Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Dead White Man's Clothes
If I was presenting this as a video rather than as a blog you'd have the opportunity to see my nice new tshirt. It's red, with a pro-environment message on the front. And there's the vaguest chance that if you're living in the UK or US you may even recognise it: perhaps it was once yours.
I bought this tshirt on Saturday at Kantamanto in Accra for the princely sum of Ghc3.00/$1.50 (it could have been less, but I was hot and tired and couldn't be bothered bargaining). Kantamanto is a large market that specialises in what are known locally as "Obruni wawa" or "dead white man's" clothes: huge bales of second hand clothing that are shipped to Ghana from countries like the US and UK. According to UK researchers, last year Ghana imported close to 80,000 tonnes of second hand clothes. This figure doesn't include clothing that is smuggled into the country illegally.
Seeing markets full to overflowing with second hand clothes, many in excellent condition, brings home the sheer scale of the volume of clothes that are disposed of each year. In the US it is estimated that around eleven million tonnes of textiles end up in landfill; two million in the UK. Combine that with the volume that is exported and you get a sense of the quantity of perfectly good clothes that we feel the need to throw away.
The business of shipping secondhand clothes to countries like Ghana is a controversial one. Most bales come via charity organisations who collect donations from the public - a public who assume that their donations will end up in a local charity store. The reality, however, is far different. Many charity stores are struggling to manage the economics of recycling which include collection, cleaning and reselling. With charity store customers demanding high quality clothing at low cost, some charities are outsourcing the collection process to private waste collectors, who divide their collection between charity stores and a thriving international market where they end up in "bend down boutiques" like Kantamanto .
On the one hand, the bales of clothing provide a cheap source of clothing in a country where there are few alternatives. In Ghana there is little in the way of low cost clothing. The second hand clothing market also provides jobs for hundreds of men and women.
But those jobs come at a price. Cheap clothing imports have destroyed the domestic textile industries in many countries. It is hard for a manufacturer to be competitive when you can pay the equivalent of 50c for a tshirt in the markets. The randomness of the market also means that there is a uniqueness (and international flavour) to market clothing, which a domestic manufacturer would be hard pressed to match. And while the markets do generate income in-country, a vast proportion of the profits go offshore; whether back to the charities or to the waste collectors or textile recyclers.
Clearly donating clothes is a better option than dumping it in landfill, but the reality is that making your unwanted clothes someone else's problem is not the simple solution we would like it to be.
photo credit: www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net