Ghana is fast fashion’s dumping ground, and unwanted apparel is throwing up on the beaches leading to an environmental crisis.
At Oxford Circus in the heart of London, Rebecca Mossop, a store manager for George at ASDA, is getting ready to deliver October’s haul of clothing – that didn’t quite meet the exacting standards of the British consumer – to a delivery truck parked behind the store.
“The clothes are manufactured in China and sometimes some items fail quality control and that is where the store’s management decided on the idea of donating items of clothing they didn’t need to some of the poorest nations in Africa,” says Mossop.
The truck will make various stops on London’s high street retail stores before returning to its base in Lewisham, an area of southeast London. There, Michael Ofori, the Managing Director of A To Z Shippers, will ensure that the thousands of used and unused clothing piles are assembled and shipped to Tema, the largest port in Ghana, where his local team will transport it to the markets.
“We are providing a service to thousands of [informal female entrepreneurs] all over Ghana who rely on these items for their livelihoods,” says Ofori.
“But things have changed quite a bit from when we started this about 20 years ago. Back then, there was no fast fashion so the items that we had were of quality. Today, we have so many fast fashion brands and not to mention those individuals who can just set up their own stores online. The market is flooded and unfortunately it’s affecting the quality of stuff we send [off],” says Ofori.
Once loaded, the clothes get on shipping containers and are sent to the ports from where, after a month at sea, they reach the shores of Ghana.
According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), in 2020, the top exporters of Used Clothing (worn clothing and articles) were the US, China, UK, Germany and South Korea, while the top importer of Used Clothing was Ghana. With a population of over 31 million, Ghana took in over $180 million of Used Clothing, with Ukraine, Pakistan and Nigeria following suit.
Shippers like Ofori’s initially were seen as providing a vital lifeline for women in Ghana’s informal markets – until the advent of fast fashion. Today, the reality is different.
A fairly new concept, fast fashion has been popularized by high-street brands selling in-vogue trends at record speeds for affordable prices. These items are made cheaply in bulk due to their ready-to-wear, prêt-à-porter nature to cater to the frequent purchasing habits of middle-class consumers with disposable incomes.
The impact of fast fashion on the environment is dire. According to statistics published by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry is the second-most-polluting industry after the oil industry.
Where fast fashion is creating a tidy profit for Western manufacturers, in Africa, it is stifling the garments sector.
“We have seen most ladies buy the same items multiple times simply because once they wash the items, most of them lose their quality. This is no longer an issue as some of these items only cost about $5 and so the idea is once it’s worn out, a consumer will discard it and buy more items,” says Mossop.
In Ghana, Sarah Bonsu, a trader in the country’s largest market at Kantamanto, is a regular customer of A To Z Shippers from where she frequently sources various items to sell in the market.
Kantamanto is home to over 30,000 traders with millions of items bought and sold each week. Bonsu has been making a living here for the past 10 years. She usually spends an equivalent of $150 on goods she cannot inspect until they are delivered at her stall in the market.
“There is no point inspecting these clothes. It is literally by luck. If you get quality in one batch, the next batch could be completely rubbish. That is just the way things work,” says Bonsu.
Once at her shop, Bonsu laboriously sifts through the new items and picks what she calls “the first selection”.
“First selection is for the fresh clothes that go quickly. Usually these are not worn yet or do not have any stains etc. The second selection comprises the ones that we know customers will not want and will be difficult to sell,” says Bonsu.
Heaps of unwanted clothing have now resulted in an environmental crisis in Ghana. In 2019, over 65 million tons of used clothing was sent to Ghana and of that figure, about 40% was not sold and was discarded, as per a report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
These items notoriously end up in landfills or worse – in the sea.
“Most people abroad go to bed thinking they have done something good for Africans by discarding their unwanted clothing but the truth is it is actually harming our economy. Local manufacturers cannot compete with the cheap prices and most of the clothing sent is not wanted by Africans. They end up as waste in landfills like this all over the country,” says Ernest Ijawan, a manager of the Kpone landfill in Ghana.
The negative effects are being felt in other sectors of the economy as well.
In Labadi beach, Accra, Kofi Sarpong and his team of fishermen have set sail in the hopes of netting enough fish to sell at the local market in Osu, a large township in the heart of Accra. Along the shores of the beach are groups of young boys and some of the female hawkers waiting for a signal from Sarpong and his men, who have carefully laid fishing nets from the shoreline to the open sea.
On their signal, all 20 hands on the beach begin the tedious ordeal of pulling on the fishing nets that take almost two hours to finally haul on to the beach. For their hard work, they are rewarded with one huge barracuda and entwined in the nets, heaps of clothing that have been discarded in the sea.
“This has been the trend for us for the past couple of years. We lose our nets because they get tangled up with clothing from the local markets and we don’t even get the fish that we used to. We cannot survive on just one fish,” rues Sarpong.
The Or Foundation, a human rights and environmental NGO from the United States, estimates that it takes about 200 years to decompose textile waste. When such waste makes its way to the sea, they invariably destroy marine life as well as the livelihoods of people like Sarpong.
“This means that when these clothes are not burned, they can be found everywhere because there are simply not enough landfills to deal with the waste. They go on the beach and form what we call
clothing tentacles and these trap fish and stop their growth. Fishermen all over Accra are struggling to make ends meet,” says Samuel Oteng, a volunteer at Or Foundation.
Ghana’s second-hand clothing market is second only to Pakistan with a global market share of 5.1% according to the Tony Blair Institute of Global Change. The country is in a Catch 22 situation when it comes to this issue. On the one hand, there is little it can do by way of a complete ban due to the number of consumers on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum who rely on these textiles for their livelihood. On the other hand, the inflow of textiles is exacerbating an already difficult environmental crisis ultimately killing local economies like manufacturing and fishing.
There are those who believe that maybe a partial ban might go a long way in curtailing this crisis. Others opine that this presents a great opportunity for the recycling sector in Ghana. But whichever way the country decides to go, the one thing everyone agrees on is that, something needs be done sooner than later to limit the damage of the growing textile dump in a deteriorating economic climate.