One is greeted with tangled pieces of textiles and discarded clothing washed up at the Korle-Gonno beach in Accra.
This tangled clothing is repeatedly swept along the shores by changing tides. A closer examination shows that these clothes are burrowed deep into the sand like a new geological formation. “They go as deep as six feet,” said a local fisherman.
“Studies have shown that we have a lot more of such textile waste on the ocean bed,” Solomon Noi, Director of Waste Management for the Accra Metropolitan Assembly said. “This poses a significant threat to aquatic life.”
With the “choked landfills” and “limited control” over unwanted clothing exports into Ghana, Mr. Noi argues that managing discarded used clothing in Accra has become a “huge burden” for the city authorities.
“This is an area nobody is talking about; this is a real crisis,” he said.
A four-month investigation by Gideon Sarpong has shown that the negative impact of discarded used clothing on Ghana’s environment is fuelled by unscrupulous merchants and charities, unsuspecting donors and the global fast-fashion business. Inaction on the part of government officials in Ghana and the UK has also contributed to this crisis.
Kantamanto – A morgue for UK’s used clothing
Kantamanto, the largest used clothing market in West Africa, is its own market – distinct from many other markets in Ghana. On a typical day you can expect to hear the sound of sellers hustling to lure consumers, with many yelling things like “five cedis, four cedis, pants and trousers”.
The market looks like a maze, with many rows of vendors selling their wares. There is a covered indoor market that extends onto surrounding sidewalks. Like a typical department store in the west, the market also has sections and a general sense of order.
Over the years, Kantamanto – located in Accra’s business district – has been transformed into a morgue for the UK’s used clothing. It now performs the final retail rites before 40 percent of the 15 million pieces of used clothes it receives each week are sent to the graveyard — at choked landfills at Old Fadama and its surrounding areas in Accra
Landfill at Old Fadama. Old Fadama is a large slum on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, with over 80,000 residents
Samuel Antwi Oteng is a researcher with The OR Foundation – an NGO that focuses on the intersection of environmental justice and fashion development. He explained how the overwhelming quantity of used clothing imported into Ghana every week is unsustainable for the population.
“Ghana has a population of about 31 million people, so thinking about the ratio between people living in the country and quantity (15 million pieces) of clothing that is coming in every week, it shows there is a great disconnect.”
The textile trash collected from Kantamanto is the “single-largest consolidated waste stream in the entire city of Accra”, according to the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA).
Nana Amo, a used clothing importer and trader at the Kantamanto market, admitted the negative impact of used clothing on the environment – describing clothing importation as a “risk-taking” business.
“The bale I import is sealed and I do not know what is inside. So if you are a buyer and you detect that there are unusable clothes in there, there is little you can do but discard them and make a loss,” he said. “Unfortunately, improper disposal of these clothes means all our gutters are choked… with very negative consequences for us all.”
Trade data as of 2020 have shown that Ghana has become the biggest dumping ground of used clothing in the last decade. The value of worn clothing shipped into the country has tripled during the last decade, from US$65m in 2010 to over US$180m in 2020.
The UK alone shipped over US$70m worth of used clothing to Ghana in 2020, accounting for close to 40 percent of the country’s imports and the UK’s biggest export product to Ghana.
Not everybody who donates their clothing to charities in the UK understands how charities like Oxfam sell donated clothes to merchants and retailers in nations like Ghana and Nigeria, many of which wind up in landfills, the ocean and drains, and harm the environment.
Ghana’s trade minister Alan Kyerematen did not respond to several requests for comment on the dumping of used clothes in the country and his ministry’s actions to end it.
The fashion industry and UK government’s failure to act
Samuel Antwi Oteng attributed a large part of the problem to commercial practices of the fashion industry, which promote excessive consumption and waste.
“All of those fashion brands like Boohoo, Asos, Nike, H&M and Adidas produce clothes in excess, more than people need; and so they build waste into their models. But there is a whole business built around donations and buyback programmes, where people and companies collect these clothes, sort them, bale them and ship them to countries like Ghana,” he explained.
In 2019, a UK House of Commons audit report on fast-fashion found that fast-fashion and its consumption in the UK leaves developing countries “with the bulk of its environmental and social costs”.
“There are too many UK fashion businesses which acknowledge the negative impacts of their operations on workers and the environment, but do little or nothing to mitigate the harm they are causing,” said Dr. Mark Sumner, a lecturer in sustainability and fashion at the University of Leeds in a statement to the UK parliament.
Despite the environmental harm facing many societies as a result of fast-fashion, the British government following release of the audit report on ‘Fixing Fashion’, rejected recommendations made by a cross-political party committee to regulate the supply chain. This included government saying it won’t consider improved clothing collection and sorting until 2025.
The report urged the British government to put more pressure on brands and retailers to take more responsibility for the global epidemic of throwaway clothing – including by imposing a tax on fashion manufacturers and requiring high-earning fashion stores to meet mandatory environmental standards.
Katharine Hamnett, a British activist and designer, described the government’s response as “tragic”, adding that the study “hadn’t been hard-hitting enough anyhow”.
Globally, the fashion industry is responsible for around 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions according to the United Nations, and it consumes more energy than the international aviation and shipping industries combined.
According to Madeleine Cobbing, a researcher at Greenpeace, most clothes are not designed for recycling.
According to her, most clothes are “blends of synthetic and natural fibres which are difficult to recycle; while the huge volumes of fashion being bought and thrown away prevent any meaningful attempt at circularity”.
Boohoo, and some other top UK fashion companies are currently under investigation by the UK competition watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority, for potential “greenwashing” following concerns about the way the company’s products are being marketed as eco-friendly and sustainable when this is not the case.
However, Frank Egleton – corporate affairs manager of Boohoo, in an email insisted that: “10 percent of its cotton use is sourced from ‘Better Cotton’ farmers who produce cotton in a way that respects people and the environment, and improves livelihoods”.
Unemployment, used clothing trade and Ghana’s government inaction
Meanwhile in Ghana – where restrictions on the importation of used undergarments has been in place for over three decades – government has failed to significantly stem the flow of this used clothing. A recent Ghanaweb report showed traders openly selling the banned undergarments in Kantamanto, despite the potential harm to customers and cautions from health experts.
Facing one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the region at close to 40 percent, government “risks incurring the wrath of workers in the informal sector” if it imposes a complete ban on used clothing, said trader Nana Amo.
“What jobs have the state created and what job will government expect us to do if it bans the sale of used clothing?” he demanded. “After the state bans the sale and importation of used clothing, it should show us what we should do.”
The second-hand clothing industry directly employs over 35,000 people in Ghana.
Samuel Antwi Oteng argues that the problem of used clothing imports into Ghana – which dates back to the 1960s – is very complicated and needs to be addressed on a variety of levels, including cultural and socioeconomic.
He said: “Sometimes, when we discuss this issue we overly focus on a complete ban; but there are so many layers to it. We must look at past influences and how colonialism has influenced us. How politics affects it, and how neglect of the informal economy influences it.
“If you think about the Kantamanto market, it’s not as if the current president or previous ones created those jobs for the people there. The people that work there created those jobs for themselves,” he added.
In designing any lasting solution, Samuel recommends: “We must include the second-hand community itself in the conversation. Thinking about the unemployment situation in the country, what other opportunities are out there if people want to leave the trade?”
For Solomon Noi, whose responsibility it is to ensure that Accra always remains clean, the solution lies with producer tax and strict enforcement of textile standards.
“We must have external producer responsibility, so that right from the manufacturer I think there should some percentage of cost is to be slapped on the product for disposal at its final destination,” he said.
Ghana, he maintained, should “tighten” its laws so that we are forced to comply with ‘strict standards’.
“Below a certain minimum standard of quality, textiles should be rejected.
“If this cannot be achieved, then Europeans should rather dispose of worn-out clothing in their countries, they have the technology for it, rather than bringing it here [Ghana].”