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One country’s trash is not another country’s treasure

Educator, researcher and co-founder of the OR foundation, Liz Ricketts, tells Dayna Tohidi how retailer take-back schemes have masked the consequences of the second-hand clothing trade on developing countries such as Ghana

Kpone landfill overflows with waste in Accra, Ghana. Courtesy of the OR Foundation

Known among locals as Obroni W’awu, which translates to Dead White Man’s Clothes, Ghana’s second-hand clothing trade began under colonial rule and exploded in the 1960s as a for-profit venture and sustainable solution to the Global North’s excess clothing waste. Kantamanto market, located in the heart of Accra's central business district, is the largest second-hand clothing market in West Africa. Approximately 15 million items are unloaded into the market per week, and it is home to at least 5000 registered shops. However, due to factors including the invention of fast fashion and the colonial gaze, the trade has created severe consequences for Ghana’s domestic industries and native culture. Here, Liz Ricketts shares the findings of the OR Foundation’s multimedia research project, titled Dead White Man’s Clothes.

“Ghana makes the problem of waste visible because it doesn’t have the luxury of the Global North to divert and hide it”

The USA is the world’s largest exporter of second-hand clothing. The trade was born out of the Bank of America’s invention of the credit card in September 1958, which encouraged customers to buy more clothes than they needed. Retailers quickly realised that a full wardrobe would deter spending, so they established recycling schemes to give customers an outlet for their excess clothing. In the beginning, the trade was mutually beneficial for the USA and Ghana. Not only were the second-hand clothes sold at Kantamanto market more affordable than those made by local designers and brands, but they were high quality and desirable due to their association with the West.

The devastating impact on Ghanaian trades and traditions

However, in the 1980s, "the trade began to impact the nascent textile and fashion industry to a degree that it couldn’t really bounce back to its original state,” says Ricketts. The colonial gaze led Ghanaians to believe that Western-style clothing was superior to their own, gradually devaluing native dress, culture and traditions. “You can grow up in Ghana never spending more than $1.00 on an item of clothing from the second hand market, so it’s impossible for local textile factories, designers and self-employed tailors to compete.” Subsequently, some fashion designers feel the pressure to dilute their ideas to conform to Western standards. For Samuel Oteng, who launched his brand, Otteng, in 2016, his greatest worry is the long-term effect of the trade on African culture and attitudes towards clothes. “In Ghana and across Africa, we have a lot of respect for clothes because they have sentimental value and are made to last,” he explains. It is in their culture to pass down clothes through generations or have them custom-made by a tailor. “My fear is that the influx of fast-fashion will cause future generations to lose this relationship with clothes, which really sets us apart from the Global North,” he explains.

Below is a video showing customers going through piles of second-hand clothes at Kantamanto market. Courtesy of the OR Foundation.

Furthermore, fast fashion has significantly reduced the value of clothing bales. Bales are organised into four selections, the first being the best quality and the fourth counting as rubbish. Now, the first selection only accounts for 18 percent of the average bale, making it harder for Kantamanto market retailers to make a profit. The coronavirus pandemic added salt to the wound. “The cost of purchasing clothing bales has increased, but less people are buying second-hand clothes due to higher costs of living,” Ricketts tells me. Although, market turnout is starting to pick up again. This is good news for retailers, but bad news for hospitals as “nobody is really observing social distancing or wearing masks.” To make matters worse, the majority of Covid-19 cases are concentrated in the Greater Accra region. “We’ve lost a few community members to covid and other illnesses throughout the pandemic, but malaria is a constant threat for Ghanaians,” Ricketts tells me.

Suprlus second-hand clothes from the Global North pile up on the shore of a beach in Accra, Ghana. Courtesy of the OR Foundation

40 percent of clothing leaves Kantamanto market as waste, often within one to two weeks of landing at port. “As the local government doesn’t have the capacity to pick up all of the waste from the market, some of it is being directly dumped into the sea,” explains Ricketts. It is common for long “tentacles” of clothes to get caught onto boat motors, which puts fishermen at risk of capsizing and costs a lot of money to fix. To her surprise, the fish that the OR organisation has already analysed do not contain high levels of microplastics. However, the team is doing more toxicology research to assess the levels of chemicals and dyes entering fish.

Avoidable mass destruction

In August 2019, Accra’s only sanitary or modern engineered landfill, Kpone, reached over 30 meters in height and caught on fire. The 500+ waste pickers, who make a living from recovering valuable resources like plastics and metal from Kpone, inhaled toxic fumes for several weeks. Then, in December 2020, a section of Kantamanto market went up in flames, destroying the clothing bales that many retailers bought on loan. "Ghana makes the problem of waste visible because it doesn’t have the luxury of the Global North to divert and hide it,” says Ricketts. The country is falling into significant debt attempting to manage the surplus clothing waste, which means it is unable to invest as heavily in developing its healthcare and education systems. The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a policy approach that places the responsibility for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer goods onto the producer. However, the issue is that none of the money collected through the scheme is actually given to second-hand clothing markets like Kantamanto, where the waste will eventually be handled. Even if it did, language is a significant barrier. “In order to apply to receive money from a country’s EPR policy, you need to be able to speak English, have access to a laptop and know how to complete forms,” explains Ricketts. To be beneficial, the process needs to become more democratic and suitable for Ghana’s culture.

Watch the OR Foundation's campaign video below, intended to raise awareness about the Kantamanto market fire in December 2020.

Seeking justice for the Kantamanto ecosystem

Through the OR Foundation, Ricketts and her team are advocating for a justice-led circular economy that breaks the vicious cycle of exploitation and debt slavery imposed on the Kantamanto community by the Global North. “A key part of what we do is educating folks about the system they are part of so they can advocate for themselves,” explains Ricketts. This is important as most people involved in the Kantamanto ecosystem will never have the opportunity to leave Ghana and will not necessarily have insight into the global second-hand industry. “Together with the community, we are working on developing a policy agenda that would give them bargaining power over things like the prices of clothing bales.” The OR Foundation is also focusing on how to transform the surplus clothing waste into new products and food for the natural ecosystem.

If there is one thing that both Ricketts and Otteng emphasise, it is that Kantamanto market is not the problem. In fact, it supports the livelihoods of 30,000 people and makes purchasing clothing affordable for the country’s poorest citizens. The exporting of poor quality, disposable fast-fashion and the diversion of the burden of waste onto Ghana is the problem. As Ricketts says, the “Global North needs to clean up its mess,” literally.

If you would like to support the OR Foundation, you can donate here

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