Dead White Man's Clothes

The fast fashion industry of the West has made a profound impact on the people and the environment of Ghana, especially those in the capital city of Accra. For the last two decades, Ghana has had a thriving industry trading in "Obroni Wawu" or Dead white man's clothes. Most end up at the Kantamanto market, where over 15 million pieces of used clothing arrive every week.

These clothes are all second-hand, from western nations like the USA, UK and Australia. They started life in a retail store, was purchased, worn a few times, probably kept in storage and then donated to a charity. If the charity finds them unworthy of donation, they are sold to exporters. Packed into tight bales with 200 assorted pieces of clothes inside, they arrive at Accra and are delivered to their new owners.

These new owners are Ghanian importers who resell them throughout the country and most of Africa. Though this has created thousands of new jobs and opportunities, it has also brought many alarming issues, including a looming major environmental disaster.

When importers buy the bales of clothes, there is no way to check the quality of the garments. In recent years, the condition of the clothes arriving has steadily become worse. Many have holes, rips, tears, and sweat stains and are considered trash with no value. After the importers sort their shipments, they are purchased by other wholesalers and small retailers who sell to the far-flung villages.

The amount of clothes thrown away is shocking. Six million garments or 160 tons of textile waste have to be disposed of weekly. They are quickly running out of landfill space. The result is that many of the clothes clog the city's drains, cause flooding and get swept out into the ocean and beaches. It's not uncommon to find rows upon rows of clothes tangled and buried in the sand, up to 30 feet long, rolling by the seashore. Many garments are also incinerated, and it's common to see black smoke rising in the Accra sky.

Importers lament the state of the clothes they receive. It's insulting to them, and it feels like they are seen as a giant trash can. In the West, no one thinks about where old clothes go and how to dispose of them. The truth is they end up in some of the most disenfranchised areas in the world, where their citizens will have to live with all the waste and get blamed for being the biggest polluters.

So who should get the blame, and what can be done? Social activists blame big fashion houses and fast-fashion chains that produce hundreds of designs meant to be worn only a few times. The fashion industry also overproduces up to 40% of what is needed. Perhaps it's time for all of us to think about the quality of what we donate, but more importantly, to be mindful of how we consume fashion.

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