top of page

The Secondhand Supply Chain Explained

Giving away your unwanted and used clothing sounds simple, right? You drop them off at a donation center and they are resold to someone who can reuse it. Well, it's actually not as simple as that.

In reality, the secondhand clothing market is not the promised land where every item of clothing finds a user. It provides the opportunity to extend the life of a garment, but the lifecycle does not necessarily continue on due to a number of factors we will discuss below.

To start, all of your donations that you've packed up and brought down to Salvation Army or Goodwill, might not actually get sold at that location. Let's take a look at Goodwill as an example.

  1. Donate your clothes to be sold at a Goodwill Retail store

  2. What isn't sold after 4 weeks is sent to a Goodwill Outlet and sold at ultra-low prices

  3. Whatever isn't sold is packaged into bales and sold at auction where attendees bid on bins of donated items without knowing precisely what’s inside

  4. Lastly, it reaches the textile recyclers who sort the unwanted garments and either sell them to secondhand markets locally and overseas, recycles them into rags and insulation, or send them to landfills if they are wet, moldy, or contaminated

When our donated goods get shipped overseas, it is a trading system that occurs, not a donation, and these individual bales are expensive costing between $75 and $400.

The cheapest clothing is generally sent to Africa where one of the largest secondhand markets, in Accra, lives. Liz Ricketts and J. Branson Skinner wrote a beautiful article on Accra, Ghana's, imported second-hand market called "Dead White Man's Clothes" for Atmos Magazine, which tells the story of 3 people working in and around the market that I highly suggest reading.

"Our research has concluded that there are roughly 100 containers offloaded in Kantamanto on a weekly basis. Each container holds an average of 400 120-pound bales, with each bale containing secondhand and deadstock clothing that has been collected and packed abroad. That adds up to nearly five million pounds of clothing flowing through the market every week. At an average of three garments per pound, that’s roughly 15 million items. We calculate that some of those items immediately make their way to other markets and other countries, leaving Kantamanto with around 11 million items of clothing to sell each week."

Photo by Charlie Engman and Prince Gyasi

It is also getting harder for recyclers to sort properly with fast fashion clothing taking over the secondhand market. It isn't possible for us to deal with the number of clothes we donate/discard, which is why it has become necessary for us to ship overseas. But, it makes no sense to be shipping donated clothing, traveling thousands of miles, to end up in someone else's landfill.

"On average, 40 percent of each bale is not sold. In most cases, what is not sold is sent to the landfill. The dump-truck we saw in the morning was one of two trucks that the Accra Metropolitan Assembly uses to collect waste from Kantamanto each day that the market is open. These trucks take 70 metric tons, or 154,000 pounds, of clothing and textile waste to the landfill on a daily basis, an increase from 50 metric tons in 2017. What the AMA cannot pick up due to limited truck and landfill capacity is collected by informal garbage collectors and is illegally burned or dumped on unofficial landfills." - Atmos Magazine

Photo by Charlie Engman and Prince Gyasi

As consumers, we need to start with consuming less and buying better quality so clothing can be recycled into new fibers or new garments, ultimately creating a circular fashion economy.

Come back next week for an interview with Reagan Marelle, founder and designer of Hargan Denim, which utilizes excess and discarded denim for her designs! In the meantime, head on over to my Instagram for daily facts and brand recommendations and STAY DILIGENT FRIENDS.

A little bonus excerpt from Atmos:

"The name given to secondhand clothing in Ghana perfectly illustrates this reality. Obroni w’awu is an Akan term that translates to “dead white man’s clothes.” When secondhand clothing first arrived in Ghana decades ago, it was presumed that the previous owner had died. Why else would someone pass on their clothing? The very concept of excess was not understood. Today, the understanding of the term “dead white man's clothes” incorporates the knowledge that not all of the clothing comes from dead people. The concept of excess has taken on a new meaning."

Ani Wells


bottom of page