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How the Global South is confronting the textile waste crisis

Every year, millions of tons of unwanted garments are shipped around the world as part of the second hand clothing trade, ending up on landfill sites in Ghana, Pakistan, and Chile. In an effort to mitigate this pollution problem, entrepreneurs from these countries are getting creative.

The planet is, quite literally, drowning in clothes. Though recycling programmes have existed for decades now, of the 100 billion garments bought annually, 92 million tonnes of them get thrown out.

By just 2030, that figure is expected to increase by over forty million. Production continues to surge, doubling between 2000 and 2014. The average consumer also purchases 60% more clothes annually and keeps them for half as long as they did 15 years ago.

It’s an environmental and social disaster that shows no signs of abating – despite Cop27 and the latest IPCC report urging the industry to change its ways – due to the US’, China’s, and Great Britain’s insatiable appetite for exporting used material to keep up with ever-evolving trends.

These countries aren’t the ones paying the price, however, because every year, millions of tons of unwanted garments are shipped around the world as part of the second hand clothing trade, ending up on landfill sites in Ghana, Pakistan, and Chile.

Overwhelmed with these swiftly swelling graveyards of fast fashion lines past (most of which is in poor condition and cannot be resold), as well as their own surplus, the Global South is in the midst of a textile waste crisis that’s being exacerbated daily by the world’s most powerful economies.

And while the European Commission recently proposed new rules to hold retailers accountable for the life cycle of their products, many deem the suggested structure nowhere near sufficient enough to mitigate a pollution problem of this scale.

As a result, entrepreneurs in the Global South are taking matters into their own hands and getting creative. They’re doing so by collecting scraps destined for dumping and transforming them into different items entirely.

‘We have collected more than 2,000kg of textile waste and made more than 5,000 pairs of shoes out of it since we began in 2017,’ Kwabena Obiri Yeboah, founder of KoliKoWear, Ghana, tells the Guardian.

‘We took the cheapest resource and turned it into something golden.’

Also involved with this rags-to-riches revolution is Ume Kulsum Hussain, who founded East Rugs to pre-emptively avoid a climate catastrophe in Pakistan.

‘When the leftovers go to landfill, they are burned. Many landfills are near water. Someday there will be a lot of air and water pollution,’ she says.

‘I collect waste from factories and have a team of five women who sort through it, cut it up and make it into yarn. Then they start weaving rugs on handlooms. In one day we can make two to three rugs. One rug uses just under 1kg of waste, and so far we’ve made more than 100 rugs.’

Finally, in Chile, Rosario Hevia of Ecocitex has developed a scheme that generates yarn from textile waste that can then be used to make home furnishings including mats, blankets, and cushions, as well as bags, children’s toys and pencil cases.

‘Waste is everywhere. In August 2020 I heard about the clothes dump in the Atacama desert that can be seen from space,’ she says .

‘I’m so ashamed of what we have become as people, governments and companies.’

All three entrepreneurs believe that capitalism is primarily to blame and that a collective push for more circularity is the only viable solution.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Kennie MacCarthy, product development coordinator for the Or Foundation, a non-profit that’s tackling this problem on multiple fronts.

Using research, advocacy, and innovation, the foundation draws attention to textile waste and finds ways to reuse it. To date, it has successfully diverted 28 metric tons of clothing from landfills.

‘Every single one of us is a part of the problem in some small way,’ she says.

‘And so every single one of us can be the solution to the problem as well.’