Dead White Man’s Clothes - Moeon

Dead White Man's Clothes

Fast fashion is often referred to as throwaway fashion. The term is mainly used to criticize the poor quality or the fast pace of trends and the far too frequently changing collections - and rightly so. Every year, more than 80 billion garments are produced worldwide. After a short lifespan, three out of four items are thrown away.1 But what does "away" actually mean?

Liz Ricketts, co-founder of the OR Foundation, aptly puts it, "There is no away." The clothing that we dispose of in Europe, the U.S. and Australia after what is usually a fairly short period of use ends up in East and West Africa in around 70 percent of cases.2

"There is no away.”

Liz Ricketts, The OR Foundation

What this means in concrete terms can be seen at the Kantamanto market in Accra, the capital of Ghana: 15 million items of clothing flood the city's clothing market every week. Although Kantamanto is the largest, it is only one of many markets of its kind in Ghana, a country of 30 million people. Obroni w'awu was the name first given to the clothing that arrives there - dead white man’s clothes.3 In order to leave such big piles of clothing, someone must have died, after all. The fact that people stopped wearing well-preserved pants, shirts and sweaters simply because they were no longer en vogue was unimaginable at the beginning of the imports in the 1980s.

Since then, not only have the quantities of old clothes reaching the Kantamanto market increased significantly. At the same time, the quality of the incoming goods has become worse and worse. Of the 15 million garments that arrive each week, an estimated 40 percent are no longer usable. That equates to six million garments a week4 directly ending up in the surrounding landfills - which have officially been closed for several years due to congestion. This is why many textiles end up in rivers and the surrounding nature or are burned in open fires - despite the fact that by now up to 69 percent of the fibers used in clothing are made of non-biodegradable plastic. These microplastic fibers thus end up not only in the environment, but also in the human food chain.5 

The pandemic has once again highlighted the absurdity of the entire textile value chain. Thousands of textile workers were not paid for work already done because consumers were no longer allowed into the shops. Half a billion unsold garments remained in the stores as a result.6 Export remains the cheapest solution for Western countries to get rid of textile waste. "A huge wastage, considering the resources and energy used to make the clothes and transport them around the world."7

Carriers of the system

Mixed with old, stained and unwearable goods, the discarded new goods also arrive at Kantamanto. An economic system of its own has emerged at the market, which tries to make the waste of the West profitable. Contrary to popular belief, the clothes are not donated but sold to traders, and not cheaply at that. A bale of old clothes costs between 75 and 400 dollars. As the quality of the clothes decreases, it becomes more and more difficult for the traders to recoup these costs through sales. Before you cut open a bale, you don't know how much of it is usable and how much goes straight into the rubbish. Many describe their job as gambling.8 Because of the speed with which new deliveries of old clothes arrive at Kantamanto, the clients expect new goods at least twice a week. Clothes and shoes that have not been sold within a week of opening the bale are already considered unusable.9 While most traders have the necessary money for food and public transport, living costs such as electricity, school fees for the children or telephone costs remain a luxury for many.10 

Next to the traders, this trading system is carried by the Kayayei - quite literally so. Kayayei are mostly women who carry the bales of textiles weighing about 50 kilos on their heads through the narrow alleys of the market, "from the importer to the retailer, from the retailer to the warehouse, from the retailer to the consumer and so on.”11 There is no other way of transport through the crowded aisles. Many of the women carry not only the bales of clothes on their heads, but also their babies wrapped around their chests. Childcare during work is not an option here. It leaves speechless to read their stories.

Perpetuation of historical colonisation practices

The excessive import of mitumba, as the bales of old clothes are called in Kiswahili,12 is also suffocating the local textile industry. No local production can keep up with the rapid pace of imports and the trends they create. "This is why the East African Community agreed in 2016 to a complete ban on imports of old clothes by 2019."13 Immediately challenged by the USA by threatening trade penalties, this import ban was, however, never properly implemented.

This, at the latest, reveals that the trade in old clothing perpetuates historical colonisation practices. "Nations with high economic performance exploit their privilege and power to achieve their goals while undermining the right to clean and safe living conditions of low-income communities."15 The problem of overproduction and overconsumption has been successfully masked for decades with the fairy tale of using exports to help low-income countries. Not everyone believed it, but most didn't give it a second thought.

And now, Liz Ricketts again accurately observes, at a time when the fashion industry labels itself as green and discusses circular economy, places like the Kantamanto market are being rediscovered - and turned into a "gold mine".16 Waste is no longer waste, but a resource, a nutrient, an opportunity. In the new fairy tale that marketing campaigns now tell us, waste is suddenly beautiful. It evolves from a problem into its own solution.17 

Yet clothing made from recycled textiles only saves ten per cent of CO2 emissions compared to new goods. "Because even recycled fibre has to be spun, woven, dyed, sewn and transported."18 Moreover, the circular economy per se will not do anything about the colonial legacy on which the fashion industry in its current form is built. Instead, experts hope for regulations on the durability of a garment. For example, how many washes it has to survive or how often you can wear it before it breaks. "Then quality and prices will rise automatically"19 - and with that, perhaps finally, the appreciation of the clothes we already own.

Text: Kathrin Weins

Illustration: © Tanya Teibtner

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