What Goes Around Comes Around: How The False Myth of Second-Hand Market Circularity Impacts African Countries

It is estimated that fashion is responsible for up to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is a major cause of water pollution worldwide, with over 80% of its supply chain impacts on the Global South countries where the majority of clothes are manufactured (Boston Consulting Group 6, 9, 12, 38; Cobbing et al. 5). As many people have started to give effort and attention to what they buy, they have increased purchases from vintage and second-hand retailers in the belief of supporting a “circular” market. But the reality is different. Second-hand and vintage markets haven’t stopped the overproduction from fashion brands. Since the 1990’s, the volume of garments produced every year has grown by 20%, with people buying 60% more now than 15 years ago (Linton Besser 2021). This process has been hastened with the arrival of fast fashion, which has increased overproduction with brand-new clothes often left unsold due to the impact of COVID-19 (Madeleine Cobbing et al. 5). Although the common narrative is that donating clothes is a circular means of dealing with clothing waste, concerns are being raised. Many have never questioned how this circular market works and where all the unsold and used garments end up.

There are long-established recycling systems in place worldwide, with a big amount of profit. The market has grown ten times between 1990 and 2004, reaching a value of around $1 billion. It has been projected to grow to $218 billion by 2026 (Smith 2022). Only around 10-30% of clothes donated to a shop or a charity will remain in the country of collection, while the rest will be exported (45%-60%), downcycled (20-50%), or thrown away (5-10%) (Council for texting recycle 2023).

Image 1 – Cobbing, Madeleine, et al. “Poisoned Gifts. From donations to the dumpsite: textiles waste disguised as second-hand clothes exported to East Africa.” Greenpeace. 22 April 2022.

Most of the clothes that are exported paradoxically end up in their homeland—Africa and other low-income countries. Africa in fact is one of the main material providers for clothes, which will then be sewn and processed in other places, such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. In 2020, the largest exporters of used clothes were the United States ($585M net traded value), China ($366M), United Kingdom ($272M), Germany ($258M), and South Korea ($256M) (Cobbing et al. 5). While the biggest importers were Ghana ($181M), Ukraine ($154M), Nigeria ($123M), Kenya ($122M), and Tanzania ($102M) (Cobbing et al. 5).

But these data do not consider that some of the clothes that are exported for “reuse” will also end up as waste, because of no market value available in the importing country. It is common knowledge that fast fashion quality is low, and this has become a problem even for resellers in Africa where most clothes cannot even be sewn into a different garment by skilled tailors and seamstresses. Either the clothing quality is too poor or the clothes are damaged or soiled and exported in a cheap way to get rid of them.


Kantmanto, in Accra, Ghana, is the biggest second-hand clothing market in West Africa, where around 15 million items of clothing arrive every week, packed in bales called mitumba, mostly sold sight unseen to traders.

Image 2 – Kaledzi, Isaac. “Used clothes choke Ghana’s markets, ecosystem.” Deutsche Welle. 5 January 2022.

Image 3 – Lasi, Michele. “Al centro della Moda: Kantamanto Market, Accra, Ghana.” Fashion4Future. 19 December 2021.

A mitumba of good condition could quickly provide $14,000. But now, with the decrease in quality of the clothes, it is estimated that 40% of those 15 million garments are thrown away as waste (Linton Besser 2021). Accra has the capacity to process 2,000 metric tonnes of waste per day and because of the burgeoning textile problem, the city produces almost double that volume every 24 hours. The Kpone landfill was a 9.5 million bank-funded project, designed to solve the Accra waste crisis. It opened in 2013 with the capacity to operate for 15 years, but it was filled within 5 years (Linton Besser 2021).

Is this increase in used clothing imports useful for Africans or is it problematic? Undoubtedly, there is a demand in Africa for inexpensive and trendy clothes, and imported second-hand garments are more affordable compared to new clothes. Also, the textile industry has given work to many people, from cotton farmers to weavers and tailors. But the actual second-hand market does not offer an equivalent value in terms of quality and does not balance the economic power of purchase. The overproduction system lead by fast fashion is creating a serious environmental problem with clothing waste that is burnt or left in the sea to decay, forming a poisonous clothing soup that introduces toxins into the environment.

Image 4 – Baraka, Carey. “Secondhand fashion: Is it really good for Africa?” Vogue. 25 November 2021. https://www.voguebusiness.com/sustainability/secondhand-fashion-is-it-really-good-for-africa.

Synthetic textiles can take hundreds of years to decompose and during monsoon season and tropical storms, a huge volume of clothing is moved to cities, where the fabric can choke drainage systems, promote flooding, and cause a hygiene crisis. As the oil companies in Nigeria are causing environmental disasters and economic crisis for the fishing communities in Delta State, fashion could also have the same consequences for farmers, whose income is based on the agriculture of the lands this industry is slowing destroying. This does not just impact a few communities. Thinking of the big picture, it could also affect the economy of a whole country that in the years will be forced to become an importer of the basic first material for which it was previously a main exporter.

There is obviously a need for regulations of the second-hand clothing industry and some effort has been made by both sides of the world. Some examples are recycling programs from retailers. A family-run textile recycling firm, LMB & Co., in east London checks every item by hand for quality before sending used clothes to West African countries. An EU textile strategy that tackle different issue such as companies’ transparency, use of reusable fibers, and the introduction of a digital product passport is another example. African countries have started to introduce some regulation systems and laws, such as Uganda, which uses inspectors to examine imported clothes before signing off on them.

Because of these massive negative impacts on the environment, “circularity” has become the latest buzzword among global fashion brands trying to clean up their image. Simply moving clothing from one place to another, like Africa, does not make the fashion industry circular and if continuing in this direction, it never will be. There is not a simple and easy solution on this matter, but there is the need of stakeholder partnership, transparency, policies, and laws. Are both sides ready for it?

References
Besser, Linton. “Dead white men’s clothes.” ABC News. 11 August 2021.  https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-08-12/fast-fashion-turning-parts-ghana-into-toxic-landfill/100358702.
Cobbing, Madeleine, et al. “Poisoned Gifts. From donations to the dumpsite: textiles waste disguised as second-hand clothes exported to East Africa.” Greenpeace. 22 April 2022. https://www.greenpeace.org/international/publication/53355/poisoned-gifts-report-fast-fashion-textile-waste-disguised-as-second-hand-clothes-exported-to-east-africa/.
“Net-Zero Challenge: The supply chain opportunity.” World Economic Forum. 21 January 2021. https://www.weforum.org/reports/net-zero-challenge-the-supply-chain-opportunity/.
Smith, P. “Secondhand apparel market value worldwide from 2012 to 2025 (in billion U.S. dollars).” Statistica. 1 June 2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/826162/apparel-resale-market-value-worldwide/.
“The Life Cycle of Second Hand Clothing.” Council for Textile Recycling. 2023. http://www.weardonaterecycle.org/about/clothing-life-cycle.html.

ify_emeh

Ifeoma Nneka Emelurumonye is a Medical Doctor specialized in Public Health. Born in Italy from Nigerian parents, Ifeoma have always been interested in health inequalities, migrant and women health as health policy. She developed experiences in different sectors as epidemiology, research as hospital management. She is the co-founder of The Feminist Health blog, a space with the aim of increase awareness on women’s health and she is working as Public Health Specialist in Sexual Health for a Local Authority in U.K.

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