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The Secret Life of Your Donated Clothes

Ever wondered what happened to that old, but once stylish, shirt you donated to your local charity shop?

It is always assumed that people who shop at charity shops buy the clothes we donate. In reality, most of the clothes that we stuff into a black plastic bag and drive to a charity shop end up halfway around the world.

With the UK’s addiction to fast fashion, numbers linked to this trend point out a worrying situation. While figures vary, one study suggests that as many as 8 out of 10 garments are not actually sold in charity shops. Landfills, and developing countries seem to be among the favourite destinations for our worn clothes.

One of the places some of your belongings could end up in is Accra, Ghana. Here your cast offs are affectionately known as obroni wawu meaning “dead white man’s clothes”.

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What happens to your clothes once they arrive in Ghana?

Ghana is the largest buyer of donated clothes. Ghana’s capital Accra sees over 30,000 tons arrive at its port every year.  

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The clothes come in bales and each bale can weigh up to 55 kg. The majority of these bales come from the UK. The obroni wawu are then bought by the bale, and each purchaser sorts them into tiers according to brand and quality. These purchasers will then re-sell these clothes onto other merchants who will sell them on dusty roadsides across the country.

The real problem with this process lies in the speed, quantity and the rock bottom prices in which charity clothes arrive and are sold in developing countries like Ghana. Indeed, in Ghana, one of these items can often be bought for as little as 25p. Therefore, most Ghanaians end up buying western clothes instead of local and traditional garments because they are so much cheaper to purchase.

What about Ghana’s own clothing industry?

Fabrics like in the picture below give you an idea of the difference between the cheap western clothes flooding the markets of Accra, and the high quality hand loomed fabrics locally produced in Ghana.

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Unfortunately though this indigenous tradition is under threat. The lower prices of obroni wawu coupled with the fact that many people in Ghana, particularly the younger generation, prefer to wear western clothing (due to the influence of social media and TV), threatens both the wearing of Ghanaian fabrics and the traditional cultural practice of weaving fabric using a handloom.

The overall lack of demand for more traditional clothing has therefore had a major impact on the Ghanaian clothing industry. For example, one of Ghana’s largest textile manufacturers Akosombo Textiles, was producing nearly 2 million metres a month in 2009. This amount has now fallen by 75 per cent putting many local textile businesses on the verge of closing down.

Spare a thought

While it is true that some of the UK charities that ship and sell our used clothes to Ghana are dedicated to assisting the country’s education and health sectors, it doesn’t take away the fact that they are simultaneously having a negative impact on Ghana’s local industry and economy.  

Next time you donate your clothes to a charity shop, spare a thought for those African clothing shops you might be unintentionally putting out of business, or those workers in that fabric factory that might lose their jobs.

Fashion is a fickle business, but as consumers we hold great power. By making informed and more ethical purchases we can consume less and force retailers to change as well.  



Danquah, M. N., 2009. Dead white people’s clothes. The Root [online], 5 March 2009. Available from: [Accessed 25 July 2014].

Wallop, H. 2014. The secret life of your charity shop cast offs. Telegraph [online], 12 July 2014. Available from: [Accessed 20 July 2014].

This World: The Secret Life of Your Clothes. 2014. [television programme]. BBC2. 14 July 2014. 21:00.


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