Did you see the ‘Secret Life of Your Clothes’ last night? The BBC2 This World documentary followed the fate of your charity shop donations, showing that most of your old clothes don’t end up on the rails of your local Oxfam at all, but thousands of miles away in Africa. This has never been something charities wanted to admit but it is a massive business. It’s also something I had mixed feelings about – charity shop prices aren’t that cheap anymore, they always seem to be begging for donations, and to think that they have all this surplus that they are shipping out to the poorest countries of the world not in aid but to sell to them (the bales are always tightly packed and wrapped so it’s pot luck what traders end up buying).
In the programme Ade Adepitan follows the trail to Ghana, the biggest importer of our castoffs. One million pounds’ worth of our old clothes arrive here every week. Ade meets the people who making a living from our old castoffs, from wholesalers and markets traders to the importers raking in a staggering £25,000 a day. They call them ‘dead white man’s clothes’. The documentary really did show a story of two-halves. On the one hand, people are building businesses selling second-hand clothes (the size of the markets were astonishing) and trade is booming; but on the other hand, local traditional textile businesses are struggling to compete on the low prices of second-hand fast fashion. The second-hand clothes are simply much cheaper, and not only that but many young Ghanaians want to wear Western clothing. It shows that they ‘know what’s out there’.
I think we’ve actually become used to seeing Africans wear Western clothing, haven’t we? Where did we think they came from? At one point Ade visits a professional factory that have specialised in uniforms and exporting garments to the US. The factory manager describes how Africa has become a dumping ground for stuff – ‘when will it end?’ she says. I understand her frustrations but it’s hard to deny that the second-hand economy is thriving and these are clothes that still have plenty of life left in them. Yes we should be consuming more sustainably in the West but part of me is pleased that these clothes can be loved and used after we’ve discarded them.
Ade makes the point that these clothes go full circle – from being manufactured by some of the poorest people in the world they come back to some of the poorest people in the world, via a few months in our UK wardrobes. In Ghana it’s so difficult for their own factories to stay afloat they have to specialise (funeral wear was the example they gave) and/or export. In the UK we import African-produced products via fair trade groups and Western-based social enterprises/businesses who sell their wears to the middle-class ethics conscious consumer looking to divert from the fast fashion mainstream. These networks of trade are astonishing, clothing perhaps more than any other product really do link the world together within this evitable thing we call globalisation.