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Fast Fashion Turns Global South into ‘Dumpsite’

Is fashion circularity a myth? Greenpeace Germany certainly thinks so.

Circularity is “virtually” nonexistent in the apparel industry, the environmental nonprofit wrote in a report last month. Less than 1 percent of clothes, in fact, are recycled into new ones. The majority is landfilled, incinerated or left to rot in the environment.

“Nowhere is the failure of the fast-fashion linear business model more visible than in the countries where many of these cheap clothes end up once their short lives are over: on huge dumpsites, burnt on open fires, along riverbeds and washed out into the sea, with severe consequences for people and the planet,” Greenpeace Germany said.

The concept of donating clothing “for charity,” too, is a fallacy. The secondhand clothing business is a brisk one, growing ten-fold between 1990 and 2004 to roughly $1 billion in value.

Of the dresses, T-shirts or jeans that people “donate,” only between 10 percent and 30 percent is resold in the country where they were collected. Some are downcycled into rags or upholstery stuffing; more than half is shipped off for “reuse,” largely to East and West Africa and Eastern Europe.

In Ghana, one of the biggest net importers of used garments, roughly 15 million used garments flood into the capital of Accra every week from Europe, North America, Australia and the United Kingdom. But approximately 40 percent are so dismal in quality that they are “deemed worthless on arrival and end up dumped in a landfill,” the report said. At Kantamanto, the country’s largest secondhand clothing market, some 6 million garments leave every week as garbage.

Castoff togs are known in parts of Africa as “mitumba,” a Kiswahili word meaning bale or bundle because that’s the form they usually take. Before the ‘80s, they were known as “kafa ulaya,” or “clothes from someone who died in Europe.” Mitumba can refer to used clothes that were donated by Western consumers and collected by textile recycling companies or brand-new ones that fashion firms overproduced and weren’t able to sell.

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Greenpeace Germany said there is a demand in Africa for affordable and trendy clothing and that imported secondhand garments are more affordable to locals than new ones. At the same time, quality is a challenge when assessing mitumba, since a “consistent portion of the clothing in imported bales is such poor quality that it is immediately dumped in landfills, often in the open air,” it said.

The organization quoted Liz Ricketts, director of the Ghana-based nonprofit the OR Foundation, who told Vogue Business in November that the trade has been called “‘charity’, ‘recycling’, ‘diversion’ and now many people call it ‘circular’. But none of these labels is accurate. Simply moving clothing from one place to another does not make it circular.”

East African nations have tried to set up a blockade against secondhand imports, with the goal of building up local textiles manufacturing, only to be threatened with the loss of their African Growth and Opportunity Act privileges. Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda then tried to raise the tax on imported clothes, though certain restrictions were eased after consignments of castoffs piled up at ports because importers couldn’t fulfill the new duty requirements. There are also concerns that local production won’t be able to scale up quickly enough to make up for any deficits that a ban might create.

“Despite the effort in investing in local textiles, the main problem that remains underestimated is the impact of overproduction and textile waste being exported from the global North to Africa,” the report said. “The fast-fashion business model relies on neverending growth and the ever-faster consumption of ‘disposable’ fashion, which is currently reliant on the global South becoming a regional dumpsite for the growing mountains of discarded clothing.”

Gikoba market in Nairobi
Gikoba market in Nairobi: the ground is covered with layers of textile waste. Kevin McElvaney/Greenpeace

Because many of these garments are made with plastic, which doesn’t easily break down, and may contain hazardous chemicals, this will create a “long-term problem that is difficult to clean up,” it added. “Past experience of water pollution in rivers around the world shows the immense difficulties–technical, economic and political—of cleaning up hazardous chemicals after release, including the very high expense of restoration programs and the impossibility of total decontamination.”

For Greenpeace Germany, the most effective solution to this problem is to “massively slow down” fast fashion. Global fashion brands, it said, need to “completely” change their linear business models and become “service providers” instead of only “producers.”

“They need to start producing fewer clothes that are designed to be better quality, long-lasting, repairable and reusable and take responsibility for establishing take-back systems and services to maintain, repair and share items of clothing,” it said.

While the European Union’s proposed Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles addresses points about extended producer responsibility, durability, recyclability, repair and reuse, the nonprofit would also like to see a requirement to “detox” the garment supply chain, as well as a phaseout of fossil-fuel-derived fibers in the production of textiles.

To improve the situation in Ghana and elsewhere, the organization urges measures that allow only the export of used garments that can actually be reused as wearable clothing. Any export of textile waste from the global North, it added, should be outlawed.

In other words, it’s not enough for apparel brands to focus only on cleaning up their supply chains, Greenpeace Germany said. They must also “step up their efforts” to stop the tremendous end-of-life impacts of their products so they’re not forcing the global South to “deal with the consequences of fast fashion.”

“There needs to be a shift away from neocolonial attitudes of global North countries toward those in the global South, which impose trading practices which are mainly beneficial for the global North,” the report said. “This effectively turns global South countries into dumping grounds for fashion industry waste, while doing little or nothing to support or develop the clean manufacturing of local textiles and garment production that is needed in these countries, using the same high standards and best practices that are required in Europe.”