It’s the dirty secret behind the world’s fashion addiction. Many of the clothes we donate to charity end up dumped in landfill, creating an environmental catastrophe on the other side of the world.
On the banks of the Korle Lagoon, in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, an escarpment towers at the water’s edge, cattle grazing on its summit.
This ragged cliff, some 20 metres high, is formed not of earth or stone, but of landfill. Most of it — an estimated 60 per cent — is unwanted clothing.
These were garments shipped to Ghana ostensibly for resale and reuse, many sourced from clothing bins and charity collections.
But a huge proportion were never worn again.
Some 15 million used garments pour into Accra every week from the UK, Europe, North America and Australia, flooding the city’s sprawling clothing market.
An estimated 40 per cent are of such poor quality they are deemed worthless on arrival and end up dumped in landfill.
As global clothing consumption skyrockets, fed by ruthless “fast fashion” brands, it’s creating an environmental catastrophe.
The clothes arrive long before dawn, when the city has yet to stir. Headlights ablaze, semitrailers squeeze into ever-narrower alleys, disgorging hundreds of bales wrapped in bright orange plastic. Men and women, some bearing clipboards, inspect the goods and dispatch them.
Some of the clothes will cross Ghana, others will go as far as Burkina Faso or Côte d’Ivoire. But most will be dispersed within West Africa’s biggest second-hand clothing exchange — Accra’s Kantamanto markets, a bustling labyrinth of 5,000 retailers and their timber stalls, many of them overflowing with the West’s unwanted fashion.
Competition for customers is fierce. Clothes are spruiked by song and are quickly discounted by day’s end. Entrepreneurs seize high-end pieces with minor defects that can be mended and dyed and put back on sale for a premium.
But transporting the 55kg bales around the teeming bazaar, with its narrow passageways and thousands of customers, is impossible by mechanical means. So the job falls to Accra’s ranks of head porters, or kayayei, “the women who carry the burden”.
Since she was 12 years old, Aisha Iddrisu has been one such woman. With no work in her remote northern village, Iddrisu has travelled back and forth to Accra for work, now with her 18-month-old son Sheriff. She tries to earn enough money to send some back to the rest of her family, including her nine-year-old daughter.
“I didn’t have much choice,” she told Foreign Correspondent, “because I didn’t know how else I can take care of my children if I don’t come. I am not happy with this situation, but I need the money.”
The market employs thousands of people, including Aisha Iddrisu, who comes here every day from her home in central Accra’s sprawling slum, Old Fadama.
Foreign Correspondent: Andrew Greaves
The work is far from lucrative — Iddrisu earns about $4.50 a day. It’s also notoriously hazardous; everyone seems to know a woman who has suffered a grave injury.
“Some of them get severely injured and they are sent back to the north because they can’t do the job again,” Iddrisu said. “When they get there, they’re unable to do any work because of the injuries.”
Still, Iddrisu credits the second-hand clothing industry with helping her find employment. And there are many who would agree. The local used-clothing dealers’ association claims the industry has created 2.5 million jobs — a figure as plausible as it is impossible to verify.
For the past few decades, the resale of Western cast-offs has boomed here. They are so cheap, local textile makers can’t compete.
Foreign Correspondent: Andrew Greaves
Wander around Accra and every spare inch of pavement seems occupied by a hawker, a new batch of old clothing folded and hung among their wares. They call them “obroni wawu” — dead white man’s clothes.
The trade in second-hand clothing has steadily grown in Accra, just as it has around the world. Every year as many as 4 million tonnes of used textiles are shipped across the planet in a trade estimated to be worth $4.6 billion.
In Accra, where some 60 containers of used clothes arrive every week, the industry can be highly profitable. But it carries an unusual business risk. Importers can spend as much as $95,000 on a container of clothes and have no idea what they’re buying.
It’s only once a bale has been opened that the quality of the clothing is discovered. If it’s in good condition, profits can tally quickly to as much as $14,000. But if the clothes are torn or stained, or long out of fashion, their importer may as well have put a torch to their money.
In the swarming Kantamanto Market, young traders, even friends, can briefly become fierce competitors when a prize new bale arrives.
There’s a lot at stake — if they don’t grab the best clothes they don’t make money.
Emmanuel Ajaab has fought his way to the top of the industry; he’s now one of the market’s more prominent importers. He stands atop a pyramid of resellers and traders who each find a margin to carve off for themselves.
“I have about 100 to 150 customers who buy from me here,” Ajaab said. “And remember, those that buy from me, they are going to sell it and to many other people too.”
Ajaab is a firm believer in the power of his industry to create opportunity. It’s certainly been true of himself. His business has not only provided jobs for his immediate family but also the capital to invest elsewhere. He now owns a construction business which competes for his time.
But the clothes business is not what it once was.
“Seventeen years back [when I started] it was good,” said Ajaab, “but now what they are bringing to Africa, to Ghana … they are continuing to reduce the quality that was given to us. Now it’s very bad.”
As I watched, Ajaab opened a bale from Australia and quickly separated out those clothes which might be resold at a decent price, from those which were worth far less. Familiar labels flashed by: Suzanne Grae, Target, Zara, Billabong, Just Jeans.
Very few landed on his high-quality pile. Of the 180 light summer jackets inside, 85 pieces were unsaleable: collars ringed with sweat, buttons missing, bloodstains on the sleeve. He threw his hands in the air.
“It’s an insult,” he said. “Assume you use your money to buy this bale. How are you going to survive?”
The bale had cost him $90. In the end, he sold $20 worth of clothes. The rest were put out with the rubbish. And it’s happening more frequently. “We don’t know what is going on,” he said. “And if we complain to them … to our suppliers, they say that what they get is what they are giving.”
Ajaab’s suppliers, like all of Kantamanto’s importers, are middlemen: recyclers and rag traders, who source castoffs from high street charity shops and the private operators of clothing bins. There’s little incentive for them to filter out unwearable items. Individuals who include spoiled garments in their charity shop donation are behaving woefully, he said.
“In Europe, the UK and Australia, America, they think [that in] Africa here, sorry to say, we are not like human beings. Even if somebody knocked [on] your door [to beg], you cannot just … pick something from your dustbin. In this case … they’re doing this to us.”
The growing number of poor-quality clothes arriving at Kantamanto Market is a major driver of Ghana’s waste crisis. Another is the sheer volume of clothing being manufactured around the world.
Since 2000, global production of clothing has doubled.
We’re buying 60 per cent more clothes now than we did 15 years ago.
But we’re only keeping them for half as long.
A major survey in the UK six years ago found one in three young women considered garments “old” if they had been worn just twice.
An estimated 85 per cent of all textiles go to the dump every year, according to the World Economic Forum, enough to fill Sydney Harbour annually.
Globally, that’s the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles being burned or going into landfill every second.
These problems have only accelerated with the advent of so-called “fast fashion” — cheap, low-quality clothes produced quickly to respond to changing trends. Where brands once had two fashion seasons a year, many now produce 52 micro-seasons, flooding the market with new styles.
H&M, Zara and Boohoo are among those brands rolling out new fashion lines within days. Boohoo, for example, has more than 36,000 products available at any one time. Three years ago, the company was castigated in the British Parliament for selling five-pound items of such low quality that charity shops were unwilling to resell them.
With factories incentivised to maintain around-the-clock operations, the world’s major fashion houses factor into their budgets huge waste margins. In 2018, Burberry attracted a storm of criticism when it revealed it had destroyed $50 million of stock. The same year, H&M reported an unsold global inventory worth more than $5 billion.
Liz Ricketts, an American fashion waste campaigner, has documented Ghana’s textile waste disaster for a decade. Her organisation, the OR Foundation, blames major fashion houses for the waste crisis.
Where do our donated clothes go?
Australians donate 310,000 tonnes of clothing to charities every year. Many of these clothes are sold to raise $527 million for the funding of social welfare programs. But one-third of these clothes can’t be sold in local op shops. Instead, they are shipped overseas. Charities sell them to Australian exporters for around 50 cents a kilogram. They’re then exported to Malaysia, Pakistan and the UAE for sorting into bales based on their market segment, for example “men’s shirts” or “women’s jackets”. Those bales are then sold to importers in Eastern Europe, the Pacific and Africa. Once these garments arrive in those markets, many end up in landfill.
“Waste is a part of the business model of fashion,” she said. “A lot of brands overproduce by up to 40 per cent.”
Equally, she believes consumers are “somewhat complicit”. “We have decided that convenience is a human right and we think that when we go shopping we should always be able to find exactly what we want,” she said. “We should find it in our size and the colour that we want. That also contributes to this overproduction.”
Australia, with clothing retail sales in 2020 of about $22 billion, may not have the economic scale of the US or the UK, where combined the industry turned over $468 billion in the same period. But on a per capita basis, Australia is the highest consumer of textiles anywhere in the world outside of the US.
When these clothes fall out of favour with their owners, the vast majority of them end up in landfill. Only 7 per cent of clothes sold in Australia are classified as recycled. But it’s a dubious classification — watching the Kantamanto Market clean-up at days’ end gives its lie.
As night falls in Kantamanto Market, alleys full of unsaleable clothing are swept up into giant hessian sacks, ready for collection. Every dawn, garbagemen haul them into a derelict truck that groans under the weight, threatening to spill its awful load. About 6 million garments leave Kantamanto Market every week as waste.
“Close to 40 per cent of whatever shipments that are coming on a daily basis ends up to be complete chaff of no value,” said Accra’s waste manager, Solomon Noi. “We have become the dumping ground for textile waste that is produced from Europe, from the Americas and [elsewhere].”
Ghana’s capital has the capacity to process 2,000 metric tonnes of waste per day. But in part because of the blooming textile problem, the city produces almost double that volume every 24 hours.
The overflow is almost everywhere you look. Much of it is burned, sometimes in small pyres on street corners, sometimes in huge bonfires of cotton and plastic, and whatever else besides, which blacken the skies for days at a time.
One such fire burned for 11 months, though it was not deliberately lit. The Kpone landfill was a $9.5 million World Bank-funded project, which was carefully designed to solve Accra’s mounting waste crisis. It opened in 2013, with the capacity to operate for 15 years.
It filled within five, then caught alight.
“We were all afraid. The fire started in the night … things are exploding,” said Jerry Johnson Doe, a waste picker who once worked retrieving recyclables from the Kpone landfill.
“Everybody around is running because we understand how the place is designed, we are afraid it can explode.”
As the textiles could not be properly compacted, unbeknownst to all, they had trapped a rising bubble of methane.
“Less than two, three hours’ time, you see the fire has escalated to all corners of the landfill.”
The site is now closed and capped. But there has been no let-up in demand.
Informal dumps now dot the city, including the towering Korle Lagoon tip. It rises on the edge of the city’s Old Fadama slums, where some 100,000 people live and work and raise their children.
Most are migrants from Ghana’s north, displaced by conflict and unemployment. They’ve had little choice but to bow to the dump site at their door, even as it steadily grows.
Synthetic textiles can take hundreds of years to decompose. This mountain of waste may cast its fetid shadow over their neighbourhood for generations.
But only a portion of the 160 tonnes of daily textile waste ends up in landfill. During the monsoon season, tropical storms wash an untold volume of clothing into the city’s medieval network of open sewers. The fabrics choke the city’s drainage system and promote flooding. Mosquitos breed, diseases prosper.
The textiles that wash back onto the beach become so tangled in the sand they are almost impossible to dig out.
Foreign Correspondent: Andrew Greaves
The textiles which do make it all the way out to sea wreak yet more damage. Lighter materials float, become entangled with floes of plastic waste and wash back onshore. But heavier materials sink to the ocean floor, only to rise again and roil about in ocean currents, forming long arms of writhing fabric.
“We call them tentacles,” Ricketts said. “When you see them wash up from the sea they’re very long, you know they can be eight feet to 30 feet (2.4m to 9.1m), and sometimes three feet wide,” she said. “When we’ve done clean-ups here, we’ve been digging 15 feet and still find tangles of clothing.”
Behind Accra’s waste crisis lies a startling piece of arithmetic. Thirty million people live in Ghana and yet 30 million garments arrive every fortnight. The man who is trying to do what he can to rescue Accra from its waste catastrophe, Solomon Noi, has a simple message to the second-hand clothes industry — and to individual donors.
“I’m not sure they’ve ever been conscious to ask, where is the final destination of that thing they are discarding,” he said. “But if they come here, like you’ve come, and you see the practicality for yourself, then they will know that, no, we better take care of these things within our country and not ship that problem … to other people.
Watch Foreign Correspondent’s ‘Dead White Man’s Clothes’ tonight on ABC TV and streaming live on iview, YouTube and Facebook.
- Story: Linton Besser
- Photography and cinematography: Andrew Greaves
- Graphic design: Emma Machan
- Digital production: Matt Henry
Drone footage of the burning Kpone landfill site courtesy of the OR Foundation.