The thrift market in Africa is vast and thriving massively. Although this is a sustainable fashion practice we often encourage, it undoubtedly makes Africa a dumping ground for fashion waste. Let’s take a nuanced look into fast fashion and the thrift market in Africa, elucidating the environmental impact and need for sustainability.
There is a steady influx of second-hand products into Africa daily, and a quick Google search for “secondhand clothes dealer” shows targeted ads from companies like Zagumi and Hissen Global, offering the sorting and shipment of up to 300 containers of secondhand clothing. Considering the easy process of purchasing, sorting and shipping these packages, there is a growing awareness of the dangers of dumping fashion waste from these countries in Africa.
Most deadstock, i.e., unsold clothing from mass-produced companies and second-hand clothing items, are shipped to Africa. This gave birth to the famous “Okrika”, “Obiri Wawu”, “Mitumba”, or “Bend-down boutique”, as Africans call it.
Thrift Stores and The Influx of Fast Fashion Waste
As fast fashion companies face restrictions on their disposal processes of unsold clothing items, they have sought other waste-ridden avenues and shipped them to Africa. These become choice picks for specific demographics interested in trendy and affordable fashion: university students to working-class individuals. Despite the price being a significant motivator, African women still do much to save the earth through sustainable fashion choices.
In recent years, there has been an increase in online thrift stores that directly import bales of unsold items from Chinese manufacturers. These thrift stores place large orders on packages from discontinued collections that manufacturers want to get rid of. This means they have no say over the items shipped, only the number of products purchased. Although there is a more expensive option for vendors with specific order requests, brands & clothing types.
On the bright side, these thrift stores help reduce the waste that fast fashion brands generate in their wake. Still, it is essential to question how much this impacts the African environment. Most African countries are not notable for their recycling prowess, which leaves us wondering how unsold/leftover goods are handled.
Vendors who profit enough from a bale sell the remaining pieces at giveaway prices. These are primarily sold with zero profit added just to clear the stock. However, not all items sell out, and vendors resort to giving them away to friends, family and the less privileged through donations. Nigerian online thrift store Fancy Thrift NG (@fancythrift.ng) noted that leftover pieces in their store are donated as charity items to orphanages.
The disposal and recycling dilemma of fashion waste
Notably, these disposal processes are for literate and environmentally-conscious vendors. This is different for the local market vendors who dispose of their leftover pieces in landfills due to a lack of recycling resources. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a UNEP partner, has estimated that a truckload of abandoned textiles is dumped in a landfill or incinerated every second.
A visit to Katangowa, a popular thrift market in Lagos, Nigeria, lends credence to this as pieces from bales are strewn about the roads and are washed down during the rainy season or cleared by the cleaners with less-than-stellar disposal.
Due to the low quality of fast fashion items, many donated clothes are unfit for their purpose, as highlighted by sustainability content creator @joanofkaduna on TikTok. In an article by The BBC News, despite the efforts of consumers to donate their unused clothing to charities, the pieces that are simply too old to be worn get either recycled or shipped down to Africa. Furthermore, Greenpeace activists research in Kenya and Tanzania discovered that 40% of exported second-hand clothes to East Africa end up in dump sites, burned openly, or discarded along riverbeds. These statistics expose how much of a waste problem the world, particularly Africa, has on its hands.
Impact of Waste Colonialism
African nations bear the brunt of waste colonialism, a matter deserving increased attention. According to The Guardian EU, approximately 40% of the 55kg (121lb) bales of clothing, including “deadstock” and donations imported to Africa each week, end up as waste. This waste primarily consists of fast fashion items, often crafted from non-biodegradable polyester, a petroleum-derived plastic-based fibre.
When these garments are discarded, they don’t naturally decompose in landfills. Instead, they disintegrate into harmful microplastics, contaminating the soil and water bodies and persisting as a source of environmental pollution. Additionally, the incineration of polyester textiles releases toxic gases, further deteriorating air quality. These ecological consequences pose substantial and pressing threats to the continent.
Shein and Mass Production: A Closer Look
Shein, a major player in the fast fashion industry, has come under fire for its role in the escalating waste crisis affecting countries in the Global South. The company’s business model, touted as innovative, involves producing items in small batches based on digital feedback from consumers. While Shein claims this approach minimises waste, environmental advocates argue that it leads to overproduction, strains supply chains and contributes to the mounting textile fashion waste.
A significant concern activists raise involves Shein’s use of the de minimis provision, allowing the brand to sidestep import tariffs. This loophole has sparked scrutiny, with allegations that it enables companies like Shein to bypass laws like the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which aims to curb imports from regions like China’s Xinjiang, where forced labour is prevalent.
Furthermore, Shein’s promises of transparency have been met with scepticism. While the company pledges to share data through its EvoluShein framework, concrete targets and results are yet to be seen. Environmentalists emphasise that addressing the waste crisis requires more than just utilising dead-stock fabrics; it demands a fundamental shift away from mass-producing new items from virgin materials.
Current policies and advocacy on fashion waste
As Shein faces increasing scrutiny, questions persist about the broader responsibility of the fashion industry in mitigating its environmental impact and ensuring ethical practices throughout the supply chain.
Earlier this year, Ghanaian secondhand clothes traders visited Brussels to lobby for European legislation to address textile dumping in Ghana. They met with MEPs and environmental organisations, advocating for extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies. Currently, only France has an EPR covering the textile industry in Europe. The traders seek funds to manage the 100 tonnes of daily clothing waste in Accra’s market.
Critics claim that the existing policy, which charges clothing companies a tax of only €0.06 (5p) for each item, does little to help developing countries like Ghana. They argue that the cash raised does not effectively address the consequences of states dealing with affluent countries’ overflow of products.
Supporting sustainability becomes critical in the face of the undeniable impact of our damaging practices, as shown by the rising climate change catastrophe. Adopting sustainable fashion is an essential step in this direction. We can jointly create change by joining our voices with campaigners, raising awareness about companies’ harmful practices, and actively supporting sustainable options. We can achieve a more ecologically conscious and ethically responsible fashion industry, protecting our world for future generations.