Fast fashion in the United States is contributing to an environmental disaster in Ghana

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Ghanaian — The rise of fast fashion in the United States fuels an invisible “salvage market,” in which American clothing waste is shipped to distant countries, filling marketplaces, clogs beaches, and overwhelms dumps.

According to reports, the amount of clothing purchased by Americans has increased fivefold over the last three decades, but each item has only worn an average of seven times. This has resulted in more clothing being discarded than ever before.

Many Americans donate it to charities when they are finished with their clothing, hoping to be reused. However, with an increasing number of items being discarded and the lower quality of fast fashion, fewer and fewer can be resold. Millions of garments are put into bales and shipped abroad each year.

More about the rising issue

An escarpment towers at the water’s edge on the banks of the Korle Lagoon in Ghana’s capital of Accra, with cattle grazing on its summit. This ragged cliff, about 20 metres high, is made of landfill rather than earth or stone.

The majority of it — an estimated 60% — is unwanted clothing. These were clothes sent to Ghana ostensibly for resale and reuse, with many coming from clothing bins and charity collections. However, a large percentage of them were never worn again.

“The entire fast fashion model is built around building cheap clothing. The United States is the biggest culprit, exporting more second-hand clothing than any other country on the planet,” said Samuel Oteng, a fashion designer and project manager at the Or Foundation, to CBS News.

Trucks unload bales of textiles at the market, which is a seven-acre maze of over 5,000 stalls known as Obroni Wawu, or “Dead White Man’s Clothes.” Market traders buy the bales for between $25 and $500 each, not knowing what’s inside. They then clean, tailor, and re-dye what they can of the clothing to give it new life.

The upcycling efforts of Katamanto traders are insufficient to address the clothing glut caused by America’s addiction to fast fashion.

According to estimates, 40% of all clothing bales sent to Ghana end up in landfills. Some unsold clothing washes out to beaches when it rains, forming massive tangled webs known as “tentacles” in the sand.

The increasing number of low-quality clothes arriving at Kantamanto Market contributes to Ghana’s waste problem. Another factor is the sheer volume of clothing produced worldwide, and global clothing production has more than doubled since 2000. 

According to the World Economic Forum, an estimated 85% of all textiles are discarded each year, enough to fill Sydney Harbour. That is the equivalent of one garbage truck of materials being burned or disposed of every second worldwide.

“We were all terrified. The fire had started in the middle of the night, and things are exploding,” said Jerry Johnson Doe, a waste picker who used to work at the Kpone landfill retrieving recyclables.

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