The fast fashion industry has boomed tremendously in recent years – with Western countries leading the world in consumption and secondhand clothing exports, which are clogging developing countries and landfills with used clothing.
Fast fashion aims to provide consumers with cheap, fashionable garments that are produced quickly and up-to-date on high-fashion trends, often at the expense of laborers and the environment. While social media has certainly accelerated the trend cycle and given consumers increased access to low-priced, fleeting clothing, American overconsumption is not a new fad. It’s been around for decades, and it’s been inching the world closer to irreversible climate damage as Americans donate their clothing and buy more at increasing rates.
A major point of contention at the United Nations Climate Conference – which comes to an end this weekend in Glasgow, Scotland – is the divide between wealthy and developing countries. And just as there is an increasing divide between countries that became rich from fossil fuels powering their economies and poor countries being told those fuels are now too dangerous for the planet, the fast fashion industry is exposing a chasm between wealthy countries exporting used clothing and developing countries becoming textile dumping grounds – and facing the environmental consequences.
Currently, the U.S. leads the world in secondhand clothing exports. In 2018, the U.S. exported nearly 719 million kilograms (1.58 billion pounds) in secondhand clothing, over 200 million kg higher than its runner up, Germany. These exports end up in secondhand markets around the world, particularly in the Global South, and often at a rate and volume higher than its recipients can handle.
This problem is especially pronounced across Africa, which counts six of the top 20 countries for secondhand clothing imports – Kenya, Angola, Tunisia, Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda – and South Asia, where Pakistan and India receive the highest and second-highest volume of secondhand clothes worldwide.
Specifically in Africa, secondhand clothing from Western countries clogs local markets and landfills. The textiles travel from retail secondhand stores to private third parties and containers and are eventually sold to overseas entities, which upcycle – or revamp – the clothes before reselling them according to Sarah Bibbey, the co-founder and acting director of Make Fashion Clean, a non-profit organization working to make denim consumption more sustainable globally.
In Ghana, these clothes – which are called “Obroni Wawu” in the Akan language, or “Dead White Man’s Clothes” — are purchased in bales by market traders who do not know what is in them for $25 to $500 each before being repaired and revamped as necessary and eventually making their way to Ghanian secondhand markets. However, the increasingly poor quality of fast fashion clothing makes it difficult for upcyclers (people who revamp and recycle used clothing) to give these clothes a new life, forcing them to be discarded at landfills which, in turn, has detrimental impacts on the local environment.
“Our landfills (in the U.S.) are equipped in such a way that they can process chemicals and they can kind of be contained whereas in other countries, including Ghana, it’s not the same level of infrastructure around the landfill,” Bibbey noted.
In terms of deciding where the clothes go after Americans discard them, power dynamics and colonial histories play a role in where secondhand clothes are diverted to.
“Any country that is […] a formerly colonized country, or country that’s not a global superpower, is going to be more vulnerable to clothing dumping in general,” Bibbey said. “So any country that we know of is going to be more vulnerable to that just because the political power that they have in the global arena is not the same as the political power the U.S. has in the global arena – so that’s the most important thing, I think.”
Secondhand clothes are displayed to sell at Gisozi Market in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2018. (JACQUES NKINZINGABO/AFP via Getty Images)
While resistance to Western clothing dumping has taken root in East Africa, the U.S. has leveraged its global influence and financial aid to ensure that it can still export secondhand clothes to African markets.
In 2017, the East African countries of Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Burundi tried to phase out imports of secondhand clothing and shoes because of the way they undermined domestic efforts to develop their own textile industries. The countries sought to ban these imports entirely by 2019.
However, in March of 2017, the Office of the United States Trade Representative threatened to remove four of these six East African countries from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, a preferential trade deal intended to lift trade and economic growth across sub-Saharan Africa. Burundi and South Sudan had already been expelled from the trade deal under accusations of state violence.
A combination of factors make the U.S. a hotbed for fast fashion consumption above consumers in other wealthy countries. While Americans of all income levels contribute to the fast fashion crisis, Charlotte Tate – the Labor Justice Campaigns director for Green America, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that promotes ethical consumption – points to America’s model of capitalism and wage stagnation as some of the factors driving American overconsumption.
“I think one thing that’s unique to American capitalism is how much we prioritize working to make more money and then you have more money to spend,” she said. “And another factor to consider is fast fashion is much cheaper than higher quality goods. When you look at wages over the past few decades, they’ve really stagnated. And as Americans have become more productive, the wealth of productivity hasn’t been distributed evenly. In that case, you know, it would be really challenging if you’re not making enough money to make ends meet to then also buy higher quality clothes.”
But consumers that don’t have the means to buy higher quality goods are not the only group lining up at fast fashion stores. Americans of all income levels consume fast fashion, and higher priced clothes don’t necessarily equate to more sustainably, ethically produced clothes.
Bibbey also highlights the culture around clothing donations as part of what fuels overconsumption and clothing dumping in the U.S., as consumers buy too much with the idea of being able to donate their clothes later.
“People might hear that their clothes ended up somewhere and they might think that that’s always 100% a good thing, just because there’s that mindset of American saviorism that we have here,” Bibbey said. “We get the idea that that’s a good thing, even when we see in reality it’s putting local artisans and local clothing makers out of business because they’re competing in a sense with this influx of secondhand clothes.”
But Tate says that American consumers are not the principal blame for the fast fashion dumping crisis.
“I think that corporations know that they’re producing cheap clothing that won’t last long and that often can’t be reused – and they’ve known it for a while,” she said. “So I would say a bulk of the responsibility falls on corporations and our practices, and then also to some extent it would fall on our government that has the power to regulate, that maybe hasn’t.”
Because of the unique intensity at which Americans consume and dump clothes – with news reports citing a fivefold increase in the amount of clothing Americans have purchased over the past three decades and an average of only seven uses per item – the U.S. requires unique solutions to the global fast fashion crisis.
With the U.N. Climate Conference coming to a close, coming up with solutions to these pressing environmental problems is a top priority, advocates say. And, just as the blame for this crisis cannot fall solely on consumers, environmental activists say solutions need to be sought beyond the consumer level, too.
On a smaller scale, Bibbey points to upcycling both in the U.S. and in developing countries as a way to mitigate the impacts of fast fashion on the environment, highlighting Make Fashion Clean’s partnership with the Ghana-based MFI Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to upcycling clothes in partnership with local artisans in Ghana, as an example of this. But they say the more global, overarching solutions still need to be “studied” and “examined.”
“Consumers have a lot of power, so while they’re not directly responsible for some of the problems facing society today, they do have a lot of power to change market demands and to change their shopping habits,” Tate said. “We have found that when consumers speak and reach directly to corporations, they do change their practices. Collective action is very powerful. So, if we all act and change our practices, we do have the power to reform.”