The fast-paced fashion industry has grown tremendously in recent years – with Western countries leading the world in consumption and export of second-hand clothing, clogging developing countries and garment landfills. used.
Fast Fashion aims to provide consumers with cheap and trendy clothes that are produced quickly and up to date on high fashion trends, often to the detriment of workers and the environment. While social media has certainly accelerated the trend cycle and given consumers increased access to cheap, ephemeral clothing, American overconsumption is not a new fad. It’s been around for decades, and it brings the world closer to irreversible climate damage as Americans donate their clothes and buy more at increasing rates.
A major point of contention at the United Nations Climate Conference – which ends this weekend in Glasgow, Scotland – is the divide between rich and developing countries. And just as there is a growing divide between countries that have become rich from the fossil fuels fueling their economies and poor countries being told that these fuels are now too dangerous for the planet, the fast fashion industry is exhibiting a gulf between rich countries that export used clothing and developing countries. countries becoming dumping grounds for textiles – and facing environmental consequences.
Currently, the United States is the world leader in used clothing exports. In 2018, the United States exported nearly 719 million kilograms (1.58 billion pounds) of second-hand clothing, more than 200 million kg more than its second, Germany. These exports end up in second-hand markets around the world, in particular in the countries of the South, and often at a rate and a volume higher than those that their recipients can support.
This problem is particularly pronounced in Africa, which has six of the top 20 countries for second-hand clothing imports – Kenya, Angola, Tunisia, Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda – and in South Asia, where Pakistan and India receive the largest and second largest volume of used clothing worldwide.
Specifically in Africa, used clothing from Western countries clogs local markets and landfills. Textiles travel from second-hand retail stores to private third parties and containers and are ultimately sold to foreign entities, who revalue – or reorganize – the clothes before reselling them, according to Sarah Bibbey, co-founder and interim director. from Make Fashion Clean, a non-profit organization working to make denim consumption more sustainable globally.
In Ghana, these clothes – called “Obroni Wawu” in the Akan language, or “Dead White Man’s Clothes” – are bought in bales by traders in the market who do not know what is in them for $ 25 to $ 500 apiece. be repaired and revamped if necessary and eventually made its way to the Ghanaian second hand markets. However, the increasingly poor quality of fast fashion clothes makes it difficult for upcyclers (people who renovate and recycle used clothes) to breathe new life into these clothes, forcing them to be dumped in landfills, which, in turn, has negative impacts on local life. environment.
“Our landfills (in the United States) are equipped to handle chemicals and they can sort of be contained while in other countries, including Ghana, it’s not the same level of infrastructure. around the landfill, âBibbey noted.
When it comes to deciding where clothes go after Americans throw them away, power dynamics and colonial histories play a role in where second-hand clothes go.
“Any country that […] a formerly colonized country, or a country that is not a global superpower, will be more vulnerable to dumping of clothing in general, “Bibbey said.” So any country we know will be more vulnerable to that just because power politics that they have in the global arena is not the same as the political power that the United States has in the global arena – so that’s the most important thing, I think. ”
Second-hand clothes are displayed for sale at Gisozi market in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2018. (JACQUES NKINZINGABO / AFP via Getty Images)
As resistance to Western clothing dumping took hold in East Africa, the United States leveraged its global influence and financial assistance to ensure that it could still export clothing from opportunity to African markets.
In 2017, the East African countries of Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Burundi attempted to gradually eliminate imports of second-hand clothing and footwear because of how they undermined national efforts to develop their own textile industries. Countries have sought to ban such imports altogether by 2019.
However, in March 2017, the Office of the United States Trade Representative threatens remove four of those six East African countries from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, a preferential trade deal designed to boost trade and economic growth across sub-Saharan Africa. Burundi and South Sudan had previously been excluded from the trade deal on charges of state violence.
A combination of factors makes the United States a hotbed for fast fashion consumption above consumers in other wealthy countries. As Americans of all income levels contribute to the rapid fashion crisis, Charlotte Tate – the director of labor justice campaigns for Green America, a US-based nonprofit that promotes ethical consumption – underlines the American model of capitalism and the stagnation of wages as some of the factors driving American overconsumption.
âI think one thing that is unique to American capitalism is how much we prioritize work to make more money and then you have more money to spend,â she said. âAnd another factor to consider is that fast fashion is much cheaper than better quality products. When you look at wages over the past few decades, they have really stagnated. And as Americans have become more productive, so has wealth. productivity was not distributed evenly In that case, you know, it would be really hard if you didn’t make enough money to make ends meet and then buy better quality clothes.
But consumers who can’t afford the better quality products aren’t the only group lining up at fast-fashion stores. Americans of all income levels consume fast fashion, and more expensive clothes don’t necessarily equate to more sustainably and ethically produced clothes.
Bibbey also highlights the culture around clothing donation as part of what fuels the overconsumption and dumping of clothing in the United States, as consumers buy too much with the idea of ââbeing able to donate their clothes later.
“People might hear that their clothes ended up somewhere and they might think it’s still a 100% good thing, just because there’s this American Salvorism mindset that we have here,” Bibbey said. âWe get the idea that’s a good thing, even when we actually see that it is putting local artisans and local clothing manufacturers out of business because they are sort of competing with this influx of clothing. second hand.”
But Tate says American consumers aren’t primarily responsible for the rapid fashion dumping crisis.
âI think companies know they are making inexpensive clothes that don’t last long and often can’t be reused – and they’ve known that for some time,â she said. “So I would say that a lot of the responsibility lies with the companies and our practices, and then also, to some extent, with our government who has the power to regulate, who may not.”
Due to the unique intensity at which Americans consume and throw away clothing – with the news citing a fivefold increase in the amount of clothing Americans have purchased over the past three decades and an average of just seven uses per item – the United States needs unique solutions to the global fashion crisis fast.
With the end of the United Nations Climate Conference, finding solutions to these pressing environmental problems is a top priority, advocates say. And, just as the blame for this crisis cannot lie solely with consumers, environmental activists say solutions must also be sought beyond the consumer level.
On a smaller scale, Bibbey highlights upcycling in the United States and developing countries as a way to mitigate the impacts of fast fashion on the environment, highlighting Make Fashion Clean’s partnership with the MFI Foundation based in Canada. Ghana, a non-profit organization dedicated to upcycling clothing. in partnership with local artisans in Ghana, for example. But they say the more holistic and holistic solutions have yet to be ‘studied’ and ‘examined’.
“Consumers have a lot of power, so even though they are not directly responsible for some of the problems facing society today, they have a lot of power to change market demands and to change their buying habits. “Tate said. “We have found that when consumers speak and contact businesses directly, they change their practices. Collective action is very powerful. So if we all take action and change our practices, we have the power to reform ourselves.”