Clothing, especially from fast fashion, is a major contributor to global warming and pollution. Mountains of discarded garments end up in West Africa.
(Photo courtesy of Dead White Man’s Clothes, a multimedia research project exploring the secondhand clothing trade in Accra, Ghana)
The $2.7-trillion fashion industry is one of the largest, most resource-intensive sectors in the global economy, and it has a devastating impact on our environment.
The extraordinary success of “fast fashion” giants like H&M, Zara and Forever 21 stems from their ability to produce a massive amount of clothing — billions of garments a year — in the cheapest and quickest manner possible. An article of clothing often travels through dozens of countries and hundreds of hands, and ends up being worn only a few times.
Consider the statistics:
- A single cotton shirt or ‘eco-friendly’ cloth grocery bag requires 2,700 liters of water to produce.
- The fashion industry produces approximately one third of all microplastics found in the ocean.
- Global cotton production is estimated to produce 220 million tons of CO2 emissions each year. Experts say the industry accounts for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. Workers — mostly women — earn low wages.
- The average consumer buys 60% more clothing than 15 years ago.
Fast-fashion choices are ending up in landfills.
These numbers, as dire as they are, account for only the production half of the story.
What happens when these clothes are no longer of use or no longer “in style”?
The Council for Textile Recycling reports that the average American throws away between 70 and 81 pounds (30-36 kg) of clothing and other textiles annually. Globally, 17 million tonnes of clothes go to landfills — mostly in the Global South.
Although many people believe that donating clothes is environmentally friendly, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 84% of all clothing eventually ended up in landfills or incinerators in 2012, even if they were donated.
Not only are fast-fashion choices of the Global North ending up in landfills, they are often traveling thousands of miles — and creating tonnes of CO2 to get there.
Ghana in West Africa is a common dumping ground.
A common dumping ground for discarded and unwanted cheap clothing is in West Africa. Accra, the capital of Ghana, receives approximately 15 million used garments per week, or 70 tonnes per day, of which approximately 40% are of such low quality they go immediately to the landfill.
The remainder are sent to be sold in one of the largest garment markets in West Africa — Kantamanto Market.
It is important to note that Accra’s landfills are already almost entirely full, and the country is struggling with its own internal waste management issues.
In Ghana, about 12,710 tons of solid waste is generated every day, and only 10% of that is collected and disposed at designated dumping sites. Waste pickers who spend the day picking trash and managing the landfill’s recycling and sorting work under dangerous conditions. They account for a significant portion of the recyclables sorting and waste management in Ghana.
Johnson Doe, President of the Kpone Landfill Waste Pickers Association, is one of hundreds of waste pickers who spend their days in Accra’s largest landfills. He sorts trash and pulls recyclables from the massive mountains of garbage. He also spends time training and organizing waste pickers to demand fair wages and healthcare.
“In Ghana there is no law that guides waste pickers,” Doe said. “The recycling of waste, the management of waste, we know a lot. So we decided to organize ourselves seven years ago. We want to be recognized by the community, recognized by the government, and we want to be involved in the decision-making to protect ourselves.”
Doe said it is difficult to sort so much fabric. “Clothing waste is one of the major problems we faced at the landfill because it takes more space and when it is mixed up with the waste, we find it difficult to find and salvage the recyclables.”
Our clothing choices are no longer sustainable for the environment.
The garment markets in Accra are feeling the impact of too many clothes. According to OR Foundation, which has been studying Kantamanto Market for more than a decade, “the Global North is relying on Ghana to take part in a waste management strategy necessitated by relentless overproduction and overconsumption.”
Although many citizens in Accra rely on these clothing distribution sites for income, the broader impact on the community and the country is significant. The overflowing landfills pollute water supplies, produce constant smoke and generate risky, low-wage jobs.
“This isn’t sustainable anymore,” said Dr. Katherine Duffy, a senior lecturer at Glasgow University.
“The most sustainable clothes that we have are the ones we already own. If we can start thinking about care, maintenance, longevity and how we treat those garments, then we are already starting to think in a more sustainable fashion.”
Duffy recommended ways to think differently about clothing.
“Consumers at the moment have so much readily available information about the problems associated with high demand for new clothing, combined with the global trend of ever decreasing lifespan of garments and also the environment and social impact of those behaviors,” she said
“But I’m also excited by some of the new behaviors that are starting to emerge. We need to focus on the four ‘R’s’ — repair, resale, reuse and rental. These options are really a way for us to think about how we engage with our items as well as the care and attention we want to place on the garment and how we can preserve it for its next life.”
Three questions to consider:
- Think about the number of garments you own. How many of them will you wear more than a few times?
- How can you increase the longevity of your current clothing and what impact could that have?
- Why would it benefit waste pickers to be recognized by the government and the community?
Tara Heidger is a U.S. Army veteran who served in Baghdad as an intelligence analyst for a logistics battalion in 2007-08. She is a graduate of Columbia University, where she received a master's degree in both International Affairs and Urban Planning. Her reporting focuses on conflict and urbanization in the Global South. Heidger was a 2020 Fellow in Global Journalism at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.