Dead White Mans Clothes
Updated: Apr 14
For the relaunch of our web blog www.theunwrappedfamily.com
I wanted to interview key people and projects that are helping to combat the world’s waste problems. In the last decade documentaries like “a plastic ocean”, “the story of stuff’, “the minimalists” and ‘“the true cost” are all the rave. Where words like bio, organic, and eco are constantly on everyone’s tongue but hardly understood. For most people, after a 2-hour documentary or scrolling through images of a world suffering from harmful environmental impacts; sighing, and throwing up our arms at a problem that seems bigger than us, is generally the default response. Making new year resolutions that quickly fade by the arrival of H&M’s SS19 collection, goes hand in hand with this fast fashion epoch.
Looking through social media, there are more of us jumping on the bandwagon of sustainable and conscious living than ever before. With weekends spent posting images of home attempts at sparking joy via the #konmari method, or the occasional and inspirational purging of belongings for the purpose of donating to a good cause like the local thrift store, many of us are trying to do our part. While this is inspiring and change provoking, due to the world’s pending waste and environmental issues, it becomes apparent that we are, for the most part, turning a blind eye to these issues that arise beyond our borders. The majority of us don’t practice enough daily conscious behavior and we do not act accountable for the real-life burdens of our consumerist habits. We are all at fault, including myself. However reeducation and change is possible.
I came across the DWMC project on Instagram via another friend’s story.
The DWMC project intrigued me for many reasons:
1. How they would present the locals in their research?
2. Why they choose Ghana?
3. What their research would show to be the side effects of clothing waste?
4. In what ways are they were trying to bring awareness of this problem?
5. Whether this was seen as a problem by locals and if so, how it was being combated?
Being of Ghanaian descent and raised in Ghana, I often feel like our region of the world gets left out of these western dialogues. We fall victim to becoming the waste lands and collectors, while western consumers continue on and our stories never make it to the big screen. If we do make it, we are often portrayed as third world victims from the country of Africa looking for charitable handouts or waiting on someone from overseas to come help and teach us how to solve our problems. The DWMC project shows a more familiar reality and there are few projects run by foreign based NGOs that present relatable faces to narrate their experiences and their ability to self-help/problem solve. With raw multimedia subject narratives focused on Accra, Ghana, the viewer gets to walk in the footsteps of the people on ground trying to turn this disaster around. Most of all leaving us with a note of caution in our daily ways.
On this note, I would like to simultaneously welcome and thank Liz and Branson for this opportunity to interview them on such short notice and at such a crucial time in our blog launch.
First off, could you explain in the simplest way, what the origin of “Obroni w’awu” is , what this means to sellers on the market in Ghana and how this phrase impacted the name of this project?
What an excellent jumping off point! We will try to offer some clarity on the scope of our project with this explanation, but we apologize...it is not simple in the sense of being short…
“Obroni w’awu” is an Akan phrase that translates to “the white man has died clothes” (although obroni is also used to identify any foreigner regardless of their skin color). We chose to call our project “Dead White Man’s Clothes” for two reasons, but let’s try to cover the first one here...
Secondhand clothing and the importation of cloth have a long history in Ghana predating Kantamanto Market and the system of provision we see today. Globally, including within Ghana, clothing and cloth used to have tremendous value. Considered durable goods, clothing and cloth were once traded as currency. But today, globally, we consider clothing and fashion in general to be a consumable good. This distinction is important because the growth of the secondhand clothing trade in Ghana marks a shift in the valorization of clothing everywhere.
Digging through the Ghana National Archives the earliest reference (that we could find) to secondhand clothing being sent to Ghana en masse was a monthly report by the Ghana Trade Mission in New York dated in the 1960’s.
What we see in this correspondence is that Ghana is not asking for the clothing, but rather the USA is asking to send the clothing. This is the first indication that the clothing being sent to Ghana represents excess. The removal of that excess from the American economy makes room for people to buy more stuff.
It’s simple. If you create an outlet for people to get rid of the things that people no longer want, you simultaneously make room for people to purchase new things that they do want. And if you tell people that the things they do not want are actually needed elsewhere in the world, well, this is very convenient and comfortable for everyone.
What may have begun as a charitable venture (leaving commentary in charity aside) quickly became a necessary outlet for an evolving culture of overproduction and overconsumption.
It was at this time that the name “obroni w’awu” was coined because most Ghanaians assumed that the previous owners of the clothing had died. Why else would they send such valuable things?
We think that this is important because the name indicates that the very concept of excess clothing was foreign. We would argue that the concept of excess clothing was new to the Global North as well.
Fast forward to today. Although the name has stuck, Ghanaians understand the mechanics of the second-hand clothing trade far better than most Americans. Both the people working in Kantamanto along with the Ghanaian consumer know that the clothing is donated by living people or is deadstock from fashion brands.
And today, globally, clothing is no longer a high value durable good. Instead, we have a hyper-accelerated model of overproduction and overconsumption that can exist only because of waste -- the devaluation of people, resources and product.
This shift did not come about overnight. In fact, it traces its roots back to cotton plantations where people were enslaved to grow the ingredients of our clothing. Looking at the systemic injustices within supply chains and within our waste streams, it is clear that we have not progressed beyond this moral blight.
So, for us the name ‘dead white man’s clothes’ is about questioning this entire culture of consumption. Learning from our history to move beyond it.
I read that you visited Ghana back in 2009/2011 respectively. What brought you to Ghana and what was your introduction to this waste issue?
Branson:I came as part of a study abroad program in 2009 and I was struck by the abundance of tailors and the ability for these skilled artisans to make a living doing custom orders. This relationship, both in terms of creativity and trade, between consumer and maker is not easy to find in the USA. For many Americans, this idea of buying cloth and taking it to a neighborhood tailor is a completely foreign concept. Of course, it hasn’t always been that way, but now it largely is. With an understanding of the labor and environmental issues inherent in the globalized supply chains of most American brands, I felt it was important to celebrate these Ghanaian tailors. It was during my first trip to Ghana that I met a local artist who worked with textiles and was also an incredible tailor himself. We got to talking and decided to launch a fair-trade fashion company called Of Rags. Our workshop was based in Labadi.
I was going back and forth between Accra and NYC, managing the company and doing educational tours and pop-up sales on colleges campuses along the east coast. We were mostly selling t-shirts at the time because our market was college students, but we wanted to do much more. I realized that we needed someone in the USA who had a better understanding of the American fashion industry in order to help with design, strategy and network building. That’s when I met Liz, who at the time was working as a stylist and designer in NYC. She came on board as a volunteer consultant in January of 2011.
Liz: We started looking at the mission and business strategy and realized that reciprocity was key to the success of the business in an ideological sense. Branson and his partner RAAM wanted to build relationships between the team in Ghana and the people who bought the clothing - the goal being to break down cultural barriers and misconceptions, while also exchanging ideas about the future of fashion and of global trade. This whole exchange was happening in two ways. One, on Facebook and two, through Branson’s presentations. Neither provided for true reciprocity. At the time, internet access was expensive in Ghana and it always came down to the team in Ghana posting pictures and people in the USA liking it. So even though the vision was to rethink AID paradigms, our team in Ghana was basically performing in a traditional charity model of posting pictures of poverty in order to generate income. This wasn’t good, and it wasn’t our intention.
And then there were the customers. Folks seemed inspired, but they basically bought the product to fulfill a “do-good” quota. Despite having little understanding of Ghana or of fair-trade principles, folks felt inclined to buy this “positive” thing and then they would continue shopping as they did before...we weren’t changing lives here.
We found that the main roadblock to achieving our mission was education. The college students we marketed to in the USA didn’t know enough about globalization, about fashion, about Ghana or about themselves as consumers to actually participate in the conversations we wanted to have. We realized that if we really wanted to build reciprocal relationships through trade, we would have to unlearn our own understanding of consumption and citizenship.
So we launched an educational exchange program in 2011 - basically a pen-pal program with objects. We aren’t going to get into that, although we are most proud of this work, but to answer your actual question, this is what brought me to Ghana at the end of 2011. I came to do two things: One, work on some up cycled designs with RAAM - items for the next Of Rags collection. And two, launch the educational exchange.
On waste: It is important to be clear that we are interested in the issue of waste globally. We both have a background in fashion, so we carry this global, industry-wide view into everything we do. For this reason, we had long been aware of fashion waste generally. Ever since our first trip to Kantamanto, which came about trying to source things for some of our other work in Accra at the time, we had assumed that some of the clothing there was going to landfill simply because that’s a given within the larger story of our clothing. We also know, from living in the USA, that people don’t always donate their best items, and although clothing collectors and exporters in the USA are supposed to remove un-wearable items, we assumed that many unworthy clothes were making it to Kantamanto anyways.
We decided to commit ourselves to researching Kantamanto in 2015 but didn’t get back until 2016 because Liz was in grad school. This grew from a frustration with the narrative about secondhand clothing markets in both public discourse and in academic and professional conferences on the future of fashion. Markets like Kantamanto were seen as inherently positive opportunities for reuse. They were presented with the assumption that people in Ghana “needed” the clothing. We weren’t sure that this was entirely accurate, and at any rate we felt that the secondhand clothing industry (it is a MASSIVE industry) deserved a more complex narrative. Thanks to attention raised by numerous activist groups and several tragic events, the world was beginning to learn more about how clothing is “made” in places like Bangladesh and Haiti. The complexity of fashion supply chains was being discussed, but what of the complexity of fashion’s waste stream? Which is essentially what Kantamanto is. Understanding the complexity of markets like Kantamanto is critical to having informed discussions about the future of fashion. Landfills are filling up in the Global North and an increasing percentage of this waste stream is fashion. So, cities in the USA for instance are starting campaigns to “divert” this waste from “our” landfills but where will it go? The fashion industry does not currently have the capacity to recycle most of the material we are generating, and fast fashion brands refuse to reduce their production quantity.
So, where shall we “divert” this excess fashion to? Where will it go if not in “Our” landfill?
The secondhand clothing industry is no longer about charity (again let’s leave this discussion aside to save time), it is about waste management. And the acceptance of waste facilitates consumption.
This is an urgent situation. We cannot stress this enough.
The amount of waste in Kantamanto is not immediately obvious to the average customer. You have to dig, and you have to be in Kantamanto every day, at all times of day, to understand the scale of the issue. It is also not a fun job. Tracking down waste that has been dumped around the city is not glamorous and once you find it, the reality is devastating. We really started to understand JUST how much is going to landfill (both legal and illegal or formal and informal landfills) during our first research study in 2016. We spent every day in Kantamanto for nearly two months interviewing folks and observing. We found that 40% of each bale goes to waste. We feel pretty confident in this assessment.
With this in mind, no one anywhere in the world should be calling the secondhand clothing industry a recycling or full-proof reuse strategy.
This is globalized waste management and to suggest that this global system would be unaffected by global political dynamics - by colonial and neocolonial structures - is absurd.
At the same time the secondhand clothing trade does provide some degree of income for thousands of people and clothes for millions, potentially billions of people. So again, the situation is enormously complex, and we are glad that folks in a number of different circles are starting to discuss this complexity more and more.
What is the USA based NGO, The OR foundation? What other projects are you involved in? What is the mission of this NGO?
The OR Foundation is about choice - “the or” represents this idea that freedom is essentially the ability to choose between this or that. We are essentially interested in individual agency, or lack thereof, within the fashion system.
We have run a variety of educational programs and written curricula that attempt to challenge the dominant model of fashion consumption.
At the end of the day, The OR Foundation is our passion project. It is officially just the two of us at this point, although we employ other folks whenever we are in Ghana, and we have employed people here in the states in the past. We don’t make money through this work through and we have funded Dead White Man’s Clothes primarily through Liz’s teaching job at the University of Cincinnati. We are incredibly privileged to have the time and resources to do this research and to run our other education programs. It is our choice to apply our resources and privileged position as White Americans to this work.
We aren’t sure how our not-for-profit will evolve to be honest...we used to treat it more like a business and focus on branding and strategy and all of that...but now we just focus on the work and on the learning. We let our questions and the questions of others guide our projects and how we choose to spend our time. We like to work through the entity of our not-for-profit because it removes the work from us as individuals and does allow us to bring a lot of other people into it. We are in a place of trusting ourselves and wanting to busy ourselves with the right kind of work...life seems too short and these issues too urgent to worry about our five-year plan, elevator pitches and a well-branded Instagram movement...we think too many folks get caught up in that stuff. We are so privileged; we owe it to those who are not as privileged to apply our resources to actually make a difference.
We know that the intersection of fashion and education will always be of interest to us. And we consider Ghana one of our homes, so we are committed to continuing this work in whatever way seems appropriate and of value.
How do you research and document the second-hand trade in GH? Did you face any challenges in getting Ghanaians on board with your research for this project?
First and foremost, we focused on showing up every day to observe and build relationships with people working in the market. Once those relationships were established and once, we felt like we understand what questions to ask we started documenting with photos and videos, and through surveys and formal interviews.
We actually faced very little push back from folks in the market. For one, we have spent a lot of time in Ghana, so we understand certain norms in terms of asking permission, speaking to elders and the weight of a photograph taken by us as White Americans. We are constantly reflecting on the way our White bodies move through space and are received. So, we recognize this. From that recognition comes the understanding that perhaps we will never be the best people to do this job. But we also bring a valuable perspective in our understanding of the global fashion system. We talk to folks in the market about where the clothing is made, and we show them pictures of clothing collection containers in the USA and UK and this often leads to very productive conversations.
We have only gotten this far in our research because we felt that our inquiries were positively received and because, at least with a few people, we built sincere relationships of respect and trust. Generally, the retailers in the market wanted to talk to us. The business is not as good as it used to be. There is too much waste and generally the clothing is of lesser quality. One of the questions we asked retailers on this last trip was whether or not their children would take over their business. Not a single retailer said yes. They all said that the work is too difficult and is not profitable. This is telling. Again, we don’t go around asking people if they are making money or asking, ‘is business good?’ because we wouldn’t learn anything from that and the interviewees might be more inclined to mislead us for multiple reasons, but we can gauge the health of the market and the quality of the job through other questions and through casual conversation.
We did have a moment of tension in the market this last time with some retailers who we had never met before asking us if we were coming to buy Kantamanto. There seems to be a growing fear amongst people in the market that the “modernisation” of Accra, the new “developments” popping up around the market, that this new Accra will squeeze them out.
Do Ghanaians view clothing waste as an issue? If so in what respect?
We would say that for the most part, no. Most of our friends in Ghana had not thought about it until we shared our findings with them. Most of the people working in Kantamanto view the waste from their bales as an issue in the sense that it represents financial losses for them, but most of them had not thought about the accumulated waste or considered it from an environmental perspective.
In our experience, the only folks who were aware of the amount of waste and the systemic issues this waste poses were officials from the Accra Metropolitan Assembly, the landfill managers and the thousands of people living on, or near, the informal (illegal) dumpsites. Essentially, it is like any type of waste - we might feel concerned about the plastic waste we generate as a household, for instance, but it is often not until we see this waste accumulate that it really sinks in. Same for the clothing waste - and this is global, not just in Ghana - the people who understand the scope of the issue are the people who handle the waste in aggregate.
BUT what is more important is how people receive the information. We hosted a discussion at Lokkohouse in Accra (shout out to the team there for making this a priority!), and the majority of people in attendance were really inspired to take the information, share it, do their own investigating and make changes. Some people might have been overwhelmed, but generally everyone seemed ready to take charge of the situation. The response was really refreshing and motivating.
Your research in Accra started in 2016, since then would you say the influx of second-hand clothing to Ghana has increased or decreased? And have there been any observations about the types of brands whose clothing ‘ends up’ in Ghana?
The amount has increased. The amount of waste has also increased from 50 metric tons to 70 metric tons of clothing/textile waste daily being picked up and landfilled by the AMA six days a week. This accounts for formal waste collection alone. Much is taken by informal collectors to illegal dumping sights. We cannot be sure exactly how much is informally collected and dumped, but our educated guess is that it is double what the AMA is taking.
There has been an increase in slashed deadstock, which is both concerning and not at all surprising given that brands want to avoid being seen burning or dumping their excess deadstock, so they donate it or work with a clothing collector to “process” it.
Other than this we would say that you notice more of a shift in the brands/trends when looking at the counterfeit Chinese goods. Generally, there is a rise in cheaply made products being imported from China - often knockoffs, but sometimes just unbranded clothing. It is not secondhand, but rather is clothing made to compete with the secondhand clothing in the same market. That is a whole other topic of conversation...
Aside from that, as far as brands go, we always find a lot of GAP, H&M, Zara, Top Shop and Marks & Spencer.
What state does clothing arrive in?
It varies. When a retailer cuts a bale, it is sorted into three piles - first, second and third selection - and then everything else, which is the under or trash. First selection items are going to be new or nearly new, deadstock, bright colors and the right sizes for Ghanaian customer. Second selection will be items that look worn but are still trendy/desirable and generally the right size. Third selection contains the big sizes, faded stuff and light stains. The trash includes anything torn, slashed or covered in stains. On average, first selection makes up less than 20% of each bale.
Every bale that is actually secondhand clothing contains all four of these categories.
Some of the new clothes coming from China that are made to compete might only be first and second selection, but, again, that is a whole other conversation.
Generally, the clothing is wrinkly and smelly. By law each bale is supposed to be fumigated where they are packed. Also, generally, the clothing is musty and the whole business is rather unsanitary.
What sort of repair or adjustments need to be widely made in order for resale?
The main issue is that the clothing needs to be washed. We find that retailers who are making more money are taking the time to wash their second or third selection items to make them more desirable. They might even steam or press them.
Light colored jeans are often over-dyed with dark blue and black dye to make them more suitable for professionals. We have met several retailers who take plain white t-shirts or stained t-shirts and dye them.
You see retailers clipping threads and mending holes, but a lot of the time it isn’t worth it for them to do this. Most of the repair and adjustments come from the customers who will take their purchases to a tailor inside Kantamanto. And then there are designers / creatives who are pursuing more advanced upcycling as a business.
What category of clothing seems to be in higher numbers and what is the local demand versus this? (example: Women vs. Men vs. Kids)
There are a lot of children’s bales and women’s tops.
Our data indicates that market traders selling these items are not making much money because of the oversupply saturating the market.
On the other hand, men’s and ladies’ suits are the most likely to turn a profit because there is lower supply, and these tend to be higher ticket items.
What are the top countries shipping to Ghana?
The UK by far. Canada, the Netherlands, China, Korea, Australia and the USA are some other countries. Not all countries process their own clothing though. The USA for instance outsources a lot of the sorting, baling and exporting.
Why is Ghana a target for this industry?
For one, it is legal. Two, Tema is a major port of entry for West Africa generally. Three, colonial legacy - mental and material.
But we don’t know that exporters see Ghana as a “target” - that language mischaracterizes the relationship a bit or makes it slightly more one-sided than the reality. At the end of the day, most Ghanaian consumers favor secondhand clothing and would not approve of a ban. Also, many Ghanaians working as secondhand clothing importers have done quite well financially and actively try to move products as quickly as possible in order to increase their revenues. We also can’t say that Ghana is more of a “target” than other African nations where the importation of secondhand clothing is legal.
On your website you have a page called Kevin the Jeans Bale which outlines the process once shipment arrives in Ghana. How often do shipments arrive?
Nearly every day, but the containers are primarily opened and unloaded on the ‘importer’ side of the market on Thursdays.
How profitable is this industry for everyone involved?
The real money is in importing the bales. We know some families that are making millions of dollars a year on that side of the business.
On the retailer side we found that the average annual gross income (revenue - cost of bales) is likely around 2500USD. That’s before other expenses though, like storage, rent for a stall, transportation, any employees that a trader might have or cell phone credit for calling customers. It’s not a huge amount of money at the end of the day. Importantly though, our data suggests that of the retailers who cut open bales, nearly as many people are flat out losing money as are making money. The average income is skewed by the fact that some people, especially the folks who have been in the business for a long time or are selling more profitable items, are making several times what other people make. For most people it is a break-even business at best. This raises concerns about debt.
And woven throughout this entire system are the kayayei - the female head porters who carry the bales on their heads through the crowded market. These women are the backbone of this industry and they are the most vulnerable people in the market.
For many women working as kayayei, the bales they carry are the equivalent of their entire bodyweight. They make at most 1USD per trip, and each trip can be up to a mile long. This work is extremely detrimental to their health and the low pay leaves them in unimaginable circumstances. These women are exploited, and we consider them slaves within this system.
The conditions these girls live and work in are unacceptable and we hope this is an area where we can make an impact.
We will be speaking and writing more about the kayayei over the next month. We are working on raising money to improve their living conditions and fight the root issues that lead these young girls into this field of work. We encourage your readers to check out our website and if they feel moved to do so, they can make a donation via the Support tab.
I was born and raised in Tema, and I have many vivid memories as a little girl running through the Tema market especially looking to buy second hand clothing. Apart from
Kantamanto, are you aware of any other market regions or cities in GH that are also selling these clothes? And if so, why is your focus mainly on Kantamanto Market then?
Thank you for sharing this memory with us - we would certainly be interested to know more about the brands available when you were a kid and whether you remember anything about the quality of the clothing.
We are aware that there are many other markets in Ghana. Kumasi would be the second biggest in terms of secondhand clothing. We chose to focus on Kantamanto for two reasons. One, Kantamanto is endless. When we started our research, we thought we would want to travel to all of the major markets, but every time we would visit Kantamanto we realized just how complex it is and we believed that it deserved to be studied in depth. We did speak informally to people who shop and work in other markets, Tema and Kumasi included, and felt that there wasn’t enough of a difference to warrant extending our limited resources (mostly our time). This brings us to the second reason for focusing on Kantamanto. In our interviews, especially with importers, we started to realize that much of what ends up in these other markets first comes to Kantamanto to either be unloaded and re-sorted or to be “un-baled” and picked over. Even importers selling in Kumasi or other countries will often unload their containers in Kantamanto. In this sense we see this one market as the epicenter of the national (and in most cases West African) secondhand clothing trade.
What happens to clothes that can’t be sold?
We found that on average 40% of every bale cannot be sold. A small percentage will be given away for free. Most will go to landfill - formal or informal - or be dumped in the ocean or burned.
What is this trade doing to the local clothing, shoe and accessory manufacturing companies, seamstresses and fashion designers in Ghana?
The textile industry has been most impacted. We’ve spoken with a senior executive at one major textile company about this and he shared with us that thirty years ago the textile manufacturing industry in Ghana employed roughly 30,000 people. Today it maybe employs 1,000. Secondhand clothing is not the only culprit in this decline, but it is certainly a major factor.
Our conversations with seamstresses and tailors indicate that for the most part people still go to seamstresses and tailors for special events, church and school uniforms. That being said, we see a shift in consumer behavior in Accra where younger people are wearing secondhand clothing to church, and many young people, Millennials and Gen Z, have told us that they prefer secondhand for special events. We also know that many seamstresses and tailors find work in Kantamanto altering secondhand garments. We can’t say for certain what impact secondhand clothing has had on the entire business of local seamstresses’ shops, but we suspect it has definitely changed the landscape and that those changes have occurred slowly over decades to the effect that they are hard to recognize without a solid point of reference, which unfortunately we don’t have.
Local designers are definitely impacted. It is impossible for them to compete with secondhand clothing in terms of price. But also, many local designers incorporate secondhand clothing as material in their collections.
With all that in mind this is a difficult question to get to the bottom of because there are so many factors to consider. Secondhand clothing does not exist in a vacuum. Youtube, facebook, instagram, increased travel abroad and a growing tourism industry domestically are among a whole array of influences that impact style decisions and ultimately the Ghanaian fashion market. For the most part we think that these global influences have moved Ghanaian society in the direction of favoring secondhand clothing. But a friend of ours pointed out to us the interesting question of the impact of the current rising African aesthetic on global trends. Will that ultimately bring a new balance to the Ghanaian markets in a quasi-boomerang effect?
On the video on your website, Abena, one of the sellers, shows how she wears her “waist bag” to collect as she says the ‘plenty money that will come”, Couldn’t it be argued that this clothing waste is doing some good for Ghanaian locals by creating jobs? If so, then why should we be worried about our consumer clothing habits in the West, with regards to Ghana?
The Accra Metropolitan Assembly assesses that there are 30,000 people working within the secondhand clothing trade in Kantamanto. After trying our best to replicate this assessment, we think it is pretty accurate. So, on the one hand, yes, many people derive some form of income from second hand clothing. Many people also lose money because of it. In the end we think that for the the majority of the people involved it represents something to do -- a job to keep people busy because they can’t find other work. And the majority of people are at best subsisting off of this job, but not getting rich from it. Certainly, there are some people getting rich, particularly in the import business, but that is such a small fraction of the 30,000 people, it’s hard to argue that it’s a good business for everyone involved. We don’t fault people for trying to make money anyway they can and the secondhand clothing trade, like much of the so-called informal sector is a relatively low barrier to entry way of trying to make money. For many traders it is a far better alternative than other work that they have done.
But remember, not a single person that we talked with on the retail side of Kantamanto wants their kids to do the same job.
Yet the fact that so many people do find some type of work in the sector and the fact that so many people do wear clothes from Kantamanto is an important part of the complex story. We don’t think Kantamanto is bad. In fact, 60% of every bale is in fact being reworn, or maybe worn for the first time in some cases.
Ecologically this is far better than if everyone shopping at Kantamanto was buying new clothes made from virgin materials. So, this reuse is key. But as the saying goes, we are left with reduce and recycle.
What do you hope this project will help to accomplish and what do you think the Kantamanto Market will look like if your project becomes highly successful in its endeavor?
We want to accomplish a few things.
At the VERY least we want people to stop *intentionally* sending their trash to Ghana (and other countries).
By “people” we are speaking about several groups -- individual consumers who might donate clothing in undignified condition (dirty, badly stained, torn); clothing brands who “donate” deadstock, but only after they have slashed it so that it cannot be resold; and clothing collectors/”recyclers” who are supposed to sort out the unsellable items, but are failing to do so. This is unacceptable.
Two, be an activist.
We are not going to buy our way out of this problem. We recognize the ability of purchasing power to steer the ship, but frankly we consider it to be the helmsman of the Titanic. Given everything that is common knowledge about the abuse of our shared environment and our fellow human beings on this planet, the ship is going down. To drive the metaphor all the way home, where we shop is just the tip of the iceberg. Instead, we all have to pay more attention to who makes decisions about the future of the fashion industry and more generally our global society at large. If we see our role only as consumers, then this power of decision making really rests in the hands of a few very wealthy individuals and the brands they represent. It is convenient for those individuals and their brands to place the burden of responsibility on us as consumers, while they more or less go about business as usual. This alleviates them of any real sustainable leadership, and we are left to feel quite comfortable with the idea that if we stop shopping here and start shopping there then some radical change will occur. It won’t. Not fast enough anyways.
Industry-wide statistics suggest that at least 100 billion items of clothing were produced in 2015 alone. And we wonder why there is waste?
The scale this challenge presents often seems overwhelming to the point of paralysis, so we encourage starting small. What do the recycling programs look like in your neighborhood? Are there clothing swaps at your school? Consider the things that you can directly control as the testing ground for solutions. Become part of a community and then grow it.
Three, we are directing our immediate efforts and fundraising capacity to the Kayayei. We will have more on that shortly. Please check out our website and Instagram for forthcoming updates over the next few weeks or explore the topic on your own via this video:
Four, we believe that the importation of secondhand clothing into Ghana will increase, not decrease. Add to that the development of more shopping malls with fast fashion brands, and the problem of waste is here in Ghana to stay.
Certainly, there is a growing effort surrounding reducing and recycling plastic waste in Ghana. We’d like to see more movement towards using textile waste as a resource too.
On a global scale this is definitely happening. We just went to a conference on the future of textiles and pretty much everyone there was talking about recycling. Our interest is mostly about ensuring that Ghana has a place at the table in those discussions, that the complexity is deeply considered and that equitable solutions are deployed.
How can we (as individuals) help to reduce clothing waste? And in your experience does donating clothing to causes or second-hand stores in the West do more help than damage?
First, take the time to consider what you are getting rid of and why. This consideration will guide you to the most beneficial solution.
If you are making room in your closet, do you really need new things? Can you have a clothing swap with friends? Can you alter pieces that you already have in order to create new looks?If a t-shirt is stained can it be dyed to transform it into something new? If pants are torn can they be fixed? If not by you, then is there an expert nearby who can use your clothes as material for a new garment? Build relationships with artists and designers and feel free to be creative.
If you must donate your clothes then try to find an organization that will actually give the clothes to people who legitimately need clothes, like a fire station’s winter coat drive, for instance. We’d suggest avoiding big, steel donation boxes that resemble trash receptacles. We’d also suggest avoiding branded efforts by large fashion companies that give you a discount toward their new clothes in exchange for donating your old clothes.
Regardless of where you donate, only give things that you find dignity in wearing. If you have torn, stained or otherwise unwearable clothing, then give a donation center a call to find out if they can take clothing in poor condition to send onward to an actual textile recycler that can turn it into insulation (for example).
And if you donate at a thrift store (which is a perfectly fine thing to do, just not the only option), we suggest shopping at that thrift store too! ...that is if you actually need to buy clothes.
I know that in Ghana it’s quite typical that traders take up a greater number in gender category of women, especially in the market scenario, is this true in the case of the second-hand clothing trade?
We cannot say officially - we tried to survey all 5,000 stalls to get these numbers, but that wasn’t the best use of our time. Based on observation there are more women on the retailer side of the business and almost no women on the importer side.
Also, of note, our data suggests pretty conclusively that women are making less money than men. We think perhaps this is one piece in the jigsaw puzzle of fashion’s exploitation of women globally.
There is more to say about that than we have time for, but, in short, such exploitation has occurred under the guidance of white men, which leads us back to the name - dead white man’s clothes.
What lesson do you hope the West would take from the innovation of Ghanaians with second hand/ clothing waste?
The Global North should look to Kantamanto Market specifically as a case study in resourcefulness. Almost everything that we should do in considering what to do with the clothes that we no longer want is already going on in Kantamanto. Despite the resourcefulness of the people who re-dye things, who repair holes, who cut and sew new silhouettes, clothing from Kantamanto Market is still the largest single consolidated source of waste in the entire city of Accra. So, the biggest lesson is that our lack of resourcefulness might just be the real cause of all the waste.
We would like to end with a quote by Kenneth Boulding:
“We cannot walk before we toddle
but we may toddle much too long
if we embrace a lovely Model
that's consistent, clear and wrong”.