The truth about recycled clothing and the Kantamanto market

Used clothing market in Ghana

The truth about recycled clothing and the Kantamanto market

Have you ever wondered what happens to your discarded used clothing?

Especially the old/used/preloved/no longer needed clothing, we try to do the right thing and donate it. We happily use the local donation bins, knowing this will ensure the garments will be put to good use somewhere. Maybe a thrift shop will receive them, or they will be redistributed to people in need or repurposed for another round of life, all while creating that wonderful feel-good factor from helping others and making a little more space in the closet or the drawers – nice job!

We throw away more clothes than you think

American-based figures indicate that around 35kg of clothing and textiles are thrown away annually by the average American. This is roughly emulated throughout the developed world and combines to be a significant volume of discarded apparel and textiles.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates that around 85% of these discarded US textiles – roughly 13 million tonnes a year, are dumped into landfills or burned. Globally, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textile waste is created each year, the equivalent of a rubbish truck full of clothes ending up in landfills every second. By 2030, we are expected to discard more than 134 million tonnes of textiles annually.

Figures like these may well be a core driver for many of us to contribute to solving the problem, preferring to donate our old and unneeded garments in the knowledge that they will be put to good use. We believe they will be kept out of landfill or incineration processes. However, returning to the original question, have you ever wondered what happens to the clothes you donate?

Used clothing donations

They don’t always end up going to a good cause

Unfortunately, all is not what we would like to think. Of course, a good portion of our donated clothing ends up exactly as we envisage – in a thrift store to allow a meaningful extension of the garment’s life, being given directly to people in need or used for disaster relief somewhere in the world.

However, the simple fact is that globally, there is a lot more donated clothing coming through than there is a need for, and our do-good intentions may be creating bigger issues elsewhere. The lesser-known impacts created by the volume of donated clothing have sharply increased due to fast fashion trends. Clothing is being worn far less, and the systems available to cope effectively with this issue are underdeveloped.

So is it deluded to expect every garment we donate will end up as we hope?

No, not at all.

We all conjure up images and ideal expectations of what happens.

In our mind, we are doing a good deed, helping someone else, giving our old garments a new life, or preventing another item from potentially going to a landfill. We see donating clothes as a small way of improving the world and society.

So where do old clothes end up?

Unfortunately, the path for donated and recycled clothing is complex, with a high proportion of apparel not ending up as we intended. This could be for many reasons, including that they are simply not suitable for someone else to wear due to damage, stains, mildew contamination, or they are just too old.

Typically, garments that do not make it to a thrift store may end up with textile merchants, traders and recyclers.

This sounds like good news. However, globally only about 12% of waste clothing ends up being recycled.

Most of the recycled polyester we see being used by leading fashion brands is actually from plastic bottle recycling rather than recycled clothing. Generally, reprocessed garment fibres may be too damaged and weak to cope with being reconstituted into new garments. Instead, items not recycled may end up in a landfill, used as industrial rags, incinerated, or ground into fibre to make insulation and carpet underlay.

Garment traders are another avenue for unused garments. They take clothing excesses, package them by gender, size and season, and create huge bundles of clothes that are then sold by weight and shipped to less developed countries.

Again, this sounds like good news, but it is only part of the story. Unfortunately, reality is not as rosy as it sounds.

According to Oxfam, it is estimated that 70% of donated garments in Europe end up in Africa.

Kantamanto used clothing market, Ghana

The Kantamanto market, Ghana

Enter the world’s second-hand clothing markets, of which one of the largest is the Kantamanto market in the heart of Accra, the capital city of the West African country Ghana.

It is reported that this market is one of the largest recipients of second-hand clothing from the fast fashion industry, garment recyclers and indirectly from donation platforms. This market has become more prominent, and arguably more notoriously, known in the apparel industry due to sustainability activists and journalists identifying it for its significant environmental impacts.

To put some scope on the scale of this market’s activities, it is estimated that 3.4 million kilograms (approximately 15 million items) of used clothing (generally donated) from all around the world end up at the Kantamanto market… every week!

The locals of Accra have a name for this clothing. They call it Obroni W’awu, which translates to “Dead White Man’s clothes”.

The history of the Kantamanto markets and the trade of recycled clothing in this part of the world originates back when Ghana was a British colony. It involved a for-profit venture to bring cheap clothing to some of the poorest parts of the world but with the undertones of providing a solution to the Northern Hemispheres’ excess clothing waste issue that was quickly developing.

This undertone was muted, though, due to the fact that the clothing shipped and sold at the market was much more affordable for locals. It was generally of high quality and immensely desirable due to its association with the West.

Kantamanto became, and remains, a primary hub for the inflow and outflow of the world’s used clothing. The market’s biggest sources are the UK, followed closely by Canada, the US, the Netherlands, China, Korea, and Australia.

The premise of Kantamanto was positive for several years, but as the market grew and global fashion and production trends changed, less desirable impacts became apparent.

The damage caused by used clothing

The advent of this market and others like it effectively destroyed their local textile and fashion industries beyond repair. More recently, the scope, scale and global accessibility of the apparel industry have created much deeper issues for this specific market and the region it services.

The sheer volume of garments that now arrive at Kantamanto is unmanageable. The local infrastructure needed to support this is well beyond the breaking point. There seems to be little help from afar being offered.

Local market traders who purchase bales of clothing prepare the garments for sale by first sorting the sellable and the unsellable. The changes to the global apparel market have also changed the garments Kantamanto traders purchase to work with. It is now the norm that traders buy bales with increasing proportions of unsellable items, becoming nothing more than a “garment lucky dip” for them. With no use for the unsellable garments, the traders must get rid of them as quickly as possible.

It is estimated that a whopping 40% of the garments that enter the market and are sorted by traders are unusable and discarded. This equates to between 4 and 5 million items each week. These figures do not include the clothing that makes its way to other markets and countries. These garments, at best, end up in a landfill and, at worst, are sent further on to unknown destinations.

used clothing landfill

So what’s being done about it?

The local government does not have the money or resources to collect all the garment waste generated from the market. They currently collect about 70 tonnes of clothing waste each day. If the residual waste doesn’t end up in a landfill, it is dumped. It ends up in “unknown” destinations, which generally means makeshift dumping grounds, waterways, open gutter systems and the Ocean.

Some would say Kantamanto needs to prevail to support the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people and make clothes affordable for the region’s poor. Others claim that it is now just an easily accessible dumping ground for waste apparel not wanted elsewhere.

Despite this dilemma and the lack of investment in solving the problems, there are efforts to curb these impacts. There is a clear movement towards sustainable upcycling. This is mostly driven by locals who see the impacts on their environment and want to do something about it. Supported by several international not-for-profit organisations, help is being given to nurture recreation and reconstruction using garments typically considered unusable. The aim seems to be to encourage within Kantamanto a parallel hub of creativity focused on sustainability, using the very cause of the markets as inspiration.

Should you stop donating clothes?

Don’t stop donating clothes, as this can extend the useable life span of garments. However, we suggest being more thoughtful about what is being donated. Ensure the garments are in the best condition possible; damaged, permanently stained or mildew-contaminated garments cannot be sold. If you are donating, don’t see it as an easy mechanism to be rid of your unusable garments. Deal with those yourself and ensure what you are giving is clean/useable and fit for the second-hand or recycling markets.

You can help curtail this trend.

Return to the source, and relook at the fast fashion model you purchase from. Reuse/repurpose clothes and support brands actively working to help the environment through their sustainability goals.

As an active contributor to the security of our planet and the broader drive for sustainable living, we work hard to offer a range of eco-conscious trims, accessories and packaging for your brand’s sustainability journey.

Contact us today to discuss your thoughts or to start your organisation’s sustainable apparel journey