Accra, the coastal capital of Ghana, is home to one of the largest second hand clothing markets in the world. 60 containers of clothes (roughly 20 million items) donated to charity or put in clothing bins by people living in Europe, the US and Australia arrive there every week.

An estimated 40% of garments are unfit for resale. These end up forming landfill mountains, burning in pyres on the street or getting dumped, later washing up on Ghanaian shores.

Each 55kg bundle of clothing has to be carried by hand through the narrow passageways of the market. This job falls to women and girls, some as young as 12 years old. The pay is poor, as little as $4.50 per day. Life-changing injuries are common.

According to traders, the quality of the clothing they are receiving is declining and more and more of it is completely unsellable.

Ghana is living through a worsening waste crisis. Mounting waste blocks drainage promoting the spread of disease.

The truth is that donating used clothing to charity isn’t helping anyone.

Our habits have changed for the worse

We’re buying 60% more clothes now than we did 15 years ago and we’re keeping them for half as long. Waste has become part of clothing manufacturers’ business model with overproduction considered the norm. 

How can we stop this damaging cycle?

Re-Action member, One Tree at a Time, believes they have solved the issue on a local level. Founder Gavin Fernie-Jones says:

“We keep everything in our community in use. Every donation we receive has a function. If a jacket is beyond repair we break it down, rescuing the fabric, zips, fastenings etc to mend other items ready for resale. We’re at a point now, after 3 years of running, that we can reuse around 90% of what comes in. We hope to close that gap completely as we find more solutions and ways to repurpose waste fabric so that we never have any need to send anything abroad or to landfill.”

Gavin believes the key to their success is their shop space which is more than just a shop. It has become a community hub where visitors can make use of the free to use sewing machines and benefit from the expertise of the seamstresses and repurposing experts that the space has attracted. 

Gavin’s passion for his work is clear, “Our community has embraced our mission too. Through our workshops and our messaging, they are buying repaired items from us, actively repairing their own items, or asking us for help to prolong the life of their outdoor gear.”

He doesn’t see any reason why other second hand stores couldn’t do the same and become a hub for knowledge sharing and repairing as well as reselling items. This would keep the clothing circulating within communities, teach people the value of caring for and repairing their clothes and reduce the burden on countries like Ghana.

With the profits One Tree makes from resale, they plant trees (through Trees For The Future) in the global south in projects that encourage biodiversity and create better conditions for agriculture.

What can you do to help?

The best action any of us can take is to buy less. By taking care of our clothes, replacing buttons, zips and repairing any small holes, we can keep wearing them for longer. 

If you do need to buy something, buy second hand. There are some great market places out there as well as local Facebook groups etc where you can find what you need, often at a great price too.

If the idea of repairing your own clothing makes you break out in a cold sweat, help is at hand. Check out the amazing tutorials on the Repair What You Wear site. If the repair is beyond you, send your kit off to Sheffield Clothing Repair or Snowdonia Gear Repair or find a local seamster or seamstress to help you out.

Rather than donating worn gear to charity, why not sell it on a peer to peer site? You can always donate the money you make to support a charity of your choice. As well as the usual big platforms, check out WhoSki for selling used ski gear and kidd3r for selling children’s sports gear and hobby equipment. 

Whether we like it or not, this is our problem. Just because these clothes aren’t washing up on the shores of our country and it isn’t our daughter, sister, cousin or friend being paid meagre wages to put their health at risk, doesn’t mean we’re not responsible. Please don’t be part of this problem, there are solutions out there.