America is the world's largest exporter of used clothing, sending its discarded items to faraway lands where they are burned, languish in landfills or pollute the seas.
The United States exported $834 million worth of used clothing, more than $100 million more than the second-largest exporter, China, in 2021, according to the latest available data from the Economic Complexity Observatory.
These second-hand clothes are sent to countries around the world, including Guatemala, Chile, India and Ghana, where experts say they are causing an “environmental and social emergency”.
Many items are rejects from charity shops in the United States that are then sold to companies that export them and resell them to local traders.
Retailers resell what they can, but the rest is often thrown away or burned – and the amount that can be salvaged is dwindling as fast fashion diminishes the quality and longevity of clothing.
This aerial view shows a landfill where second-hand clothes are thrown away at Old Fadama in Accra, Ghana
Cattle drive through a dump where second-hand clothes are thrown away at Old Fadama in Accra, Ghana
Traders display second-hand clothes for sale at Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana. Kantamanto Market is vast, spanning over 20 acres in the heart of Accra's business district, and its stalls are dominated by second-hand clothes and shoes from the West and China.
Ghana is the largest importer of second-hand clothing, with clothes worth $214 million (170 million) shipped mainly from China, the United Kingdom and Canada.
The United States shipped more than $5 million worth of clothing to Ghana in 2021 alone.
Once there, many items end up at the sprawling Kantamanto Market, which spans over 20 acres in the heart of Accra's business district.
Its traders import a staggering 15 million items of clothing a week, according to the environmental group OR Foundation.
But about 40 percent of each bale ends up as waste, they say, dumped in landfills and often washed into the ocean, causing a public health crisis and harming the environment.
And the rise of fast fashion over the past two decades has put the country in a double bind, with an even bigger wave of disposable clothing from wealthier countries and falling prices for Ghanaian traders as the quality decreases.
Although the company has created up to 30,000 jobs by some estimates, local NGOs say this comes at the cost of an “environmental and social emergency”, with Ghana earning less than $1 million in 2021 in exporting the used clothing it receives to other African countries. .
The clothes “are mostly thrown away indiscriminately because our waste treatment is not advanced,” Justice Adoboe of the Ghana Water and Sanitation Journalists' Network told AFP.
These images were obtained by SkyFi, a consumer app that sees its mission as “democratizing space” by making access to satellite imagery and technology more easily accessible to everyone.
While traders in Chile's capital Santiago buy some of the tens of thousands of tons of discarded clothing that floods from the developed world to the Chilean port of Iquique, at least 39,000 tons of truly unwanted items end up each year in the Atacama.
America and the rest of the developed world's addiction to fast fashion has turned into a growing industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars. According to a report, the market size of low-quality and briefly trendy clothing increased from $106.42 billion to $122.98 billion in 2023.
“When it rains, floodwaters wash away old clothes and flush them down the drain, ending up in our waterways and starting to wreak havoc on aquatic life,” he added.
Things got even worse when Ghana's only sanitary landfill exploded in August 2019 after being flooded with second-hand clothes.
The United States exports even more clothing – about $55 million in 2021 alone – to Chile.
Chile made headlines in 2021 after a second-hand clothing dump was photographed from space.
The red-rock desert of Chile's Atacama Plateau has in recent years become a dumping ground for used and defective fashion from the West, with everything from ski boots to Christmas sweaters ending up in the region's landfills. .
The growing and increasingly toxic pile of discarded clothing reflects the remains of the estimated 59,000 tons of used and unsold clothing that arrive each year at the Chilean port of Iquique from Europe, Asia and the United States. United.
In a Megapaca warehouse where clothes from the United States are sorted and prepared for resale
The United States sends most of its scrap to Guatemala, with more than $148 million worth of used clothing ending up there in 2021 alone.
Now, one company has come up with an innovative solution: reselling the clothes directly in the United States as nostalgia items.
Last year, Bloomberg reported that Megapaca, the largest importer and retailer of used clothing in Central America, is launching a website in the United States.
In a 475,000-square-foot warehouse, the company sorts through mountains of American junk, dividing it into shoes, trash and clothing.
They then photograph them, grade them and market them online, where vintage-hunting Americans can buy them.
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