation found over 350 piles of clothing on the beach a mile away from Kantamanto over a two month period and studied how that affects the oceans. They estimate that these piles on shore are equalled on the ocean floor: labels such as Marks and Spencer, Next, and H&M are strewn across both land and sea. Mass-produced clothes are literally becoming a part of the landscape, walked on as though part of the beach itself or climbed in the small villages, waste mountains overlooking the tiny shacks below.
There are for more clothes being produced than we are able to consume and recycling, not reselling, accounts for only around 1% of all this excess waste. This is often because cheap clothes are made from fibre-blends which makes it difficult to break down and repurpose. Despite brands like H&M claiming to break down fibres through collection points in order to make new clothes we do not have the technology to do this across the board so it’s likely to have little impact on the wider issue. It also doesn’t halt mass production; it would take 12 years to recycle what they sell in 48 hours. The market demand for cheap products and throwaway fashion has been created by these companies and it seems unlikely, with the profits they’ve enjoyed, that they’re going to stop anytime soon.
This crisis has to be approached in different ways, starting from the root cause: fast fashion. Holding firms accountable for their role in the current situation needs to be achieved through governmental intervention. Extended producer responsibility laws for the textile industry have already been implemented in France and Sweden. These laws ensure that the clothing companies fund clothing recycling. Whether or not it would be enough to make them stop cheap mass production is a different matter altogether.
There is something to be learned from markets such as Kantamanto, where clothes are bought, tailored, and brought to life all in the same bustling place. The solution for us, as consumers, is simple: buy less fast fashion, buy second-hand, don’t support mass production. Perhaps if we can temper demand just that little bit, take away a tiny bit of profit, the companies will start to listen. It’s about making them accountable but, until we can do that, let’s start with ourselves.