Oxfam reports that an estimated 70 percent of donated clothing worldwide ends up in Africa. / Photo: Reuters

By Melody Chironda

Fast fashion brands are dumping textile waste in developing countries, perpetuating a cycle of environmental degradation and social injustice. And Africa is the centre of this growing crisis of textile waste.

The continent is the destination for millions of tonnes of used clothing and textiles each year, much of which is of such poor quality that it is immediately sent to dump sites. This pollutes the environment, poses health risks to communities, and contributes to the climate crisis.

In recent years, the dark side of fast fashion has come to light, revealing the devastating environmental and socioeconomic consequences of the industry's practices.

A recent investigation by the Swedish daily Aftonbladet has shown that fast fashion brands are shipping millions of tonnes of garments to African countries, where they are often dumped or burned.

This comes after the journalists were contacted by an anonymous source who claimed that H&M collects used clothes but often sends them to developing countries, where they are disposed of in landfills or burned without proper environmental controls.

To verify the allegations, the journalists hid Apple Airtags (small, coin-shaped tracking devices designed to help users locate and keep track of their personal belongings) on some H&M garments purchased from a second-hand store and delivered them to H&M for recycling.

Worst dumping grounds

The clothes were supposed to be sorted at a facility outside Berlin but were actually sold to commercial companies in Germany that sort and export second-hand clothes. The companies then compressed the clothes into large bales to be shipped to West Africa, where they were resold, destroyed, or discarded in landfills.

The clothes were traced to some of the world’s worst dumping grounds, resulting in a devastating impact on the environment and local economies of these countries, reports Aftonbladet.

The investigation casts doubts on H&M’s promise to lead the work towards an environmentally friendly, fair, and equal fashion industry. The company launched a global clothing collection campaign in 2013, promising to recycle 95 percent of the textiles are thrown away each year.

H&M promised to resell clothes that can be re-worn, and this points to the retail industry’s struggle to deal with the end-of-life of garments despite increasing pressure to end fast fashion.

In a written response, H&M responded to the allegations by saying that it is “categorically opposed to clothes becoming waste”. The statement added, “We know that there are still challenges connected to the collection and recycling of clothing and textiles, but also see that more scalable solutions in textile recycling are being developed, which is very positive. The H&M group is actively working on the issue and also invests in such solutions.”

The investigation has illuminated the dire environmental and socioeconomic repercussions stemming from the ruthless dumping of textile waste in Africa. This problem has led to pollution, water contamination, health problems, job losses, and economic hardship. What can we do to stop this?

Africa is not a landfill

Isaac Kaledzi, a reporter for Deutsche Welle, reported that Africa’s current environmental situation could prevent the continent from meeting its clean environment targets and make it more vulnerable to climate change.

Oxfam reports that an estimated 70 percent of donated clothing worldwide ends up in Africa, with much of it discarded due to poor quality. While most donors intend for their clothes to be reused, the reality is that many of these garments are not suitable for African markets. This is due to a number of factors, including the fact that much of the donated clothing is outdated, worn, or damaged.

The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters of freshwater sources due to used clothing that enters river systems, often ending up in oceans, from where it can get washed back up on beaches, endangering marine life and ecosystems.

According to United Nations Environment Programme, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and Climate Trade, the fashion industry produces 10 percent of global carbon emissions - more than aviation and maritime shipping combined.

Once in landfills, textile waste can take hundreds of years to decompose. It can also pollute soil and water and attract pests and rodents, which can spread disease. Burning textile waste releases harmful chemicals into the air.

The production of fast fashion items is particularly water-intensive. A 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that the industry consumes around 2.6 percent of the world’s freshwater, highlighting its significant environmental impact. The water footprint of one cotton T-shirt is about 2,700 litres. The production of fast fashion clothes also produces air pollution, which can cause respiratory problems and contribute to climate change.

How textile waste is choking Africa

Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana, is the hub for used clothing from abroad in West Africa. The largest exporters of used clothing to Ghana are the UK, Canada, the US, the Netherlands, China, Korea, and Australia, according to Eco-age.

The problem of textile waste is not limited to Ghana. Many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are affected by this catastrophic phenomenon, including Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia.

Gikomba market, Kenya’s hub for second-hand clothes, is also suffering the consequences. The market is awash with poor-quality clothing that cannot be sold. This clothing ends up in heaps, rivers, and dump sites, polluting the environment.

The second-hand clothing trade has been implicated in labour exploitation, as some of the workers who sort and process used clothing are paid poverty wages and work in substandard conditions.

Some may argue that the influx of cheap, second-hand clothing businesses has provided affordable clothing to millions, but it has also led to job losses in the local textile and clothing industry. Many local factories have been forced to close, resulting in job losses and the decline of the industry, resulting in economic hardship.

Dumping ground for Europe

The problem of Africa as a dumping ground for Europe is a serious one, but it is not insurmountable.

The disparity between sustainability efforts in the Global North and Global South is a major issue that needs to be addressed. Fast fashion brands, in particular, have been criticised for prioritising environmental responsibility in their home markets while disregarding the consequences in developing nations.

This disparity is evident in African countries, where fast fashion brands source materials from developing countries with less stringent environmental regulations, produce clothing using harmful chemicals and dyes, and ship clothing long distances, which contributes to climate change.

In the Global North, fast fashion brands are increasingly adopting sustainable practices, such as using recycled materials and reducing water usage. However, in the Global South, where these brands source their materials and produce their clothing, sustainability is often an afterthought.

The second-hand clothing trade is a major economic force in Africa, but it also has some negative consequences. In order to mitigate these negative consequences, some African countries have implemented policies to protect their domestic textile industries.

For example, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has created exemptions or special tariff bands to protect local industries. However, these policies can also have unintended consequences, such as limiting access to affordable clothing for low-income consumers.

In East Africa, countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi were all scheduled to phase out the second-hand clothes trade by 2019, reports the UN. However, only Rwanda implemented this plan.

The other countries have chosen not to do so, citing the economic benefits of the second-hand clothing trade. Many Sub-Saharan African countries are concerned that if they phase out the second-hand clothing trade, they will lose out on the jobs and revenue that the trade generates. Nigeria has tried to protect itself by not allowing the importation of second-hand clothes. But the ban is undermined by smuggling from neighbouring countries - such as Benin.

Ultimately, the textile waste crisis in Africa serves as a global wake-up call, urging us to acknowledge the environmental and social impacts of fast fashion.

The author, Melody Chironda, is a climate and environmental journalist covering and reporting on the latest developments and challenges in climate change and sustainability.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT Afrika.

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