"Who are you wearing?" is the catchphrase at most red carpet events. But how often do we take the time to consider the clothing industry's impact on sustainability and human rights? To answer that question, we need to ask: "Where does all that clothing go after you're done using it?"
Shopping is one of our favourite guilty pleasures, but it comes with a lot of hidden problems, which can be summarised in the phrase "fast fashion".
What is fast fashion? The environmental news and data platform, Earth.org, defines fast fashion as "cheaply produced and priced items that copy the latest catwalk styles and trends and get pushed through stores in order to maximise sales."
Why is Fast Fashion so harmful to the environment?
The result of more and more clothes being manufactured every year, and worn for shorter and shorter periods, is that the industry accounts for more than 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually. "That's one-tenth of all emissions - more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined," says the Future Investment Initiative Institute, which is head-quartered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Not only does fashion culture's obsession with updating your wardrobe for the newest look generate a tremendous amount of pollution; as well as the environmental cost, there's a human cost.
Behind that hot fashion statement is often an overworked person living in extreme poverty and working in appalling conditions that can be classified as modern slavery. Factory workers are subjected to gruelling work, long hours, and unsafe working conditions, as well as being the lowest-paid workers in fast fashion companies. Child labour, forced labour, and sexual harassment are prominent in this industry, recorded in a 2018 report by the rights group, Human Rights Watch.
To explore the consequences of fast fashion for the African continent, AllAfrica spoke to two activists in the field who are among African creatives finding ways to address the shortcomings of the industry: Stella Hertantyo is a South African sustainability activist and writer, and Hadeel Osman is a Sudanese sustainable fashion researcher and advocate.
Stella Hertantyo told us that she became interested in sustainability through fashion and style. When she was younger she always bought second-hand and fast fashion without thinking anything of it.
"I didn't consider that it would be a part of a bigger movement or conversation around sustainable fashion. But then in 2018, I went to a clothing swap in Cape Town. That event changed the way I looked at a lot of things... From there, I ended up starting a blog... to look at what sustainable fashion meant in a South African context."
Fast Fashion is turning Africa into a dumping ground
Hertantyo went on to highlight the way in which Africa has become a dumping site for second-hand clothing, amounting to treating the continent as a landfill.
Fast fashions are worn briefly, then discarded, generating mountains of used clothing. According to Fairplanet, the unprecedented growth in the fashion industry over the past two decades has led to a boom in second-hand shops, flea markets and thrift stores. But, says the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, "three percent of used clothing is landfilled or incinerated globally. Of the total fiber input used for apparel, 87 percent is burned or disposed of in a landfill."
In April 2022, a team from Greenpeace Africa and Greenpeace Germany went on a research trip to Kenya and Tanzania to find out where many of the cheap clothes produced by fast fashion brands end up once their short lives are over. They found that at least 40% of the donated second-hand clothes exported to East Africa ended up in huge dump sites, burnt on open fires and discarded along riverbeds.
"I would definitely agree that the dumping of second-hand clothing in African countries does mean that the Global North treats African countries as landfills," Stella Hertantyo told us.
"We call it waste colonialism. Because it's essentially this feeling that countries in the Global North feel entitled to access the land and communities and African countries as a place to rid themselves of this waste that is created in the North, because of systems of overproduction and overconsumption and perpetual growth in terms of profits."
She described affected African countries and communities as "fashion sacrifice zones" which were inflicted by "unimaginable consequences, both social and environmental." Highlighting the social impact, she pointed to the work of the Or Foundation in Ghana, which reportedly has the world's biggest second-hand market.
"People who are fishermen are throwing out their nets to catch fish and pulling in clothing. There are even villages... or communities are built on top of textile waste."
Hadeel Osman echoes Hertantyo's thoughts. She described the sending of used clothes to Africa as reinforcing the idea that the whole continent of Africa is poverty-stricken and in constant need of a "helping hand".
"This stereotype is extremely harmful as it projects Africans... as being weak, lazy, and wanting free handouts when the opposite is in fact true. Although the abundance of second-hand clothes has created a new revenue stream for traders, designers, tailors and eco-entrepreneurs, there are far more clothes than needed."
Osman went on to describe why Africa is seen as an easy target for dumping by the West.
"There is plenty of land that sits idle in many parts of our continent, and when there is little to no governance of waste management, this makes Africa more susceptible to being used as a landfill."
"It also doesn't help," she added, "that corruption is rampant and some people in authority would rather take a healthy sum of money for their own personal gain than see how this hurts our environment and local capabilities."
Osman said innovation in the industry could actually benefit African economies: "Africa could have been home to way more fashion brands, manufacturers and makers. Instead, it is in a position that deems it useless, nothing more than an overly polluted landfill."
As well as being one of the largest industries in the world, fashion is also one of the biggest polluters of freshwater sources. Used clothing that enters river systems often ends up in oceans, from where it can get washed back up on beaches, endangering marine life and ecosystems.
Stella Hertantyo also notes that the dyes and the chemicals in our clothing seep into waterways, affecting our health.
Not only does the fashion industry pollute our water; it uses vast volumes of it. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the industry, in addition to emitting 10 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions every year, uses 1.5 trillion litres of water annually. A 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation said the industry consumes around 2.6% of the world's fresh water. Making just one cotton T-shirt takes about 2,700 litres of water.
Can fashion ever be sustainable?
Shifting practices in the fashion industry to reduce carbon emissions is key to limiting warming to as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-Industrial Revolution levels, in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
One of the measures often debated in Africa to reduce the pollution of second-hand clothing is to ban imports of second-hand clothes.
The Nairobi-based East African newspaper has reported that the East African Community has been pushing citizens of member states to buy clothes and shoes made in the region, in order to shore up the local textile industry.
"Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi were to phase out the second-hand clothes trade by 2019 but only Rwanda has implemented the plan, introducing high taxes on... imports to deter trade," the paper said.
It reported John Kalisa, CEO of the East African Business Council, as saying that no country has transformed industrially without first protecting local industry. "If you look at the countries that have industrialised such as the Asian tigers (Singapore, South Korea), they had to protect their local industries," he told the paper.
Deutsche Welle has reported that in Zimbabwe, for example, the sale of second-hand clothing was prohibited in 2015, but that the ban was relaxed two years later when the local textile industry was not yet ready to deal with rising demand and a black market was developing. Other countries have placed high import duties on second-hand clothing, making the trade less attractive, but smuggling across porous borders has undermined such steps.
In addition, Hadeel Osman points out that Europe and North America threaten to impose sanctions and trade limitations on African nations which want to take control of what enters through their borders, be it unsold stock or donated clothes. Describing the West's action, she says "The term 'waste colonisation'comes to mind."
On a global level, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is spearheading an initiative for a zero waste world. UNEP and the non-profit group, Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), jointly held an event at the UN Climate Conference, COP27, in Egypt last year, titled "Circular Systems for a Net Positive Fashion Industry".
There, industry leaders discussed ways to move towards a "circular economy", reducing waste, reducing pollution, reusing and recycling. As a result, UNEP and GFA are working with the fashion industry to define a path to becoming net-positive – transforming it into an industry that gives back more to the world than it takes.
This could be an important development in overcoming deceptive marketing in the fashion industry. Hadeel Osman says "green-washing" is rampant, illustrated by misleading descriptions of products using the words "organic" and "recycle".
"It's hard to truly believe these labels, that are often used to deceive the average consumer while making them feel better for their fashion choices," she said. "However, that does not mean that every single brand and designer is lying about their materials or ethics. There are... ways to find out for sure whether a brand is using organic cotton or recycled fabrics, for instance."
She added: "It's safe to say that popular fast fashion brands can't be sustainable even if they make use of better materials, as their production rate is still excessive and their labour wages are very low.
"However, their intentions can be revealed in the annual Sustainable Brand Index as well as the Fashion Revolution Transparency Index, each of which provides a breakdown of the world's largest fashion brands and retailers, ranked according to what information they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts, in their operations and supply chain."
Africa is not a dumping ground #AfricaIsNotALandfill
On a local level, Hadeel Osman urges consumer watchfulness: "For the consumer to become conscious of their habits, buying behaviour, and garment use, they need to do a bit of digging."
Due to the use of cheap, toxic textile dyes, Greenpeace has pressured brands through detoxing fashion campaigns to remove dangerous chemicals from their supply chains.
The Chinese company, Shein, one of the biggest names in the fast fashion industry, reiterated its commitment to safety after a social media outcry erupted when lead was reported to have been found in products including children's clothing. Those most vulnerable to lead poisoning are pregnant women, infants and young children.
The Canadian news programme, CBC Marketplace, reported in 2021 that Shein and two other fast-fashion retailers, Zaful and AliExpress, had stopped sales of clothing containing elevated levels of chemicals.
Osman is committed to advocating for sustainability in one of the world's most polluting industries and demanding systemic change from multi-million dollar businesses, as well as to empowering consumers who vote with their dollars when they support businesses by buying from them.
Stella Hertantyo added: "I think that if we want to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees, and want to address climate change, then we have to try to keep new fossil fuels in the ground. But we also have to look at the way that fashion impacts the environment."
Addressing how best to lower our environmental footprint when it comes to clothing, she added: "The most simple answer is just to cut down [on what we consume]."