In Ghana, second-hand garments that arrive from Europe and North America are known as “obroni wawu” – or “dead white man’s clothes”. Each week around 15 million of them find their way to Accra, the West African country’s capital. About 40 per cent of what happens is clearly waste, according to local activists, who say the African continent is being left to deal with the devastating effects of the West’s overconsumption and the rise in fast fashion.
Many of these clothes have been “donated” to charity shops or put in “recycling” bins in the West, but – unsellable there – they are shipped to the Global South. Local traders buy the bales without knowing what is inside them, hoping that they can make enough money from the sellable parts to keep going another day.
The dumping of second-hand clothing has posed a dilemma for Ghana’s growing fashion scene and the young designers active in it.
“I have come to a full stop because I’m struggling to be creative. It’s hard for me to reconcile producing,” says Chloe Asaam (29), who graduated in fashion design in 2017.
She now works with the Or Foundation, a charity raising awareness of the damaging effects of fast fashion in Ghana. Its headquarters are a short walk from Kantamanto Market – one of the largest second-hand clothes markets in the region.
Traditionally, clothes were made to be passed down, shared and valued, she says, sitting in the charity’s office.
Now fast fashion companies are devaluing clothing and westerners particularly are treating it as disposable. “How do I reconcile that product that I would create being put in that same setting? For me it’s really hard to reconcile producing any more while still trying to fight and advocate for better practices in the industry. I still cannot reconcile producing because there’s too much clothing in the world.”
Asaam has been working with the Or Foundation since 2020 – the same year her first, seven-piece collection, inspired by “the moods and sentiments that we’ve had during the pandemic”, was featured by Vogue.
In 2019, she was among 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 got back people kept asking what was next. The most common question is when is the next collection coming. If you’re a designer you have to be producing at least three collections every year in the Ghanaian setting,” Asaam says. “People [are] asking me what’s next? What have you designed? Who have you collaborated with? A lot of the time when I tell people I’m taking a hiatus it’s almost a bad thing, it’s almost as if I’ve failed as a designer.”
Instead, she is calling for 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 be cognizant that they are complicit,” Asaam says. “The problem is [people are] consuming so much. We advocate for people to stop for a while to come to terms with their own participation in the crisis … It’s creating so many waste problems for our communities and it’s also creating problems for the women that we work with.
“I think there is a sense that Africans should be grateful with what they can get sometimes with clothes, [that] no one is walking around naked,” Asaam adds.
Inside Or’s offices, textile workers and staff experiment with thrown-away materials they have gathered from the market, trying to see what they can create – such as stuffing for pillows. Asaam says if she ever returns to designing, she will use old materials like this. But for now, she says the only real solution is simply to stop manufacturing. “People think that recycling is the solution and a supplement to consuming so much. They think there is a way to put it back into the system but that technology does not exist in the scale that’s needed.”
Besides her sits fellow designer Sammy Oteng (26), who has been working in fashion for almost a decade. He was also a Gucci Design Fellowship finalist, but he says his perspective has shifted since then.
“Leading up to working at the Or Foundation there were so many questions I was asking myself. You’re supposed to aspire to build a brand and work in the industry, but I was getting more of a realization of the problem that we had here. Do I really want to get out of school and add on to the problem?” he asked.
“We all had a lot of ambitions after school so for most of [my friends] it was a big shock that I was ready to go full time on this,” he says of his work for the foundation.
Traditionally, he says, Ghana’s fashion culture has been focused on “single, sentimental pieces”, but now people feel they have to “aspire to global north or western standards”, owning more disposable clothes. The excessiveness is “toxic,” he adds, and puts new designers in particular under pressure. “If you’re not producing a lot, if people aren’t seeing your clothes everywhere … [there’s an assumption that] you aren’t talented.”
When it comes to donations to charity shops, he says western buyers should ask themselves: ““Are [you] being kind or are you just getting rid of your problems? This is not a Ghana problem, this is the world’s problem. We’re already dealing 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 just a few times or even once.
According to a McKinsey report, one in three young women in the UK consider garments 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 websites offer new outfits at unbelievably low prices. One website advertises dresses for as little as €2. In May, another company was offering more than 600 items of clothing at €5 each with the tagline “new week, new fit”.
Missguided – a UK-based company which had a 50 per cent 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 off the production cost of a dress.
Fast fashion companies have been criticized for ripping off styles they see at high-profile designers’ fashion shows, and there have been various scandals related to the exploitation of workers, but this has not stopped their rise.
Chinese fast fashion brand Shein – which was recently valued at $100 billion and sells an array of dresses for €3 each – has become the second most-popular fashion website in the world. According to an analysis done by technology news outlet Rest of the World, it adds somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 individual styles to its app each day,
Fast fashion is also contributing to global warming. In 2019, the World Bank said the fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of annual global carbon emissions — more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
That same year, Oxfam said that half a ton of clothing was being dumped into a landfill every minute in Ireland. Four years earlier, the charity said an estimated 70 per cent of clothes donated in Europe were ending up in Africa.
Across Africa, there are growing movements against second-hand clothing. In Rwanda, its import was banned in 2018 (other east African countries backed out of a similar ban, partially because of threats from the US related to trade law). In neighboring Uganda, designer Bobby Kolade and film-maker Nikissi Serumaga recently recorded a podcast series called Vintage or Violence, examining the damaging effects of fast fashion across the continent. In Kenya, employment has been badly affected, and the number of textile workers has dropped from half a million a few decades ago to tens of thousands.
Many of the clothes that reach Ghana end up in informal dumping sites, sometimes on beaches, in sewers, in the sea or on the side of the road.
A landfill containing used clothing, 25km outside Accra, caught fire last year after it exceeded its capacity. The fire lasted for a week, with thick smoke engulfing roads nearby and forcing people to leave their homes. According to local media, embers were still smoking seven months later.
There is a particular type of suffering for women working in Kantamanto Market – the “kayayei”– who carry bales of used clothing weighing about 55kg on their heads for a mile or more, earning less than €1 a trip. The Or Foundation, which has helped some get medical evaluations, says it has seen some 16-year-old girls employed in such labor who have the spines of 65-year-olds.
‘You don’t even know what’s in the bale, it’s a surprise. It’s gambling’
In Accra’s Kantamanto Market, traders express mixed feelings about the idea of a total ban on second-hand clothing imports. Some worry about being put out of work completely if the market is closed down.
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’re cheaper.
“The goods have changed, the quality has changed,” says a man nearby selling football jerseys six days a week. He has worked in the market for 15 years and also asks not to be named.
The cost of a 25kg bale of football jerseys 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 bale, it’s a surprise. It’s gambling. At times you won’t even get one [item] that is good. You cannot sell it, you cannot wear it.”