Trash or Treasure? The Reality of Our Donated Clothes

19 September 2021

Blog post

By Andrea Shabrokh,

One of my favourite things to do on the weekend is spend an entire day op-shopping, trying to find something unique that reflects my own sense of style and is also affordable on a student budget. A significant portion of my wardrobe was sourced from some sort of Op Shop or second-hand market and it is these items in my wardrobe which I love the most. They all have a story behind them and are all unique. However, I often wonder what happens to the clothes Op Shops can’t sell. 

In January 2020, I emailed charities, asking them that exact question. I learnt that whilst some of them have practices in place to reduce waste, they all face the same problem – the increasing amount of low-quality clothes being donated means they are being overwhelmed with items they cannot sell and have to dispose of them in some way. 

Fast forward to 12 August 2021. Foreign Correspondent released the documentary “Dead White Man’s Clothes,” which answered many of my questions but also left me angry and wanting to share my new knowledge with the world. The documentary looks at both the positive and negative impacts of the second-hand clothing trade in Accra, Ghana which is home to the largest second-hand market in the world. 

Every day thousands of tonnes of second-hand clothes arrive in Accra from the UK, Australia, and the US. These clothes are not donated to the local community. Instead, they are sold by charities to local importers and are then sold at the Kantamanto Markets. The second-hand trade has created tens of thousands of jobs for people in Ghana. Lydia Manieson, a PhD Student at the Queensland University of Technology who grew up in Accra, has focused her studies on the Circular Economy and the impacts of the second-hand market. In a recent interview with me, she described how “growing up [she] saw a lot of second-hand clothes in [her] country and that the second-hand trade was embraced by everyone. Everyone wore second-hand clothes and they were proud of it.” 

This contrasted with my experience growing up in Australia, where only certain groups of people shopped second-hand – those who were money conscious, those who thought it was fun or cool and sustainably minded people.  

During the early 90s, the second-hand trade in Ghana did not pose the problems it does now. By the time Lydia was attending university, the situation had changed and every visit to the Kantamanto markets left her shocked at the sheer volume of clothes. “Everyone was talking about how the second-hand clothes were polluting the country.”

The Foreign Correspondent documentary revealed that due to the increasingly low quality of second-hand clothes, approximately 40% of what arrives in Accra ends up to be of no value. Lydia described how it was not uncommon for clothes arriving in Accra to be torn or stained from food, sweat, blood or even vomit and that being sent clothes in this condition “reflects how the West perceives the South as people deserving of rubbish.” These clothes make up the 160 tonnes of clothing being sent to landfill from Kantamanto markets each day. 

Hearing this, I was disappointed and ashamed of what our actions were doing to people in other parts of the world. So often, people donate something without asking themselves if they would be happy receiving and wearing it themselves or without thinking about what will happen to their donation. 

Leisl Ohai, the Social and Environmental Impact Officer at sustainable denim brand, Outland Denim, says that “an out of sight, out of mind mentality,” where “it’s someone else’s problem once you send it on” has contributed to the situation in Ghana and many other Global South nations. 

So, who is responsible for this? 

The truth is, an issue as large as this one cannot be solved by pointing the finger at one or two groups. We all have a role to play – governments, policy makers, charities, the fashion industry, educators and consumers.  

In regards to the fashion industry, Leisl describes how brands should focus on both educating their consumers on where their clothes come from, how they are made and how to dispose of them. Brands should also focus on creating products that last and are of high quality, rather than releasing new lines every week. 

So, what can we as consumers do?

  • Ask yourself which items in your wardrobe you wear often and which items you don’t and why this is. 
  • Next time you have the urge to buy a new outfit, ask yourself if you already have something at home you can wear or if you could borrow something from a friend. 
  • Try to use what you already own 
  • If you do need to buy something new, make sure you purchase from a brand which reflects your personal values
  • Purchase something you will wear over and over again and for years to come. 
  • Download the Good on You App and yearly Ethical Fashion Reports to find out which brands align with your values. 
  • Upskill and learn to mend your own clothes to extend their life.  
  • Keep learning and asking questions – talk to brands, read blogs, watch documentaries and listen to podcasts to learn more about the fashion industry and the impact of purchasing practices on the world

I know that this might be overwhelming but it’s important to remind ourselves that collectively, each small change can make a huge difference. Remember, the journey towards a fairer and more just world starts with one small step!

(If you want to learn more about the second-hand clothing market in Ghana, I suggest watching the 30-minute Foreign Correspondent documentary or reading the related article.)