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What fast fashion costs the world

Many clothing donations end up in an unexpected place — African landfills.

By Ryan Lenora Brown

The bales arrive by the truckload at the market in Johannesburg at dawn, squat white bricks weighing upwards of 600 pounds, each one as big and unwieldy as a dishwasher. Inside are thousands of pieces of secondhand clothing that have been pressed and shrink-wrapped into cubes by textile recyclers in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

Every morning, the dozens of traders who work a stretch of three downtown blocks known as KwaDunusa — a Zulu word that translates more or less to “the place of bending over and sticking your backside out” — slice the thick plastic coverings from these bales and spread their wrinkled contents into double-bed-sized bins. Depending on the item and its quality, they pick a price from 3 rand (about 20 cents) to 60 rand ($4). And then, as morning light slants through the surrounding art deco high-rises, they begin shouting. 

“Cheapcheapcheapcheap!” they call to passing commuters, plunging their hands into piles of polyester and Lycra and flipping the contents of their bins again and again to catch the eye of possible customers.

Some version of this scene plays out daily in dozens of countries across Africa. In Ghana, imported secondhand clothes are called obroni wawu, dead white man’s clothes. In Malawi, they are kaunjika — literally “clothes sold in a heap.” In Mozambique, they are known as calamidade, calamity, for their historical association with disaster relief aid.

If you live in the West, chances are at some point you have stuffed your used clothes into a garbage bag and hauled them off to a Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Maybe you stood over your clothes and asked them pointedly if they brought you joy, à la Marie Kondo. Maybe two years of pandemic living made owning anything but sweatpants feel superfluous.

Either way, if you’re like me, donating your used clothing was probably the end of the story. For most of my life, I assumed that the clothes I gave to thrift stores were sold at those thrift stores, and that I was simply a benevolent donor — giving my low-rise bootcut jeans a second life, and helping a charity raise funds in the process.

In fact, what happens to clothing after it’s donated is a deeply complicated, dizzyingly global story about the unseen consequences of fast fashion, the opacity of charity, and the effects on the people who end up on the receiving end of our well-meaning donations.

And now, many of those people are calling for Western companies and their customers to change their ways, both by consuming less and by taking more responsibility for what they do. Given that the fashion industry is responsible for one-tenth of the world’s carbon emissions, according to the U.N. Environment Program — more than international flights and maritime shipping combined — what we do with our old clothes is a question with high stakes, not just for Africa, but for the future of humanity. 

I first became curious about the afterlives of our clothing last year, when I began thrifting in Johannesburg as an antidote to my pandemic malaise. A year into a global crisis that had reduced my country-hopping life as a foreign correspondent to an endless parade of Zoom calls, the act of sinking my hands into huge piles of clothes, looking for the gems, felt tangible in a way my work no longer did. Soon, I was finding too much to keep for myself. I launched a store via Instagram, selling mint green Crimplene party frocks, 1980s checked jumpsuits, and firetruck red corsets made in West Germany. In South Africa, as in much of the world, the pandemic had driven a great deal of shopping online, and I quickly tapped into a community of South African women interested in fashion, sustainability, and the intersection of the two — all from the relative safety of their couches.

Today, the average American buys 68 new items of clothing per year.

Rummaging through the piles of clothing in KwaDunusa, as I’ve been doing every week, gives you a visceral sense of how the clothing industry has changed in the past century. In the 1950s, the average American family spent about 10% of its income on clothing, and that money bought them just a few sturdy garments a year.

Now, thanks largely to the outsourcing of garment production to the developing world — where labor costs are far lower than in the West — the cost of an article of clothing has dramatically decreased. In 2019, American families spent on average about 2% of their income on clothing. That’s enough to afford not a new dress or suit twice a year, but dozens of increasingly flimsy garments. The pivot began in the 1990s, as early fast-fashion pioneers like Gap began swapping out styles not seasonally, but monthly, to lure in repeat customers. Over the next two decades, the trend accelerated, culminating with fast-fashion brands like Zara, Topshop, and H&M, which produce 52 “micro-seasons” per year. The website of the Chinese behemoth Shein, the vanguard of so-called “ultra-fast fashion,” boasts that the company releases 1,000 new styles every day.

Since 2000, the global production of clothing has doubled. Today, the average American buys about 68 new items of clothing a year. Plunge your arms elbow-deep into a pile of jeans at the dunusa, and you’ll find that the thick, un-stretchable denim of vintage Levi’s 501s and ’90s mom jeans is easily distinguishable from a pile of jeggings as pliable as Silly Putty. In the blouses, the silky polyester of ’70s button-downs feels a world away from the gauzy fluff of a Forever 21 blouse.

But quality is only the beginning of the challenge. Westerners now consume clothing at such a ferocious pace that our own secondhand shops cannot begin to absorb our discards. Today, although we donate only about 15% of our used clothing to charity, domestic thrift stores are still overwhelmed. They can only sell a sliver — about 10% to 20% — of what they receive. The rest is sold to textile recyclers, who turn the lowest-quality items into rags and insulation and press everything else into bales, which are sold to traders across Asia and Africa.

So most U.S. clothing donations don’t get sold at some suburban American thrift store, but in markets like this one in Johannesburg, where the familiar fast-fashion brands are represented — H&M, Zara, Mango, Target, Forever 21 — along with a seemingly endless parade of second-tier labels with near-generic names. (One day, I rifled through clothes bearing the labels Fashion Concept, Fashion Affair, Up2Fashion, Your Life Your Fashion, and Fashion Style). It’s also not uncommon to see items still bearing the price tag of the Goodwill or Value Village that tried and failed to sell those castoffs to begin with. 

“Sometimes when you are thrifting, you see things that look completely new, and you start to wonder, where is this coming from?” says Assent Mathebula, who with her two sisters runs a vintage clothing store in Germiston, a suburb of Johannesburg. “You wonder, do people in America have so much money that they can just wear things once and then throw them away?”

It’s not just fast fashion that creates that impression. The custom shirts that serve as gag gifts and souvenirs at charity events also make their way into Africa’s clothing piles. Everywhere you turn in Johannesburg’s main clothing market, you’ll find out-of-context slogan T-shirts — declaring allegiances (“Straight Outta Germany,” “Fierce Feminist,” “Virginity Rocks”); or made for non-English speaking markets (“Aim Your Own Goal,” “She Beat The Drum”); or representing what could be a museum of minor American fun runs (“The Chick-fil-A Egg Scramble,” “The 2013 Pikes Peak YMCA Turkey Trot”).

To be sure, the availability of inexpensive clothes isn’t entirely a bad thing. In a country like South Africa, where more than half of people live below the poverty line, demand remains brisk, and some Western castoffs have become wardrobe staples for people who might not be able to afford new clothes. The West’s vintage clothes in particular are often sturdier and likely to last longer than the cheap, contemporary clothes that go for similar prices. 

“People still buy secondhand because what they find here is nicer than what they can afford new,” says Esther Mapingure, who sells secondhand clothing from bales in Midrand, a suburb of Johannesburg.

The bigger problem is the volume. For every item of secondhand clothing that finds a new home with an African buyer, another unusable one ends up in an African landfill.

“We end up with the Western world’s trash,” says Sammy Oteng, project coordinator in Accra, Ghana, for the OR Foundation, a nonprofit that works on issues of justice and sustainability in the fast-fashion industry. “They are sending us whatever they do not want anymore.”

The consequences for countries like Ghana are dire. Each day, about 154,000 pounds of used clothing — whatever is too mangled or unfashionable to be sold — leaves Accra’s main garment market, Kantamanto, bound for a dump on the banks of the Korle Lagoon. There, a five-story mountain of waste towers above the inky black water, an estimated 60% of it clothing. Every gust of wind heaves scraps of cloth into the lagoon, and many are later coughed up on nearby beaches, often with the labels still intact.

In recent years, countries on the receiving end of Western donations have tried to fight back. In 2017, a group of East African countries announced they were planning to ban the import of used clothes by 2019. “We have to grow and establish our [clothing] industries,” explained Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, at the time.

The United States government didn’t see the move so favorably. Under strong pressure from textile recyclers in the U.S., Washington threatened to strip Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania of their membership in the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a lucrative trade deal that gives many countries on the continent tax-free access to American markets. The textile recyclers claimed East Africa was “taking advantage of U.S. generosity” by banning their imports.

In the end, only Rwanda stood its ground — a sign of the geopolitical power imbalance that makes it hard for African countries to assert their economic independence from the West.

“We end up with the Western world’s trash.”

Sammy Oteng,
Project coordinator in Accra, Ghana, for the nonprofit OR Foundation

“Allowing countries the space to take that kind of policy decision [without backlash] is crucial if we’re going to grow our own manufacturing industries,” says Etienne Vlok, national industrial policy officer for the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union.

As it stands, lax customs enforcement — along with spotty infrastructure and the prevalence of cheap Asian imports — has made it difficult for Africa to develop a garment industry of its own. South Africa, for instance, has a near-total ban on the import of used clothing, but its porous borders allow secondhand bales to travel overland from Mozambique almost completely unchecked. Andin countries with their own manufacturing, such as Lesotho, Ethiopia, and Madagascar, production is almost exclusively for Western export rather than local markets.

“For many countries, historically, customs has been focused on facilitating trade — that is, moving things easily through ports and borders,” Vlok says. “Only in recent years have we considered what that means for local production.”

Still, most agree that the root of the used-clothing problem lies with the West and its rabid overconsumption. In Ghana, for instance, Oteng says many people, particularly clothing traders, “are not advocating for a ban, but just a conscious flow of the clothing that is coming in. Less crap and more good quality products that they can actually use.”

Those responsible for managing our clothing donations are also overwhelmed. During the pandemic, Goodwill began issuing a plea to its donors: Stop sending us your garbage.

“We hope everyone brings great things that help our programs, but we know some people make some questionable judgments about what is good to donate,” Heather Steeves, spokesperson for Goodwill in New England, told NPR in May 2021.

Indeed, many advocates believe the best chance for stemming the flood of low-quality textiles lies, not in government policy, but in consumer behavior: decreasing the demand for ultra-cheap clothes in the first place. A growing awareness of what actually happens to clothing donations, they say, could lead Westerners to treat their wardrobes as something more permanent. Growing concern about climate change could drive them to recalibrate the cost of fast fashion. And growing attention to the treatment of the global workforce could put pressure on the industry’s labor practices.

“During the pandemic, there was such heightened attention to people who do these really foundational jobs in our society, like deliver our goods, or stock our grocery stores,” says Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion and a master’s student in global studies and international relations at Northeastern University. Given how essential clothing is to the lives we lead, Cline wonders if we’ll begin to see the people who make our clothing the same way.

“There’s a real lack of responsibility and holding accountable of the people at the top who have the power to make change,” says Rola Abimourched, deputy director of investigations and gender equity at the Worker Rights Consortium. “They can always hop to a different country with lower labor standards, instead of paying livable wages where they are.” 

Oteng feels similarly. “For every item of clothing you own, you could ask yourself a thousand questions — where was the cotton picked? Where was the fabric spun and dyed? Who sewed it? For how much money?” he says. “The way we interact with clothing now devalues all the channels our clothing goes through before it gets to us.”

Both Cline and Oteng advocate for a kind of conscious consumption that they say has been lacking for some time in the West’s relationship with its clothes. It boils down to three basic principles: purchase less, take care of what you have, and demand more of the companies you do buy from.

“Demanding more” can mean many things, from choosing smaller, higher quality “slow fashion” brands to supporting bigger brands that are taking steps to be fairer to the people who make their clothes — or declining to buy from manufacturers known to exploit cheap labor.

 In the end, after all, it’s consumers who decide what they buy and from whom. And it’s consumers who decide what to do when their clothes begin to fall apart. 

When I go through the clothing bins in Johannesburg, I find that vintage clothing is recognizable not just because of its obvious higher quality. It’s also the only type of secondhand clothing that ever looks repaired. If you can see that an item has a mended hole, a replaced button, or even just a hemmed seam, it’s almost certainly a sign that it came from an earlier era, when damaged clothes were something we tended to, not discarded.

Sometimes I stumble across a vintage shirt or dress with someone’s name sewn carefully into the label. Invariably, those pieces are in near-pristine condition, and the name in the tag always feels to me like a kind of announcement.

I have loved this piece of clothing, it seems to say. I have taken care of it.

And so I try to make the same promise back: that I will treat it that way too, with reverence for its lives already lived, and those still to come.

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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Ryan Lenora Brown is a writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times MagazineRunner's WorldThe Christian Science Monitor, and others.


Top photo by Anna Kerber / Associated Press

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