Photo, Courtesy The Or Foundation

Europe’s free pass to dump clothing cast-offs in the Global South must end

Every year, people in Europe discard huge amounts of once-loved clothing, parting ways with garments because they are past their best or they no longer fit bodies, tastes and lifestyles. But where do all these old clothes — mostly collected by charities and commercial operators  — ultimately end up?

While there is a market in the EU for the highest quality second-hand items, the reality is that the amount of used clothing far exceeds the demand. Once the best pieces are skimmed off, the surplus clothes with no market value enter the global used clothing trade.

Ghana is one destination for these unwanted garments: every week, 15 million exported items from around the world enter the Kantamanto Market in Accra alone.

Despite the skills of the 30,000 people who work in the market to transport, sort, repair, upcycle, and sell the clothes, due to the sheer unmanageable amount of clothing that arrives and its increasingly low quality, 40% of what enters the market ultimately leaves as waste.

But local landfills cannot cope with the volumes of waste from the market, meaning the majority of it ends up in the environment, clogging up beaches, leaking microplastic pollution into waterways, and causing huge health impacts when clothes are burnt. Taxes are used to try and clean up this mess, diverting money from other necessary public spending.

The low quality of exported clothing also means that on average only 18% of a clothing bale is profitable for a retailer who buys it, trapping people in a debt cycle. Many women develop irreversible health problems from head-carrying huge bales of clothing – the only way to move them around the market’s tight alleyways, which were never designed for such high volumes of clothing.

The Kantamanto community meets policymakers in Brussels

Kwaku Mensah works as an upcycler in the Kantamanto market. “Even though it is a struggle with the huge volume of clothes coming in every day, we are striving every day to make it better through upcycling, investing everything we have to create something wearable from the stained or torn garments, but at the end of the day, we are still in debt, making no money. It is not easy.”

Kwaku was part of a group of retailers, designers, local officials, and kayayei (head carriers) from Kantamanto who travelled to Brussels last month, to ensure that the voices of those most affected by textile exports are heard by the EU policymakers working on new laws for waste prevention and management of textiles.

Photo by Nana Kwado Agyei Addo, Courtesy The Or Foundation

The delegation to Europe was organised by The Or Foundation, a non-profit organisation working to highlight that the Kantamanto community is not receiving fair remuneration for the work it does to manage textile waste on behalf of richer countries.

Speaking at a meeting at the European Environmental Bureau office with the European Commission, Swedish MEP Alice Kuhnke, and representatives from civil society groups, brands, and Europe’s recycling and sorting sector, The Or Foundation Senior Community Engagement Manager, Sammy Oteng said: “This is a supply chain, it is not charity or recycling. It was born out of colonialism.”

No textile exports without financial support to receiving countries

The current focus of policy discussions in the EU is largely on how to keep textiles out of Europe’s landfills, with an estimated 3.5 million tonnes of clothing and household textiles ending up in mixed waste streams annually. 

As a result, plans are being set in motion to set up mandatory separate collection of textiles at the municipal level – much like existing systems for paper or plastic packaging – and to create an economy for this collection activity, by obliging producers to financially contribute to their products’ waste management cost.

The concept is known as ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ (EPR) and the European Commission will soon reveal its vision for how it will apply to textile products when it publishes a proposal for revising the EU’s Waste Framework Directive in early July.

The essence of the issue is how the EPR fees will be calculated, who will be subject to pay them, and, crucially, whether they will ensure financial support is issued to the communities where so many secondhand clothes end up – communities like Kantamanto, who have been carrying out waste management activities on behalf of richer countries for years with no remuneration.

It’s in this context that The Or Foundation has launched its ‘Stop Waste Colonialism’ campaign, calling for the money raised through EPR schemes to follow exported products, for the schemes to meaningfully contribute to reducing primary resource consumption, and for brands to disclose production volumes.

Liz Ricketts from The Or Foundation said: “Separate collection will likely result in more unwanted garments entering the secondhand supply chain. As you collect more clothing, it is going to go somewhere, and that is somewhere with the least resources to deal with it.

Photo by Nana Kwado Agyei Addo, Courtesy The Or Foundation

The need for regulation to stop overproduction

EPR for textiles is one of the flagship measures promised in the EU’s Textiles Strategy – a wide-ranging policy plan to bring down the environmental and social impact resulting from overconsumption of textile products. On 1 June a majority of Members of the European Parliament gave their green light to the plan, even beefing up the language when it comes to waste prevention and the need to tackle overproduction.

However, there is a risk that waste prevention actions set under the Waste Framework Directive will mostly be geared towards boosting recycling and sorting activities. Yet, despite an increase in green claims on the use of recycled fibres, and the presence of textile take-back ‘recycling’ bins in shops, we are far from having the infrastructure or the technology to sort and recycle ever-increasing volumes of clothing back into fibres.

At the same time, those working in Kantamanto highlight it is not better sorting that will solve the problem.

Textiles are not like paper or plastics packaging, where you can set clear cut criteria on whether something is waste or not. For clothing, what becomes waste is contextual and subjective. Something might be waste to you, but to another person they would wear it. Ultimately, every garment is waste until proven otherwise,” Ricketts, said.

It remains to be seen to what extent policymakers’ plans for EPR will be about entrenching the linear ‘take, make, waste’ economy into a legal framework, or whether they will be rooted in environmental justice and slowing the ever-increasing flow of straight-to-waste clothing sales.

The European Environmental Bureau endorses The Or Foundation’s ‘Stop Waste Colonialism’ campaign.