Should fashion pay for its ‘waste colonialism’?

Every week, about 15 million items of old clothing are sent to Ghana, unwanted discards largely from the wardrobes of consumers in North America, China and Europe.

The clothes are sold by the parcel, much of it to retailers in Accra’s Kantamanto market, one of the world’s largest second-hand clothing markets. It is a thriving resale, repair and recycling hub. But while the volume of second-hand clothes shipped from global markets continues to rise, their quality is deteriorating.

Today, about 40 percent of everything that passes through Kadamado is worthless junk sent straight to landfill, plunging local retailers who can’t recoup what they paid for the balls into debt and turning the global second-hand clothing trade into a de facto stewardship waste strategy for the fashion industry, according to The Or Foundation, a non-profit organization working with the Kantamanto community.

Garment waste has overflowed Accra’s landfills. Tangled tentacles of cloth litter its coastline, with some parts of the beach covered in piles of cloth and plastic reaching more than five feet in height, according to The Or Foundation. Elsewhere, the Atacama Desert in Chile has become a similar dumping ground for fast fashion.

The industry’s waste problem has caught the attention of regulators, with proposals to make brands responsible for what happens to clothes at the end of their life gaining ground around the world.

Exactly what these so-called Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, systems might look like is largely undetermined, but the potential policies have significant implications for countries like Ghana that receive large amounts from the global used clothing trade.

France, the only country in the world that currently has an EPR program for textiles, exported 80 percent of the clothes collected under the program in 2021. Refashion, the non-profit organization that oversees the French program, paid 23 million euros ($24.6 million) in sorting facilities to process discarded clothing. No money went to the countries where the clothes ended up. Refashion did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s “basically waste colonialism,” Or Foundation designer and program manager Chloe Asaam said in a video the organization created as it ramps up the campaign to influence emerging political movements.

On Tuesday, The Or Foundation released a position paper calling for EPR policies that create global accountability and incentivize substantial reductions in new clothing production. The proposal was supported by luxury resale platform Vestiaire Collective, which has a long-standing partnership with The Or Foundation focused on combating clothing waste.

It is launching a campaign to influence policy before the summer, when the EU is expected to update its plans for a fashion-focused EPR.

The call plays into a long-running dispute over who should foot the bill for environmental damage, largely caused by consumer behavior in richer countries but affecting poorer nations. The crowning achievement of November’s COP27 UN climate summit was an eleventh-hour agreement to create a “loss and damage” fund to help cover the costs of climate disasters, although how it would be funded and structured vague.

The Or Foundation is calling for brands to face a tax of at least $0.50 on each new garment they make to effectively cover the cost of waste management, with this fee increasing for garments that are more difficult to recycle. Items that have no realistic final destination other than landfill or incineration should cost brands at least $2.50 to produce in tax, according to the position paper. Currently, the maximum a brand can pay under the French EPR system is €0.14.

The Or Foundation is calling for funds to be distributed according to how waste flows around the world, with money earmarked for eliminating the damage already caused by textile waste. And brands will have to publish detailed information on how much they produce, with the goal of reducing the amount of new clothes they produce by 40 percent within five years of any EPR program coming into effect, the NGO said.

The goal is a “10-year phase-out,” said Liz Ricketts, co-founder and executive director at The Or Foundation. “We’re not advocating that clothes will keep coming here forever.”

The next step is to get broader buy-in from the industry. Vestiaire Collective leads a working group at the French industry association Paris Good Fashion with the aim of finding common ground on circular policies.

“It’s time to come together and say another way is possible,” said Vestiaire Collective’s Head of Sustainability and Inclusion, Dounia Wone. “It’s our only real and serious chance to say, ‘OK, no, we saw this [fast fashion] model and we believe that we need to stop or reduce and reduce that model to something sustainable for the planet and people and communities.”

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