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Climate Change & Fashion Waste Colonialism

February 2023 by Saaniya Sharma

As fashion month draws to an end, it is worth examining the long-lasting impact of the ever-growing fashion industry. Fashion month is a four-week period dedicated to new trends spread across the world’s biggest fashion capitals, wherein designers from across the globe present their latest collections for the season ahead.

Every season, more fashion brands are coming forward with new, purportedly eco-conscious and circular initiatives. While this might hint at a more sustainable future for a sector often called out for being one of the world’s most polluting, it’s worth examining whether such initiatives are truly driving circularity, or are simply masking a larger problem – fashion’s waste problem.

What is fashion’s waste problem?

Overproduction and overconsumption in fashion go hand-in-hand, resulting in unbelievable volumes of waste clothing. The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions. For years, brands have encouraged consumers to purchase an ever-evolving array of new clothing. Particularly with the rise of fast fashion, a business model used to rapidly produce inexpensive, trendy clothing in high volumes, by replicating runway trends using low-quality materials (like synthetic fabrics). This has prompted an overconsumption craze in the Global North and the price is being paid by the Global South. It is estimated that a truckload of waste textiles is dumped in a landfill or incinerated every second – the UK alone sends 300,000 tonnes of clothing to landfills each year. But this is just tip of the iceberg.

‘Western’ colonialism began around the 1500s, wherein European nations conquered and exploited large areas of the world. While colonialism as a phenomenon has ostensibly ceased to exist in the modern world, it’s still deeply embedded in our economy to this day. The most prominent example of this is the fashion industry.

The term ‘waste colonialism’, coined in 1989, refers to the domination of one group of people in their homeland by another group through waste and pollution. The same routes that the Global North use to export coffee and tea are being used today to bring cheap clothing to western countries, only to be sent back eventually to the Global South. While formerly colonised countries may be independent today, they are still not free of colonial powers.

This is true and very visible in the case of Ghana, formerly a British Crown colony from 1821 until its independence in 1957. The second-hand clothing trade in Ghana began when it was still a British colony. Even 65 years after independence, the power dynamics remain, with the Global North as the exporter and Ghana as the importer of second-hand garments. The Kantamanto Market, Ghana’s largest second-hand market in its capital city, Accra, sees 15 million garments every week, of which 40% is waste.

African countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania are the other top importers of used clothing. In 2020, the US ($600M) was the biggest exporter of second-hand clothing globally, followed by the UK ($315M) and Germany ($304M).

But how do clothes end up in landfills abroad?

Let’s be honest, we all take pride in filling up a bag of clothes for donation to a charity shop or a municipal recycling station because we assume they will be sold for a good cause or recycled into new clothes. But the reality is a bit different and way more complex.

Only 10-30% of donated clothing is actually resold in the country where it is collected, and around 70% of it is sent to the Global South. The clothes get packed up in huge plastic-wrapped bales and are resold in bulk in second-hand markets in countries like Ghana and Kenya. These bales are then transported to warehouses where traders buy the bales without being able to access the contents. The bales are opened for the first time in the markets, where traders sort them into higher and lower-quality items. It is estimated that 20-50% of clothing bales are unusable due to climate unsuitability, inappropriate sizes or being damaged beyond repair. According to a study, out of 900 million used items of clothing exported to Kenya, up to 450 million is waste. Most of this ends up shredded into rags and ultimately burnt or landfilled.

How is it related to climate change?

Much of the clothing is originally purchased from fast fashion brands, with synthetic-fibres or plastic (polyester) being the most common material. Yes, plastic! Polyester is a type of plastic-based fibre, usually derived from petroleum, and most commonly used to produce cheap clothing. Polyester is the most widely used textile fibre in the world, and when it’s eventually discarded, this plastic material doesn’t biodegrade in landfills. It fragments over hundreds of years, releasing microfibres and toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater, eventually releasing methane into the atmosphere. Methane has more than 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a period of 20 years. More than 1 in 3 pieces of second-hand clothing sent to Kenya is a form of plastic waste that will most likely end up in a landfill or will be incinerated.

We all associate images of landfills and plastic pollution with PET bottles and polythene bags, but studies have found that 35% of microplastics originate from synthetic clothing.

When garments end up in countries without a formalised waste management infrastructure, these are often landfilled, dumped or destroyed through open burning, which is highly toxic and contributes to air pollution. The fires sometimes burn for as long as 11 months, releasing dark smoke, air pollutants, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, posing severe health hazards to neighbourhoods nearby.

The human cost

Aja Barber, the author of Consumed, said, “fast fashion is harming a non-white person in the Global South, both at the beginning of its cycle and in the end.” From the production of clothing in countries like Bangladesh to its disposal in countries like Ghana – fashion perpetuates a cycle of oppression.

In Ghana, the ‘kayeyi’ or female head porters bear the brunt of fashion’s waste problem. When bales of used clothing arrive in the country, they are transported on foot from importers to retailers by these women, many of whom are as young as 14 years old. They sustain chronic back and neck injuries while earning meagre wages for their physical labour. Like the garment workers in fashion supply chains, these women are the backbone of the second-hand clothing industry, yet both work in poor conditions without any social protection.

While many of the clothes collected during this process are worn out or too soiled for a second life, traders have no way of making a claim or a refund once the bale is bought, putting them at risk of going into debt. The second-hand clothing trade has also significantly influenced the cultural and socio-economic dynamics within countries. In the case of Ghana, it has decimated the local textile industry and craftsmanship.

How can you make a difference?

Ghana’s Kantamanto market is an example of the catastrophic environmental and human impacts waste colonialism can have on a local community. The OR Foundation-led research project called ‘Dead White Man’s Clothes’, explores the second-hand clothing trade in Ghana. The term comes from the Akan expression ‘Obroni Wawu’, a common expression for second-hand clothes in Ghana, meaning ‘the white man has died clothes’. It comes from the idea that someone would have to die to give up so much stuff, speaking to the absurdity of the waste we create due to our excessive consumption habits. However, overconsumption is not solely on the consumer, nor is overproduction entirely on the producer. Social, economic and political dynamics influence these at every level.

Kantamanto’s retailers extend the life of almost 20-30 million items a month by selling, washing, mending, dyeing and up-cycling items. Imagine if every individual did this around the world, then how many items of clothing can be saved? While companies and governments in the Global North have a major role to play in cleaning up the mess, so do we as consumers.

Start with these simple steps:

  • Extend the life of your garments by repurposing and up-cycling. Find a tailor or mender nearby or learn how to mend and sew yourself. Extending the life of half of the garments in the UK by nine months could reduce its carbon, water and waste footprint by 22%.
  • Think ‘sharing economy’. This includes activities such as swapping, renting and peer-to-peer resale. There are several platforms such as By Rotation, Hurr, Loanhood, Depop and Vinted for this.
  • Buy less and buy with intention. Break down the pattern of overconsumption, and ask yourself, ‘do you really need this’? Buy clothing to wear and share rather than hoard it.

To support individual and corporate behaviour change, the OR Foundation is calling for Extended Product Responsibility (EPR) policy for textile and clothing which extends a producer’s responsibility for a product to the post-consumer stage of a product’s lifecycle. In doing so, EPR incentivises behaviour change to catalyse a justice-led circular textile economy.

How can Carbon literacy help?

A Carbon Literate consumer is aware of the interconnected environmental and human costs of climate change and knows the sustainable solutions available. If every consumer starts acting climate-conscious, this can have an enormous ripple effect. It can lead to peer-to-peer influence and have a bigger impact, like people adding their vote to climate policies or demanding fairer and just clothing supply chains from companies.


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