The world's thrift store, Ghana is overflowing with our clothes #603


Many of the clothes donated to the dump are unusable because of a lack of quality. They often end up in Africa, particularly in Ghana. A pollution denounced by Ghanaians, gathered in Paris.

Daniel Mawuli Quist is a man with a mouth on him. This elegant Ghanaian wearing sunglasses, small diamonds in his ears and black mittens revealing his many rings, is a clothes recycling entrepreneur. He works at the Kantamanto market in Accra, the country’s capital, considered to be the “textile dustbin of the world”. Accompanied by about fifteen colleagues and the Gold Foundation, which fights against the misdeeds of the textile industry in this country, he came to Paris to denounce the excesses of the textile circular economy.

Indeed, of all the used clothes sent to Ghana, nearly 40% end up in landfills or in the sea. “We are not here out of a sense of joy, but to raise awareness and make people in the North understand that their harmful consumption habits have consequences,” Daniel Mawuli Quist explained to Reporterre.

“The clothes are of too poor quality

To understand his anger, you have to go to the collection bins where we drop off our clothes. We think we are giving them a second life. We imagine that they will be worn again or recycled. However, 95% are exported to Africa to be sold on markets like Kantamanto. Ghana is one of the main importers of second-hand clothes. Every week, almost 15 million items end up on the Kantamanto market, where almost 30,000 people work. Most of these items come from the United States or South Korea, while France [1] exports 510 tonnes to the market every year [2].

But most of the dresses, trousers or T-shirts that cross the Mediterranean are unusable, as Kwaku Mensah, who works at the Kantamanto market, explains. He buys large bales of imported clothes to resell those still in good condition. A business that is no longer profitable. “You never know what you will find inside the bales. Sometimes 70% of the merchandise is unusable and it gets worse and worse,” explains this father of three.

Next to him, David Adams, whose family has been in the business for fifty years, is bitterly aware of the deterioration in the quality of fast fashion products. “Thirty years ago, this system allowed people to get out of poverty. Today it doesn’t work anymore, the clothes are of too poor quality. We all have debts to the bank. Especially since there is very high inflation.

Mountains of waste

Why has Ghana become the thrift shop of the world? It’s because of colonialism,” says Liz Ricketts, co-founder and director of the Gold Foundation. Under British rule, it was compulsory to wear Western clothes to church or school. This created an artificial demand for such clothing. As these goods were expensive, Ghanaians bought second-hand.

After independence in 1957, this habit continued. A convenient outlet for the burgeoning fast-fashion industry, which developed in tandem with the shopping mall industry. “In the US, with the advent of credit cards, people bought a lot of things they didn’t need. Then they were led to believe that their old clothes could be used for people in Africa, telling them it was charity. This is not true,” says Branson Skinner, co-founder of the Gold Foundation.

Indeed, mountains of waste are piling up in the country. The collection system in Accra is totally outdated. “If you put a lot of jeans in the compactor truck, the hydraulic system breaks down. We have to go back to the old dump trucks that don’t compress anything,” laments Solomon Nuetey Noi-Adzeman, the director of Accra’s waste management department. When it rains, the current washes all the uncollected clothes into the sea. When you go to our beaches, it’s terrible. The turtles can’t lay their eggs on the beach, they don’t come anymore.

1,000 kilos of clothes dumped in Paris

To raise consumer awareness of this vast pollution, the Gold Foundation, the Ghanaian delegation and the Fake Fashion collective dumped 1,000 kilos of clothes on the Châtelet square in the heart of Paris on Thursday 24 November. A very symbolic action on the eve of Black Friday, which supports their advocacy work with various actors in the sector. During their stay in France, they met with Oxfam, Le Relais and Emmaüs. They also had a meeting with Léonard Brudieu, advisor for the circular economy and waste at the Ministry of Ecological Transition, to demand a better distribution of funding dedicated to textile recycling.

Currently, producers must pay a tax to the eco-organisation Refashion on the principle of “polluter pays”. 51.1 million in 2021 [3] to manage the end-of-life of our old clothes. However, the funds collected remain in France, while the clothes are exported. “We have asked that the funds collected travel with the clothes to communities like the one in Kantamanto market where waste management takes place. We asked that ReFashion give funding to the first twenty countries to which France exports its clothes,” explains Liz Ricketts. A request that went unheeded. “We were disappointed by the lack of urgency expressed by the Ministry of Ecology. Every minute that the government fails to act, the people of Kantamanto are left with more debt, clothes are spilling into fragile ecosystems, and countries in the South continue to manage a mess that they had no part in creating.

No matter how much effort or investment is made in recycling or reuse, it will not be enough to stop the ravages of our over-consumption of clothing and its waste. “The only way out is for the fashion industry to agree to produce less,” concludes Liz Ricketts.