Bismark Aquah is a tailor in Kantamanto, the vibrant sprawling market in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. He has worked with clothing for 20 years, repurposing used garments, specifically men’s pants and children’s clothes, into sellable goods. In that time he has recirculated 1,560,000 items of clothing.
Elsewhere in the market, Lydia Finn has recirculated 624,000 garments in 12 years; Paul Tenkorang has clocked up 663,936 in 16 years; and Sampson Mante, 936,000 in 30 years. These are staggering figures. Millions of garments, all repaired, altered and upcycled by hand on site.
And this is just a snapshot. Kantamanto is the largest second-hand clothing market in West Africa. Along its streets and beneath its stall canopies, 30,000 individual entrepreneurs work to recirculate over 25 million garments per month. It’s been labeled as “the most sustainable retail ecosystem in the world.” Kantamanto is “a lab, a factory, a studio, a community center and a market all in one.” There are sewing machines, screen printers, laundering services and tailors who can all turn someone else’s waste into an exclusive one-off item of clothing. In some ways, it seems like the future of the fashion industry; one built on circular design methods, and an eye for seeing potential treasure in a pile of waste.
While this might be true, Kantamanto is also the subject of waste colonialism, massive debt, environmental destruction and a public health crisis. The millions of tons of clothing and textiles that reach Ghana are shipped there by the Global North. It is our waste and our overconsumption problem, outsourced to another nation.
It’s these issues that the Stop Waste Colonialism project, spearheaded by The Or Foundation, is campaigning against. At its core is a change in legislation and international law that would make Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), globally accountable. This accountability would mean that communities like Kantamanto would receive fair payments for managing the waste sent to them by the likes of the EU, US and UK. That money would go towards relieving the debt incurred by tailors and retailers in Ghana, improving waste management and recycling, and to fund research and development projects.
The Or Foundation is at the heart of where this campaign is taking place. Operating out of Ghana, it is a charity that looks for alternatives to the current model of fashion: the one founded on exploitation and over-consumption. Its impressive breadth of work so far includes projects that highlight the injustice of global garment waste, workshops on sustainable practices, providing debt relief for Kantamanto traders, conducting material research and development, and supporting women and girls who previously worked as head-porters with training in fields like welding, catering and tiling.
We report on a few take-back programs, circular systems and vintage markets here at FVV. On the face of it, they sound like reasonable and worthwhile methods of dealing with our end-of-life products. And who knows, maybe our old pair of kicks could get ground down into a kids’ playground. We’re promised that these items won’t end up in landfill. But the truth is, many end up being shipped off as waste to developing nations all over the world.
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The clothing and textiles that reach Kantamanto don’t come from any one brand or country. It is the collective waste of the Global North, sent over by consumers, brands, take-back programs, charities and more. Cheap, mass-produced, synthetic clothing started being sent to West Africa under the guise of charity in the mid-20th Century. It provided us in the Global North with a guilt-free outlet for our old clothing, so that we could continue purchasing more and more new stuff. By 1989, the system was already obviously a problem. African nations at the UN expressed concern. Waste colonialism, as it came to be known, was a very real thing. The rest of the world shifted its waste problem to the Global South: it used its waste to dominate people in their homeland, and didn’t pay for it. It used its power to take over land for landfill.
In 2022, the amount of waste being shipped is monumental. Kantamanto alone sees 15 million garments arrive into its markets every week. On the ground, the retailers and tailors are the one’s feeling the brunt of the exploitation caused by waste colonialism. According to The Or Foundation’s research, the Kantamanto community spends $325million USD every year on bales, $182 million USD of which is paid back to the Global North exporters. Makers work on miniscule profit margins, doing all the work themselves. They don’t know what’s going to be in a bale before they open it. It might be a load of rubbish. In fact, roughly 40 percent of the average bale leaves Kantamanto as waste.
Paying for the bales up front means that the retailers and tailors run up debts. People are selling their homes or running away to escape their financial difficulties, unable to pay their children’s school fees and sometimes do not have enough money to get home from work. They are in constant survival mode, living on the frontline of the over-consumption crisis.
And the burden isn’t just financial. It’s also a health hazard. Without investment in proper waste management, textiles that can’t be recycled are dumped all around Kantamanto. It clogs up the waterways and gutters, forming “tentacles” that reach up to 30 meters long. Leaking toxic chemicals from the clothing makes the water unsafe to drink. The buildup of landfills displaces people. And there are fires which destroy stalls and livelihoods.
For some, the burden presents itself in a very literal way. All through the market, women walk quickly, carrying kilograms of clothing balanced on their heads. Girls as young as nine years old perform this work too, carrying 55 kg (120 pounds) bales on their heads. “Ago! Ago!” they shout, meaning “move.” Often portrayed as heroic and strong in the West, these women suffer many injuries, and are sometimes even killed by this method. They are known as the kayayei, which translates to “someone who carries a burden.” They are seen as “slaves of the system.” The bottom of the pile.
The Or Foundation’s campaign is demanding both respect and resources for the Kantamanto community to put an end to these conditions. Its key policy is a justice-led, globally accountable EPR. EPR is an environmental policy that places the responsibility for a product’s post-consumer life onto the original producer. The management of the waste can be physical or financial. Physical responsibility involves practices like take-back programs, recycling and upcycling. Financial responsibility is the provision of resources to safely and effectively deal with the waste, often in the hands of other companies.
The cost of this is usually passed onto the customer. In France, the only country that has an EPR policy for textiles and clothing, the average fee is just €0.01 per item. This is miniscule. So small in fact, that The Or Foundation argues that, not only is it not enough to cover the managing of post-consumer waste, but because that cost increase is not felt by either producer or consumer, there is no incentive to reduce overproduction or overconsumption. The root of the problem lives on.
The fees collected should be passed onto the people who are actually managing the waste, places like Kantamanto. But those funds don’t currently follow the flow of the waste. Fixing this, with a globally accountable EPR in the Global North, is a step in the right direction. There are many factors involved here, but the money is key to relieving the debts of the Kantamanto community so that it can continue to manage and recirculate our waste in a safer way.
Since Stop Waste Colonialism launched last month, over 1,000 retailers and tailors have endorsed the campaign. The Or Foundation says “the Kantamanto community has responded with urgency, eagerness and clarity. If anything, they are baffled at why it has taken so long for the push for Globally Accountable EPR to gather momentum.
“Meanwhile, the conversations we are having with folks in the Global North lack urgency and focus. We are told to be patient, maybe in five or ten years these policies will develop in a way that aligns with what the Kantamanto community needs now.”
For tailors like Bismark Aquah, Lydia Finn, Paul Tenkorang and Sampson Mante, ten years is too long. They have already waited and worked a lifetime in the current conditions. Billions of garments later, it’s time for the money and resources to go to them, so that they can be free of their debts and the devastating impacts of waste colonialism.
In related news, US petrochemicals company Dow Inc is reportedly funding a recycling program that has failed to send donated shoes to the processing plants in Singapore. Instead, the shoes have been exported illegally in Indonesian markets.
Images: The Or Foundation.