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Have you ever considered what happens to your clothing after you drop it off at a thrift store? If your second- or third-hand garments sit on racks for weeks but don't sell and the shop or organization can't hold onto them any longer?
If you live in the global north (North America or Europe), it's likely that the answer to that question is no. And, you might be thinking, why should you? Because generally speaking, donating is a good thing. It's an act of care, one that's intended to a) give products to those who really need them and b) avoid waste and prolong the lifecycle of a product instead of throwing it away. But how can you be sure that your intention is reflected in reality?
In short, you can’t.
In January this year, Liz Ricketts, co-founder of The OR (a foundation that sits at the intersection between environmental justice, education, and fashion, which you may know better as its research project, Dead White Man’s Clothes), penned a letter to the fashion industry. In it, she brought attention to the vast chasm between the global north's (GN) ideologies and its actual impact when it comes to disposing of textiles. To massively summarize, the tl;dr was: As we sit and bounce around terms like circularity, recycling, and upcycling — terms that the fashion industry milks into oblivion while continuing to pump out more stuff — we still don't have any real grasp of what those words really mean. We don't acknowledge the journey our textiles embark on after we dispose of them; of what happens en route to the landfill; of who the waste affects, and where.
In Ricketts' letter, we learn that much of the GN's donated and discarded clothing ends up in Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana, one of the biggest secondhand textile trading markets in the world. There — in just one market in the global south — approximately 30,000 people work six days per week to clean, repair, and sell the GN's clothing waste. It is here that the aforementioned effect is felt. The people working in Kantamanto are a vital part of the fashion industry's global supply chain; they are exactly who brands should be looking to as an example of what circularity and care really look like. But instead, their work is ignored.
In December 2020, just before Christmas, a fire broke out in the market. It destroyed stalls and goods and has plunged many of the workers into crippling dept. Almost five months on and the market workers are rebuilding the market themselves, with their own money. Other than funds raised by The OR, nobody else (as far as we're aware) is financially aiding the rebuilding of the space. That in itself tells you a lot about how the fashion industry really feels about aiding circularity, and how it respects the instrumental part the global south plays in it.
To understand more about Kantamanto and the impact that fire had on the people who work there, I spoke with Ricketts and two Ghanaian designer-activists whose collections are built from upcycling textiles found on the market: Samuel Oteng of his eponymous streetwear brand, and Sel Kofiga, the creator of The Slum Studio. You can find our conversation below.
Firstly, how would you describe Kantamanto market?
Samuel Oteng: So, Kantamanto is a very, very big market. It’s full of secondhand goods mostly from the global north, and you can find basically anything there — jeans, shoes, T-shirts, bags. The market women and men work tirelessly. They are superheroes, the agents of circulation, not just the sellers, but the tailors and dressmakers, the pressers and ironers, the T-shirt printers, and food vendors.
Sel Kofiga: There's also the thrifter who goes into the market and goes through piles of jeans, T-shirts, adidas shoes, Nike shoes, etc., and collects them, takes them to their house, washes them, and then goes back into the market and resells them... we have about a thousand bales [full of secondhand fabrics and clothing arriving every] week from all these other powerful areas [in the GN].
Has the market always been that big?
Kofiga: I feel like the history between Ghana and the UK has a lot to do with how big this market has grown.
Liz Ricketts: There's a colonial legacy to the secondhand clothing trade in general. In Ghana — specifically under British rule — Ghanaians were expected to conform to Western dress codes. This is where secondhand became important, because a lot of Ghanaians wouldn't have access to this [style of clothing and] that's really important for people to understand, because it complicates the conversation around desire, want, and demand, and how that all started.
In Ghana's archives, we found correspondence which clearly indicates that the secondhand clothing trade there started in the ’60s, and it was always meant to be an outlet for continued consumption in the US. Companies needed consumers to have an outlet so that they would keep buying more stuff — the secondhand clothing trade became that outlet. Obviously, it's grown over the years; it's become much more massive because of fast fashion.
Can you tell me more about how the current bale system works?
Ricketts: Bails are priced based on two factors: garment type and country [of origin]. The UK bails are the most expensive because they're considered the highest quality, as the sorting is considered the best. When retailers can afford a UK bail, it usually means they end up with higher quality goods and less outright trash, versus the US and Canada [who export] the lowest quality bails and contain trash like chip bags [and] bottles. Also, if you've opened the bail, you can’t return it, so how is the retailer supposed to know if the quality of the bail is good or not?
Oteng: Sometimes retailers buy an entire bale where 50 percent of the fabrics are completely stained and can't be used for anything.
Who sorts the bales before they're shipped?
Ricketts: Firstly, the [secondhand] supply chain is not thought of as a supply chain, so there's no conversation around it. There's very little transparency between the consumer dropping [off a bag of clothing donations, for example] and it being exported. If you try to find some of these companies online, there's barely any information on their website. What we know from working with some clothing collectors is that everyone plans the process differently.
St. Vincent de Paul in Cincinnati, for instance, collects clothing from the general public and also from bins. Then they sort it. They hang stuff up for a couple of weeks. If it doesn't sell then they pack it all up in massive bales, like 5000-pound bales, and then those get exported to another grader in the US. Then that grader exports it to another country — [oftentimes, it's] Canada. In Canada it's sorted into 350 different waste hierarchies categories of reuse and recycling and down-cycling, then it will ultimately be exported again. It's all happening in this sort of invisible supply chain.
Wild that something so invisible has so many categories and steps.
Ricketts: Yes, and so many people working in that side of the industry. It's all manual laborers sorting the garments by hand. Fast fashion impacts everybody. Fast fashion impacts not only what's happening in Ghana and what people there can sell, but also the bottom-line of exporters and sorters in the GN. Because there are lower quality things [in the sense that these pieces are not durable and therefore disposed of quickly], they have to sort more clothing.
If I'm being honest, I’d never truly considered what happens to my clothing after I’d donated it to charity.
Ricketts: Most people don't. I don't blame people. I think that there is the deficit myth, which is basically that people in Africa needed clothing. There's too much clothing here. There's not enough clothing there, so we were just shifting it. That’s not true and if we avoid the truth for much longer, we're going to end up in the same place where we are with plastic recycling. The United States and Europe have been exporting our plastic to Asia for decades. The general public just found out like two years ago, because China all of a sudden said, "No, we don't want it anymore." In that time, we've been blaming Asian countries for ocean plastic and for this waste — it's the same exact thing that's happening with textiles. If we continue to oversimplify things for the public we're just going to cause more of a problem for ourselves later on when we really need to get people to act in more nuanced ways.
So, back to Kantamanto. What happens to the damaged textiles that don’t sell?
Kofiga: It's either going to landfill or sit in the market for a very long time. My previous collection was built from pieces that had been sitting there for the past four or five years.
Oteng: There’s a big textile waste problem [and] the impact of it is endless. Some of it ends up in the market and in the gutters, so if it rains it's a possible cause for floods. I went to the market one time after it rained and you couldn't see the water, all you could see was a wave of clothes and shoes just moving towards you. Also, when the gutters are choked with waste clothes, we get mosquitoes. Then there are issues of hygiene and disease. Plus, these materials do not necessarily biodegrade, so they end up hurting the earth. It goes on and on and on. The waste pickers and the Kayayei who usually help with picking the waste go near the fires [which burn constantly near the market as one method for dealing with the waste]. They go near the smoke from the flames. It's not healthy. It's very dangerous.
Can you tell me more about the Kayayei?
Kofiga: The Kayayei are women between 11 and 40 who travel from other parts of the country to Accra, to these markets, to carry bales on their head for a fee that is less than a dollar. They are one of the most important people in the redistribution process of secondhand clothing. When it comes to Ghanaian fashion and Ghanaian secondhand clothing fashion, these people help the retailer get what they need to sell. These people help the thrifter what they need to rewash and sell. They play a very vital role. And the fact that somebody has to travel all the way from some part of the country to come to the South to carry these things on their head and get paid that kind of fee is very, very problematic.
What happened with the big fire that broke out before Christmas?
Oteng: So, the fire started in a huge portion of the market, right before market day. At least 300 people were affected. There were a lot of damaged stores, lost bales, lost money, lost livelihoods, basically. With Covid-19 and the lockdown, most of these market women and men [already] had a lot of issues selling their products because everybody was home [and not shopping].
Ricketts: People had taken out loans. Retailers are always taking out loans [to buy bails], but last year they took out so many loans, which have 35 percent interest rates. The fire came right before Christmas at a time that people are really banking on being able to break even and not go into debt, but the fire plunged them into debt to a level that I don't think a lot of them can get out of it.
Kofiga: The whole thing about disasters in this part of the world... they’re really interesting to talk about, but at the same time it's really traumatic. There are so many issues at play, everything in this situation is political. Markets [are connected] to how urban infrastructure is developed, some are designed to be able to fight fire outbreaks and other disasters, but unfortunately, we don't have this design thinking incorporated into our market. So when things like fire or flooding sets in, it is easy for these places to break down very fast.
Is there any government support? Are people insured?
Kofiga: No. There is nothing like that. [Because of the loans retailers are] already financially locked up and there isn’t much education for them to realize, "Oh, I have to insure this thing that I'm doing." Also, we are talking about a local economy — if you're living in a country where the system is flawed and things don't work, you realize that people come up with different ways to find money, support themselves, and do business. And I think the government enjoys how it goes because it gives them a reason to come back to the market and make promises. When the fire thing happened, they came and promised to give some amount of money to invest it back into their businesses. It's just lip service though. Nothing has been done, people are still waiting.
And while you wait the bales continue to arrive.
Kofiga: The bails will keep coming in because it's a business that somebody else is transacting from somewhere else. The west is playing their part and we are playing our part, but we are on the receiving end. If the west said, "Oh, we are not going to ship bales to you, no matter how much you want to buy,” that is the point where the government [hypothetically would] come up with the funding and say, "Okay, that is enough. We are not going to import anything anymore. We are going to put a ban on it."
Ricketts: The thing that always comes up with legislation in our work is people asking us about a ban. "Why doesn't Ghana just ban imports?" We don't advocate for a ban, because folks in Ghana don't advocate for a ban, so that's not our position to do that. And the problem isn't in Ghana. The problem is in the United States and Europe. We need to be talking about banning exports. I'm not suggesting that's a solution, but there's this layer of hypocrisy where we tend to oversimplify something for another country. People might have biases around what's happening in Ghana, but it's complicated for them too. You're talking about 30,000 jobs in this one market.
Kofiga: It’s a circular thing. Each and every one of us has to see the role that we are playing in this, see that our role is really contributing to what is going on, and how we can exit it. That is why I decided to [use my fashion brand] to tell these stories. The history of our clothes-making goes back to people painting on fabrics, writing on fabrics, and designing on fabric. I've just incorporated the old design technique. I'm trying to fuse art and fashion together to tell a different story, so I feel like I'm playing my part. I'm telling my part in one person's way that goes back into contributing to it and also goes back into taking something out of it.
Do you think there’s still a huge gap between intention and understanding in regards to how the Global North talks about circularity, recycling, and sustainable fashion?
Oteng: Yes. A huge gap. There's a huge gap between the Global North and the Global South, and the relation to clothing and to people. It's funny and aggravating at the same time. You have certain brands doing very little, almost brainwashing, brands that talk about these things just for the optics and the publicity, but very, very little work is being done.
In Kantamanto, over the course of a year, one seller can recycle over 10,000 pieces of clothing. There is a huge injustice here. The amount of work they are doing without appreciation, without funding, a safety net, or protection, is just sad. People are rebuilding the market with their own money. They're physically building it themselves. If you hear people talking about the secondhand economy, think of everything in regards to Kantamanto.
Kofiga: Big brands [acknowledge the] problem and then create more problems. If there is a new adidas product online, it does not take long before you see a secondhand version of it in Kantamanto. I'm talking about a used version, not a brand new version. That tells you how fast these things are being produced and are coming back to us, and also how these big brands can actually think about sustainability. [To them] the environment is a business. They want people to buy into it, buy into these vocabularies. Upcycling is a trend now, recycling is a trend now, sustainability is a trend now, so let's make people buy into this idea of a circular economy.
Ricketts: Also, we're having this conversation about circularity, but there has yet to be any serious conversation about the labor that's necessary to make circulatory work. It's like we're talking about collecting this clothing, sorting it, recycling it. But who is going to do those jobs? They're not fun jobs. It's frustrating to see the lack of conversation around capital within circularity. I understand that we need financial sustainability, but if the circulatory conversation is going to be all about how companies can "recapture value," then it needs to be circulated back to the garment workers.
[In regards to circularity] Kantamanto is doing the best job of any place in the world with the lowest quality products and zero resources. It represents everything that anyone is talking about in the Global North that people want to see in retail, right? You have mending, dyeing, screen printing, co-creating, design studios, garment factories in the retail environment. All of that is happening. So if we allow the waste to distract us from that model that Kantamanto is providing to us, then we're missing out on a huge opportunity to be able to really learn how that works.
Any talk about sustainability should be about justice. If we're talking about justice, then justice would prioritize the prosperity of the people who've carried the burden for decades, which means ensuring that investment is going to these communities. Imagine what would be possible if we properly resourced Kantamanto and if we gave market workers the respect that they're owed in terms of the work that they've put in.
Do you have any tips for donating "better,” if such a thing is possible?
Ricketts: What we usually say is that you need to keep it as small and local as possible. Typically, in your region, there's going to be some organization that collects clothing that operates on a referral model where they're making sure that the clothing is getting to people in your area who really need it. Look for those organizations first. Donating it to a non-profit [is what] we refer [as opposed to] giving it to a company, like a retailer take-back program — at least the non-profit is going to keep some of that value in your local community.
[If you're going to give to retailer take-back programs], put the lowest quality things in there — put your underwear, put the things that have been really used and are stained all over — because ultimately if these brands are focusing on recycling, then that's the stuff that should be going into recycling, right? Not things that can be reused.
How You Can Support
If you want to help rebuild the part of Kantamanto that was damaged by the fire and continue the research and advocacy work conducted by The OR, you can find out more here.
Over 450 people have already donated. Ricketts says, "We are over halfway to our $40,000 goal so we will be dispersing $125 to $200 retailers and tailors [in the market]. Our Instagram community has given generously and we have contributed what we can as an organization. It is time for brands, clothing collectors, and secondhand clothing exporters in the Global North to step up and support. It’s been months since the fire — many lost over $5,000 in goods and they haven’t been able to sell much since, with debts accumulating. Despite it all, the Kantamanto community is busy rebuilding, retailers are physically rebuilding the market around themselves. It is critical that we support them in this effort not only financially but more so as a sign that the Global North is interested in connecting with a part of fashion‘s supply chain that has been invisible for far too long."