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The Reality of Donating Old Clothes


Part of what it means to be a white liberal in an era of globalized capitalism is that we consume whatever we want, but then rather than just throwing it in the trash (that’s what Trump voters do!), we donate the stuff we don’t want anymore. We think we are helping the poor. But once we donate (or recycle), we don’t have to ask ourselves a single thing about what happens from there. We have done the right thing! We are helping our local poor or the people in Africa or whatever!!! I feel so good!

But the reality is that these systems of donations and dumping are really deeply problematic and they demand the attention of the first world consumers who are at the beginning of these reverse supply chains. We all want to donate our old phones instead of tossing them in the trash, but the aftermath of those donations is horrible pollution and human suffering. As for clothing, we dump our “dead white man’s clothes” on Africa, as these donations are often known there. The aftermath is also quite bad.

It’s mid-morning on a sunny day and Yvette Yaa Konadu Tetteh’s arms and legs barely make a splash as she powers along the blue-green waters of the River Volta in Ghana. This is the last leg of a journey that has seen Tetteh cover 450km (280 miles) in 40 days to become the first person known to swim the length of the waterway.

It’s an epic mission but with a purpose: to find out whatis in the water and raise awareness of pollution in Ghana.

As the 30-year-old swims, a crew shadows her on a solar-powered boat, named The Woman Who Does Not Fear, taking air and water samples along the way that will be analysed to measure pollution.

It is hoped that the swim will draw attention to some of the pristine environments in Ghana, in contrast with places such as Korle Lagoon in the capital city of Accra, one of the most polluted water bodies on Earth.

“I want people to understand and appreciate the value we have here in Ghana,” says the British-Ghanaian agribusiness entrepreneur. “The only way I can swim is because the waters [of the Volta River] are hopefully clean. Korle Lagoon was once swimmable but now you wouldn’t want to touch any of it.”

The swim is supported by the Or Foundation, of which Tetteh is a board member, that campaigns against textile waste in Ghana, one cause of increasing water pollution in the country.

Ghana imports about 15m items of secondhand clothing each week, known locally as obroni wawu or “dead white man’s clothes”. In 2021, Ghana imported $214m (£171m) of used clothes, making it the world’s biggest importer.

When he first started working at the market 24 years ago, he remembers being able to sell all the clothing that came in a bale. Now, when he opens one, there are about 70 items he can’t use, he says. “The problem of waste is getting worse. For 12 years, the goods coming here have not been good, we can’t benefit from them. It’s my impression that countries abroad think Africa is very poor so they give us low-quality goods and their waste.”

According to the Or Foundation, about 40% of the clothing in Kantamanto leaves as waste. Some of it is collected by waste management services, some is burned at the edges of the market, while the rest is dumped in informal landfills.

About two miles from the market lies Old Fadama, a once vibrant and thriving community that now resembles an apocalyptic hellscape. It is the largest unsanctioned dump for clothing waste leaving Kantamanto, the Or Foundation believes. The area is home to at least 80,000 people – many have migrated from northern Ghana where the climate crisis is affecting farming; their houses are built on layers of rubbish.

At one end of the beach, Thomas Alotey sits on a boat mending fishing nets. He is resigned to his surroundings. “We want the situation to change but nothing will happen,” he says. “I know some of the clothes come from abroad but it is Ghana’s responsibility to dispose of the waste properly.”

He adds: “We are suffering. When I go out to fish, I come back with more clothes in my nets than fish.”

If you want to be a good liberal in a globalized world, this has to be part of your consciousness too! You want globalization, you think it is a rising tide that lifts all boats, well OK, explain this as a good in any way. Because dumping is also globalized.

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