One August day I found myself on top of one of the most impressive mountains I’ve seen. I’d scaled it with very little equipment, in the same Nike sneakers I wear on the treadmill. There were no harnesses, no guides, and no resupply stations along the way. In fact, it only took about 20 minutes to get to the summit, despite frequent picture breaks. At the top, I looked out into an endless blue sky to my right, and a cloud of furious black smoke to my left.
It was not your typical mountain. Located about 25 miles away from the capital city of Accra, Ghana, the Kpone landfill holds household trash, plastic bags, food waste, and—you guessed it—clothing. As it so happened, that day a portion of Kpone had caught fire—hence the black smoke. Over the course of the week, the entire landfill would go up in flames.
If you’re wondering how a lot of foreign-label shoes, clothes, and accessories arrived in a landfill in Ghana, you’re not alone. Very few of us think about what happens to our clothes after we’ve gotten rid of them. We lug garbage bags full of items that no longer “spark joy” to the Salvation Army, or we toss them in the trash with our Starbucks cup. We donate with good intentions—we want our things to have a second life; we want someone else to get good use out of them, even if we’ve decided they’re useless. And while that sometimes happens, the truth is that there is not enough global demand for the massive quantities of secondhand, low-quality clothing we donate. As a result, our good intentions become costly, overwhelming waste and an environmental nightmare for people living halfway around the world.
Kantamanto, located in Accra, is one of the largest second hand markets in all of West Africa. The whole reason it exists is because of the gross overproduction and undervaluing of garments. This is becoming a global problem, but the United States is leading the charge. Every year, the U.S. exports more than a billion pounds of used clothing.
The future doesn’t look very bright for the retailers in Kantamanto. The more disposable fashion we give away, the more pressure there is for retailers to sell fewer garments for more. Not only are these not high enough quality to last into a second or third life, but they’re not the kinds of styles or fabrics that will appeal to Ghanaians.
With a shrinking inventory of quality secondhand clothing and a growing inventory of disposable clothing, Ghanaians are forced into doing exactly what we’re led to believe won’t happen when we donate our undesirables. They travel thousands of miles only to get thrown in the trash, never even glimpsing their promised second life. What’s more, the disposal systems in Ghana and much of the developing world are less developed than in the United States, which results in more pollution and climate impact than if it had just been thrown out in the developed world, to say nothing of the environmental cost of transporting all that waste.
Trash is as integral to the hubbub of Kantamanto as fashion. For every three garments sold at Kantamanto, two get trashed. Let me pause here a moment. More than half of our clothing that is sent to Accra goes to the landfill.
This turnover has made Kantamanto the most consolidated point of waste pickup in all of Accra, and possibly the whole country. Still, only about 25% of Kantamanto’s total waste is sent to a landfill. Another 15% is picked up by private, informal collectors who may illegally dump it in waterways, bury it on beaches, burn it in open lots, or simply leave it along the side of the road. This unregulated dumping was behind the 2014 cholera outbreak, which killed 243 people.
In a sad way, the final leg of our clothing’s journey makes complete sense. First, labor and production were sent overseas to countries where the absence of regulations made everything cheaper, and kept the realities of making our clothes invisible—and dirtier. Now the same thing is happening with our castoffs, so that countries without reliable infrastructure drown in our garbage.
We rolled up to the landfill on a hazy Friday morning. I was explicitly briefed not to wear eye makeup to Kpone; the chemicals in the landfill would make mascara congeal on my eyelashes.
I had seen the smoke from many miles away, but assumed it was something else. The closer we got, though, the clearer the source became. About a quarter of the landfill was smoldering, creating clouds of black smoke that billowed as far as the eye could see. Stepping out of our car on the burning side was like walking onto the set of The Hunger Games. I looked down at the dense clay earth to try to regroup. But when my eyes landed on the outline of a pair of jeans and a child’s embroidered dress embedded into the dirt like fossils, my mind transported me to all the places those clothes might have been—was the cotton grown in Texas, or India? Were they finished in Dhaka, or Shaoxing? Were they sold in New York, or Minnesota, or London, or did they pass through Kantamanto?—only to come here to die this shameful death, the people whose hands made and sold them completely forgotten.
Climbing through the landfill was equal parts treasure hunt, horror show, and Fear Factor as the smoke descended. Although I wore a face mask and deliberately protective long sleeves and pants, the murky morass of food scraps, plastic bags, and clothes was alarming. I kept my focus by playing a game of I Spy. Plastic bags were the most easily identifiable, their bright neon blues and greens dotting the side of the otherwise greige topography like confetti. My black knit Nikes found all sorts of mates—swoosh-bearing sneakers and slides, along with Asics and a pair of red Velcro Puma high-tops. Other clothing was harder to identify, having been mostly crushed into the dirt like those somber jeans or packed in the trash bags, so that only the brightest neon clothes stood out.
Each time I recognized something, I paused. A sorbet-plaid button-down from H&M. Another tag proclaiming “Made in / Fabrique au Canada” stuck out of the heap. A pristine-looking white faux Versace dust bag lay in stark contrast to the rust-colored soil. A canvas tennis shoe that had been so mangled it was barely recognizable.
We couldn’t stay too long at the garbage summit as the flames approached. Because the landfill had already exceeded its capacity, certain critical safety measures had been abandoned. For example, the landfill had once been separated into four quadrants. No more. Which is why what could have been an isolated incident in one quadrant was now beginning to burn the entire landfill.
For every campaign about donating or giving back clothes, there should be five more illustrating how much work goes into actually giving these clothes a new life and how much of it actually just gets dumped.
It makes absolutely zero sense to put so many resources into producing a garment, sending it halfway around the world to be sold, wearing it only a few times, and then sending it halfway around the world again for it to just end up spewing all of those resources up in the atmosphere and into people’s lungs, soil, and waterways.
But whether they’re burning or not, landfilled textiles are always a source of greenhouse gas emissions. Rewearing trumps both recycling and disposal of clothing: Wearing a garment twice as long would lower greenhouse gas emissions from clothing by 44%.
All of this to say, there is really no such thing as “sustainable fashion.” There is fashion that may have a relatively lower impact, but it is a matter of degrees, and the data collection has been so weak in this industry that it’s often even difficult to conclude that a product labeled “sustainable fashion” actually has demonstrably lesser impact.
This perpetuates a notion that we can buy our way into sustainability, and that it’s just a matter of purchasing this thing over that. This is not the case. The most sustainable thing by far is to not buy the thing at all.
From Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment, by Maxine Bedat, published on June 1 by Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Maxine Bedat.