In Ghana, second-hand garments from Europe and North America are known as “obroni wawu” – or “dead white man’s clothes”. Every week, about 15 million of them find their way to Accra, the capital of the West African country. About 40 percent of what arrives is obviously waste, according to local activists, who say the African continent is being left behind to address the devastating effects of Western overconsumption and rapid growth.
Many of these clothes have been “donated” to charity shops or put in “recycling bins” in the West, but – unsaleable there – they are sent to the global south. Local traders buy the bales without knowing what is inside them, hoping that they can make enough money on the salable parts to continue for another day.
The dumping of second-hand clothes has posed a dilemma for Ghana’s growing fashion scene and the young designers working in it.
“I have come to the point because I struggle to be creative. It is difficult for me to combine production “, says Chloe Asaam (29), who graduated in fashion design in 2017.
She is now working with Or Foundation, a charity that raises awareness about the harmful effects of solid fashion in Ghana. Its headquarters are a short walk from Kantamanto Market – one of the largest second-hand clothing markets in the region.
Traditionally, clothes were made to be shared, shared and valued, she says while sitting at the charity office.
Now fast fashion companies are devaluing clothes and westerners treat it especially as disposable products. “How do I combine the product I would create in the same environment? For me, it’s really hard to unite to produce more while trying to fight and advocate better practices in the industry. I still can not unite production because there is too much clothing in the world. ”
Asaam has been working with the Or Foundation since 2020 – the same year was her first seven-part collection, inspired by “the moods and emotions we have had during the pandemic”, presented by Vogue.
In 2019, she was among 50 finalists from 10 countries nominated 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 going to happen. The most common question is when the next collection will arrive. If you are a designer, you must produce at least three collections each year in the Ghanaian environment, says Asaam. “People [are] ask me what happens next? What have you designed? Who have you collaborated with? Many times when I tell people that I’m taking a break, it’s almost a bad thing, it’s almost like I’ve failed as a designer. ”
Instead, she urges Western countries – including Ireland – to become more aware of the effects of their purchases. “We try not to point fingers because we all figure it out – we just want them to be aware that they are complicit,” says Asaam. “The problem is [people are] consumes so much. We advocate that people stop for a while to come to terms with their own participation in the crisis … It creates so many waste problems for our societies and it also creates problems for the women we work with.
“I think there is a feeling that Africans should be grateful for what they can sometimes get with clothes,” [that] no one walks around naked, ”adds Asaam.
Inside Or’s office, textile workers and staff are experimenting with throwing materials that they have collected from the market and trying to see what they can create – such as padding for pillows. Asaam says that if she ever returns to design, she will use old materials like this. But for now, she says the only real solution is simply to stop manufacturing. “People believe that recycling is the solution and a complement to consuming so much. They believe that there is a way to put it back in the system but that the technology is not on the scale needed. ”
Next to her sits designer colleague Sammy Oteng (26), who has worked with fashion for almost a decade. He was also a finalist in the Gucci Design Fellowship, but he says his perspective has changed since then.
“Before working at Or Foundation, there were so many questions I asked myself. You should strive to build a brand and work in the industry, but I gained more insight into the problem we had here. I really want to leave school and add the problem? ” he asked.
“We all had a lot of ambitions after school, so for most people [my friends] it was a big shock that I was ready to go full time with this, he says about his work for the foundation.
Traditionally, he says, Ghana’s fashion culture has focused on “simple, sentimental garments”, but now people feel they must “strive for global northern or western standards”, and own more disposable clothing. The exaggeration is “toxic”, he adds, and puts new designers in particular under pressure. “If you do not produce much, if people do not see your clothes everywhere … [there’s an assumption that] you are not talented. “
When it comes to donations to charity shops, he says Western buyers should ask themselves: “” Is [you] be kind or do you just get rid of your problems? This is not a Ghana problem, this is the problem of the world. We are already dealing with so much. “
Fast fashion and the growth of influencers
Fast fashion has adult in addition to the emergence of so-called “influencers” on social media, which promotes a lifestyle where clothes can be bought in bulk and worn only a few times or even once.
According to a McKinsey report, one of three Young women in the UK consider that garments worn once or twice are 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 clothes at incredibly low prices. A website advertises dresses for as little as € 2. In May, another company offered more than 600 items of clothing for € 5 each with the label “new week, new fit”.
Missguided – a UK-based company that had a 50 percent discount on everything – boasted about adding new styles daily. A documentary about the brand, now available on Netflix, shows one of its Manchester-based buyers bargaining with a supplier for a 10p discount on the production cost of a dress.
Fast fashion companies have been criticized for tearing 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 a range of dresses for 3 euros each – has become the second most popular fashion website in the world. According to an analysis made by the technical news media Rest of the World, it adds somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 individual styles to its app every day,
Fast fashion is too contribute to global warming. In 2019, the World Bank said that the fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of the annual global carbon dioxide emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined.
Same year, Oxfam sa that half a ton of clothes were dumped in a landfill every minute in Ireland. Four years earlier, the charity said that an estimated 70 percent of the clothes donated in Europe end up in Africa.
Across Africa, there is a growing movement for used clothing. In Rwanda was its import prohibited 2018 (other East African countries partially backed away from a similar ban because of threats from the United States related to trade laws). In neighboring Uganda, designer Bobby Kolade and filmmaker Nikissi Serumaga recently recorded a podcast series called Vintage or Violence, which explores the damaging effects of fast fashion across the continent. In Kenya, employment has been hit hard, 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 drains, in the sea or by the side of the road.
A dump truck with used clothes, 25 km outside Accra, caught fire last year after it exceeded its capacity. The fire lasted for a week, with thick smoke engulfing nearby roads and forcing people to leave their homes. According to local media, the embers were still smoking seven months later.
There is a special type of suffering for women working at the Kantamanto Market – “kayayei” – who wears bales of used clothing that weigh about 55 kg on their head for a mile or more, and earn less than € 1 per trip. The Or Foundation, which has helped some to get medical evaluations, says that they have seen some 16-year-old girls engaged in such childbirth that has the backbone of 65-year-olds.
“You do not even know what’s in the ball, it’s a surprise. It’s gambling. ‘
In Accra’s Kantamanto market, traders are expressing mixed feelings about the idea of a total ban on the import of second-hand clothes. Some worry about becoming completely out of work if the market closes.
A woman who asks not to be named says she buys bales with 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 thinks is easier to sell because they are cheaper.
“The goods have changed, the quality has changed,” says a man nearby who sells football shirts six days a week. He has worked in the market for 15 years and also asks not to be named.
The cost of a 25 kg ball with football shirts has more than doubled recently, 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 do not even know what is in the ball, it’s a surprise. It’s a game. Sometimes you do not even get one [item] it is good. You can not sell it, you can not carry it. “
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