In Ghana, second-hand clothes that arrive from Europe and North America are known as ‘obroni wawu’ – or ‘dead white man’s clothes’. Every week, about 15 million of them travel to Accra, the capital of the West African country. Around 40% of what happens is clearly wasteful, according to local activists, who say the African continent is grappling with the devastating effects of Western overconsumption and the rise of fast fashion.
Many of these clothes have been “donated” to charity shops or put in “recycling” bins in the West, but – unsaleable there – they are shipped to countries in the South. Local traders buy the bales without knowing what’s inside, hoping to make enough money from the salable coins to go on for another day.
The dumping of second-hand clothes has posed a dilemma for the growing fashion scene in Ghana and the young designers active there.
“I stopped completely because I find it difficult to be creative. I find it difficult to reconcile production, ”says Chloe Asaam (29), who graduated in fashion design in 2017.
She now works with the Or Foundation, a charity that raises awareness about the harmful effects of fast fashion in Ghana. Its headquarters is a short walk from the Kantamanto Market, one of the largest second-hand clothing markets in the region.
Traditionally, clothes were made to be passed down, shared and valued, she says, sitting in the charity’s office.
Today, fast fashion companies devalue clothes and Westerners in particular treat them as disposable. “How can I reconcile this product that I would create within the same framework? For me, it’s really hard to juggle producing more while trying to fight and advocate for better practices in the industry. I still can’t reconcile the production because there are too many clothes in the world.
Asaam has worked with the Gold Foundation since 2020 – the same year her first seven-piece collection, inspired by “the moods and feelings we had during the pandemic”, was featured by Vogue.
In 2019, she was one of 50 finalists from 10 countries shortlisted for a Gucci Design Fellowship, and she traveled to Italy to spend a week with the fashion brand. “When I came back, people kept asking me what was next. The most common question is when is the next collection coming. If you are a designer, you need to produce at least three collections every year in the Ghanaian setting,” says Asaam. “People [are] wondering what’s next? What did you design? Who have you collaborated with? Most of the time when I tell people I’m taking a break it’s almost a bad thing, it’s almost like I’ve failed as a designer.
Instead, she calls on Western countries – including Ireland – to be more aware of the impacts of their purchases. “We try not to point fingers because we’re all figuring it out – we just want them to know they’re complicit,” Asaam says. “The problem is [people are] consume as much. We are advocating for people to stop for a while to accept their own participation in the crisis… It creates so many waste issues for our communities and it also creates issues for the women we work with.
“I think there is a feeling that Africans should be grateful for what they can get sometimes with clothes, [that] nobody walks around naked,” Asaam adds.
Inside the offices of Or, textile workers and staff experiment with discarded materials they have scavenged from the market, trying to see what they can create, like stuffing for pillows. Asaam says if she ever goes back to designing, she will use old materials like this. But for now, she says, the only real solution is to simply stop manufacturing. “People think that recycling is the solution and a complement to such consumption. They think there is a way to get it back into the system, but the technology doesn’t exist on the scale needed. »
Beside her, Sammy Oteng (26), a fellow designer, has been working in fashion for almost a decade. He was also a finalist for the Gucci Design Fellowship, but he says his views have changed since then.
“Before working at the Gold Foundation, there were so many questions I asked myself. You are supposed to aspire to create a brand and work in the industry, but I was more aware of the problem we had here. Do I really want to quit school and add to the problem? ” He asked.
“We all had a lot of ambitions after school, so for the most part [my friends] it was a big shock that I was willing to work full time on this,” he says of his work for the foundation.
Traditionally, he says, Ghana’s fashion culture has focused on “one-of-a-kind, sentimental pieces”, but now people feel they have to “aspire to global standards from the north or the west”, in owning more disposable clothes. Excessiveness is “toxic”, he adds, and puts new designers under pressure in particular. “If you don’t produce a lot, if people don’t see your clothes everywhere… [there’s an assumption that] you have no talent.
When it comes to charity shop donations, he says Western shoppers should ask themselves, “‘Are they [you] being nice or are you just getting rid of your problems? It’s not Ghana’s problem, it’s the world’s problem. We are already faced with so much.
Fast fashion and the rise of the influencer
Fast fashion has grown alongside the rise of so-called “influencers” on social media, who promote a lifestyle where clothes can be bought in bulk and worn a few times, or even just once.
According to a McKinsey report, one in three young women in the UK consider clothes worn once or twice to be old, and one in seven consider it a faux pas to be photographed in the same outfit twice.
In Ireland, fast fashion sites offer new outfits at incredibly low prices. A website offers dresses for just €2. In May, another company offered more than 600 garments at €5 each with the slogan “new week, new cut”.
Missguided – a UK-based company that offered a 50% discount on everything – boasted of adding new styles daily. A documentary about the brand, now available on Netflix, shows one of its Manchester-based buyers haggling with a supplier for 10p over the cost of producing a dress.
Fast fashion companies have been criticized for ripping off the styles they see at high-profile designer fashion shows, and there have been various scandals related to worker exploitation, but that hasn’t stopped their ascent.
Chinese fast fashion brand Shein – which was recently valued at $100 billion and sells a range of dresses at €3 each – has become the second most popular fashion site in the world. According to an analysis by tech news outlet Rest of the World, it adds between 2,000 and 10,000 individual styles to its app every day,
Fast fashion also contributes to global warming. In 2019, the World Bank said the fashion industry was responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and shipping combined.
That same year, Oxfam said half a tonne of clothes were dumped in a landfill every minute in Ireland. Four years earlier, the charity said around 70% of clothing donated in Europe ended up in Africa.
Across Africa, movements against second-hand clothes are on the rise. In Rwanda, its importation was banned in 2018 (other East African countries waived a similar ban, partly due to trade law threats from the United States). In neighboring Uganda, designer Bobby Kolade and filmmaker Nikissi Serumaga recently recorded a series of podcasts called Vintage or Violence, examining the damaging effects of fast fashion across the continent. In Kenya, employment has been hit hard and the number of garment workers has risen from half a million a few decades ago to tens of thousands.
Many clothes that arrive in Ghana end up in informal dumps, sometimes on beaches, in sewers, in the sea or on the side of the road.
A landfill containing used clothes, 25 km from Accra, caught fire last year after overflowing its capacity. The blaze lasted for a week, with thick smoke engulfing nearby roads and forcing people from their homes. According to local media, embers were still smoking seven months later.
There is a particular kind of suffering for women working at the Kantamanto market – the “kayayei” – who carry bales of used clothes weighing around 55kg on their heads for a mile or more, earning less than €1 per trip. The Gold Foundation, which has helped some get medical evaluations, says it has seen 16-year-old girls employed in this work who have the backbones of 65-year-olds.
“You don’t even know what’s in the ball, it’s a surprise. It’s game
At the Kantamanto market in Accra, traders are expressing mixed feelings about a total ban on imports of second-hand clothes. Some fear being put out of work completely if the market is closed.
A woman who asks not to be named says she buys bales of 400 white shirts for 1,300 cedis (€157) per bale. They usually come from London or South Korea, she says. The shirts are sometimes cotton but mostly polyester – which she finds easier to sell because they are cheaper.
“The goods have changed, the quality has changed,” says a nearby man selling football shirts six days a week. He has been in the market for 15 years and also asks not to be named.
The cost of a 25kg ball of football shirts has recently more than doubled from 1,700 cedis (€205) to 3,500 cedis, he says. He sells them each for between 10 and 40 cedis (€1.21 and €4.48), depending on the quality.
“You don’t even know what’s in the ball, it’s a surprise. It’s gambling. Sometimes you won’t even get one [item] that’s good. You can’t sell it, you can’t wear it.