I always thought of the thrift store as a comforting place. Somewhere I could reliably and conscientiously take unwanted clothing to be resold and re-worn, or as the fashion industry has recently rebranded it, re-loved. In the process, charities do great things with the profits from reselling them: supporting troops. Saving pets. Curing cancer. But, like many of us, I never knew the full story.
Amid the explosion in online shopping and TikTok trends for fast-fashion hauls, thrift stores—and thrifting apps—have exploded in the last few years. In fact, in small towns like mine, brick and mortar stores have stopped being primarily a place to buy goods, but more often a place to dispose of them. According to one British study, we only wear 44 percent of the clothing we own. And when we need more room, how better to dispose of our old clothes than donate them to charity?
Unfortunately, it’s never that simple. Consider: only between 10 and 30 percent of second-hand donations to charity shops are actually resold in store. The rest disappears into a machine you don’t see: a vast sorting apparatus in which donated goods are graded and then resold on to commercial partners, often for export to the Global South.
The problem is that, with the onslaught of fast fashion, these donations are too often now another means of trash disposal—and the system can’t cope. Consider: around 62 million tons of clothing is manufactured worldwide every year, amounting to somewhere between 80 and 150 billion garments to clothe 8 billion people.
We rarely see the networks of people involved in processing, reselling, and eventually reusing the things we donate—vast networks that encircle the globe like a ball of yarn, conveying our unwanted things to people in places like Afghanistan or Togo or Bangladesh. Like anything we put in the bin, they are sent “away.” In this case not thrown, but given.
I wanted to follow that yarn—tracing the movement of donations through the textile traders who ship them off, and then charting the surprising places those clothes end up. Which is how, on a spring day last year, I ended up on a flight to West Africa.
Saturday in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Market day. Shoppers pack the streets of the central shopping district, the roads clogged with stalls and street hawkers. When you’re looking for second-hand clothes in Accra, there is only one destination: Kantamanto, the largest second-hand clothes market in Ghana, and perhaps in West Africa. Every week, 15 million garments move through Kantamanto, where an estimated 30,000 traders are crammed into just seven claustrophobic acres. The majority arrives, via container ship, having been donated to charities in Europe and North America. From here, the clothes will spread across Ghana and across borders, into Côte D’Ivoire, Togo, Niger, Benin and beyond.
The second-hand trade in Ghana and across West Africa exploded in the 1980s and ’90s as Western charities flooded Africa with clothing, intended both as fundraising and aid. When second-hand textiles first arrived in Ghana, the local population had no experience of such wastefulness. In fact, they assumed the owners of the clothes must have died, leading to the Akan phrase still marked on one of the entrances to Kantamanto: Obroni wawu, or “dead white man’s clothes.” (In Tanzania, second-hand clothing is similarly sometimes called kafa ulaya, or “dead Europeans” clothes’.) But the donations, however well intended, have done as much harm as good. Unable to compete with the flood of cheap goods into Africa, local textile manufacturing sectors collapsed. Between 1975 and 2000, the number of people working in the textile trade in Ghana fell by 75 per cent. Businesses simply couldn’t compete on price with a product people were throwing away.