This article is part of Fixing Fashion, a One Army project trying to fix fashion. You can learn morehere
As part of our research for Fixing Fashion we’ve packed all our gears, enthusiasm and curiosity and traveled to Ghana, on a field trip with the OR Foundation to visit Kantamanto supposedly one of the biggest second hand clothing markets in the world. This is where most “charity clothes” from “developed” countries end up.
In this article you will learn what happens to donated clothes, the dynamics of Kantamanto market and the problems caused by charity clothes to the local environment, economy and people.
Fashion in 2021
We wrote a long article on fashion, its functioning and problems in 2021, but in a nutshell clothes are produced mainly in Asia as it is cheaper (cheaper materials, labor and regulations) resulting in huge environmental, economic and social problems. Once manufactured clothes are shipped to markets mainly in the west and sold to consumers. People wear them for a few months and toss them away - as replacing has become easier and cheaper than maintaining.
During this pandemic, we all got stuck in our houses and became aware of the amount of stuff surrounding our lives. That's when the ‘’Marie Kondo’’ syndrome overtook us. So we cleaned up our wardrobes. The items that are still of good quality we sell. If no one wants it or takes too much time, there is always the option to ‘’donate’’ it for people who are in ‘’need’’. Our unwanted clothes are ‘’away’’ and we are not carrying the burden of our waste anymore. Meanwhile, we have the feeling we made someone happy with it. Win-win right?
Ready to find out what “away” really means in 2021?
Recycling and donating, here is how it works:
When clothes are donated, they are sorted by quality in sorting centres. Sympany, a donation business in The Netherlands, told us that from a European perspective the A quality goes to second-hand stores in the same country, B quality goes to East European countries or North African countries and C goes to West Africa, East Africa or India, D Quality is not wearable for any standards and goes straight into landfill.
Depending on what organisation or company you donate it to, it can also go up for recycling but as we’ve learned in The problem with fashion in 2021 a negligible number of clothes can actually be recycled for various reasons.
C quality is mainly clothing from any fast fashion brands. Little value there. If you donate this, there is quite a big chance it ends up in Kantamanto, in Accra, Ghana.
So we packed our bags and went to Kantamanto in Ghana
Through The OR Foundation, we realized how central Kantamanto is in the working of the fashion industry and its supply chain, in January 2020 we got a whole month worth of Patreon money (about 2500€) 👉 become a One Army supporter now 👈 , and sent Fixing Fashion lead designer Alicia with a team to Accra to do some field research and learn first hand what it is like in Kantamanto and what can be learned for the project (massive thanks to OR Foundation to help us organize the visit).
History of Kantamanto
The second-hand clothing trade to Ghana started after Ghana’s independence from the British Kingdom in 1957 that coincided with an increase in demand for ready-to-wear clothes in the U.S. and shortly after in Europe. After its independence a few businessmen from the U.S. saw money in exporting the excess of clothing with the Ghana Trade Association.
When the trade started to explode, Ghanians called the second-hand clothing Obroni Wawu, literally translated as ‘’Dead white men clothing’’. Obroni Wawu comes from the assumption that someone would have to die to give up so much stuff. At the time it was for many Ghanaians illogical that someone could have excess clothing. Those were the good days of Kantamanto.
Fast-forward to 2021 and the reality is drastically different. Most of the clothes reaching Kantamanto are of poor quality and comes in huge quantities meaning it has very little value (yes, even in Ghana!). Local textile economies have long gone because of the unsustainable influx of clothes while dumpsites, rivers and the ocean are overflown by textile waste. What was once sent as a goodwill donation.
What is it like Kantamanto in 2021?
According to research from The OR Foundation, nowadays Kantamanto has grown into the biggest second-hand clothing market in West-Africa, possibly the biggest in the world. It receives 15 million items a week in a country of 30 million people.
Despite the right efforts of a small army of retailers, repairers, tailors, upcyclers, dyers and silkscreen printers, still 40% of the clothes that enter Kantamanto end up in landfill after two weeks. That’s close to 4 million items of clothing waste.
Kantamanto is the hard proof that there are too many clothes in the world.
Global North (most people reading this article) continue to overproduce clothes in the Global South and dispose their overconsumption back in the Global South. We take their resources and dump them when not wanted anymore. Double bummer.
Let’s dive inside Kantamanto, how it works and the people behind it.
We started off with a 2 weeks field trip with The OR Foundation which gave us the right data, history, contacts and dynamics. This was super useful to give us a solid start and set us in the right direction. Then, we continued by ourselves for another 2 months to understand the whole system of the market. We felt that to be able to talk about the market we needed to hear the voices of the people. Below you’ll see (beautiful) faces and hear stories from a few people that play different roles in the Kantamanto market.
Moses, the importer
OR Foundation explains to us how container ships come in on Monday and Thursdays around 04:00 am, from port bails are transported into their warehouses (Safari). Local Ghanaian importers like Joseph move thousands of those bales into the centre of Accra (adding to the already precarious traffic situation).
Importers can buy bales of certain quality grades and type of garments (like jeans or dresses). Most of the clothes they import are from China, Korea, Canada, Australia and The Netherlands. Importers pay around 12.000 to 40.000 dollars (depending on the currency and the quality grade) for one container. One container is filled with around 400 bales. One bale can contain 40 to 600 items, depending on the type of garments. The best quality comes from London (barely worn) while lowest come from the U.S. (worn-out).
"I started this business 15 years ago from scratch after being a Kayeiyo (transporter) for a few years. It was hard as I had the whole week of high school, but it made me strong and I learned how to work hard. I started with one bale, then it became ten and now I’m taking in full supply from Canada, Korea and the UK, which are high quality. We nearly stopped, but we continued, because I love it as I meet new people everyday. As long as you stay honest to the people, the business keeps coming, even though they're not happy with the bail. I sometimes travel to teach the exporter what the people in Kantamanto want. ’’ - Moses
Amama, the headporter (kayayo)
Because of how Kantamanto is designed the bales can only be carried in & out by people, mostly women. Bales can vary from 60 to 90 kg and are carried on the heads, shoulders or backs. Women are between 8 to 30 years old and, as you can imagine, the labor is back and neck breaking and sometimes can be fatal.
Michael, the retailer
Market days are Wednesday and Saturdays. But everyday is a busy day in Kantamanto. On market days bales are transported into the market and are opened for the first time. The first customers get the best stuff. The retailer takes the biggest risk as they are responsible for what they buy, whenever the bale is open it’s theirs and they need to make sure they make profit from what they bought and that it doesn’t end up as waste.
‘’ I start around 6 a.m.in the morning, with my uncle everyday, except Sundays then we are in church. We can’t really take a rest or we have no money. Market days are good days, as people from all over Ghana come to the market, sometimes even outside Ghana. We sell mainly Chinese and Koreans sportswear. UK and Canadian are better, but are expensive and I can’t take the risk. I need to make profit to sustain my family. After a few days we give away the rugs to poor people, as there are so many clothes. My whole family has been in this market since 1980. My grandma is here for 30 years. The government wants to give this market to billionaires to build a mall, but no one can’t afford a store there. We fight for this market. It is where we make money and our children go to school from’’. - Michael
Alice, the repairer and tailor
There is a tight collaborative community between tailors and repairers. Sometimes customers are guided to the best person for a certain project. Some other times a tailor, like Alice, does commissioned work for retailers that got a bad bale with low quality clothes and tries to fix and improve to help them make their money back.
‘’Long T-shirts are not worn here, so are likely to end up as waste. So I make from long T-shirts ,short sleeve T-shirts and make from the sleeves, kids' leggings. Or from cutting several T-shirts in strokes to make a striped dresses from it.’’ - Alice
Waste pickers and cleaners
Every day the market closes at 18:00 and is secured by guards. In the night waste pickers clean up the market, so it is walkable and clean again the next day. Waste from the market can go to formal landfills (governmental) or informal landfills (beach, rivers or nearby neighbourhoods). Waste from the secondhand clothing industry fills Ghanaian landfills, washes up on beaches and is burned in open dumpsites. The amount of waste is growing by the day. And it looks a lot like our waste. Our brands, our logos and apparel we once loved for an increasingly shorter while.
Fashion designers, artist and community organizers
Next to Kantamanto market there is a whole group of people, creatives and designers using the excess materials, textiles and clothes from the market to create something new with their creativity. These guys were a real inspiration for Fixing Fashion.
Sel Kofiga, multimedia artist, founder of The Slum Studio and graduated from Sociology. ‘’I’m not a fashion designer, but within my work I try to address the socio-political side from Kantamanto to tackle different kinds of problems, such as the work and living environments from the Kayeiyeis. I use fashion and print as a medium to tell the stories of the kayayei. Each piece describes someone's story. I document their lives and go to the slums and follow how they live, where they come from and what their dreams are. With the proceeds of my collections, I help kayeiyeis out making their dreams come true. One of the girls started up her own tailor shop now’’.
Community organizers Kwamena and Yayra form a collective together called Afro District. They shed light on the youth culture of Ghana, that forms a culture of mixing clothes from all over the world to make it their own. ‘’ We created the revival to show what is possible with the clothes we consider as trash. When Kantamanto shuts down we get the 3rd selection that almost becomes a waste. The amount of waste we get sometimes fuels us to do more. We create clothes with fashion designers and tailors around the market, and try to inspire other people with events, discussions and panel talks.’’
Kantamanto as a model for Fixing Fashion
Kantamanto was an eye opener for us. It showed clearly the macroscopic size of the fashion problem and its complexity. A problem not easy to fix, without a single truth or solution. It also revealed to us how well-intentioned donation programs and charity models often create more problems than they solve. And that local people and ecosystems on the other side of the planet are paying the highest price for overconsumption.
Kantamanto and his people have been a huge inspiration for Fixing Fashion. People collaborating at every corner and ready to help each other in the daily hustle. Kantamanto feels like a resourceful army fixing, mending, adjusting, fitting and crafting clothes to extend their life and use. With Fixing Fashion we want to bring this mentality front and centre. Making fixing the new fashion.
Fixing Fashion is launching April 19th, stay tuned.