Decolonising Fashion: How An Influx Of ‘Dead White Man’s Clothes’ Is Affecting Ghana

“White supremacy is terrorism. Too much clothing. Not enough culture. Too often a consumer. So rarely a human. It is time to recover. You are invited.” This is the Instagram invitation from The OR Foundation, the non-profit organisation co-founded by Liz Ricketts and Branson Skinner behind the ‘Dead White Man’s Clothes’ research project in Accra, Ghana. Jo Lorenz finds out more.

The Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana, is the largest second-hand clothing market in West Africa. Brimming with importers, market stalls and retailers – as well as bales upon bales of second-hand clothes – the market is a hive of activity. 

Yet Kantamanto is not a run-of-the-mill retail environment where you simply consume what you’re told to: ‘Need a dress? Here! Take this one. We have 100 more just like it.’ No, no. This is not Kantamanto. It is not a sugar-coated consumer pill. It’s a hub of creativity – of upcycling – of sustainability. 

Ghanaians approach dressing differently to those in the USA or Europe, for example. “Whereas American citizens readily define themselves as ‘consumers’, Ghanaian shoppers have a less transactional relationship with fashion where clothing is seen as material that they can recreate and reconstruct,” explained Liz Ricketts, who co-founded the non-profit organisation The OR Foundation alongside Branson Skinner.

Liz is no stranger to creative approaches to clothing, having a background in fashion herself. “I studied fashion design at the University of Cincinnati,” she tells me, “however I unfortunately watched as so many brilliant creatives couldn’t cope with the increasing number of collections they were being asked to create. They were lamenting the severance of their relationships with their customers and it was really sad to watch this unfold.”

“When I graduated in 2010 I was still in love with fashion, yet I was angry about the realities of how fashion intersects with geopolitics, how overconsumption wreaks havoc on our mental health and how the norms of fashion perpetuate white supremacy,” she continues, touching on an intersection between fashion and race that I’m eager to find out more about. 

I spoke to Liz about the power of reclaiming creativity over consumption – and about a model of sustainability from which the Global North would do well to learn.

Image: A kayayei - a Ghanaian term for a female porter - carries a bale of second hand clothing, Credit: Nana Kwadwo Agyei Addo, Accra Studios

Can you start by sharing a bit of background to The OR Foundation – what led you to Ghana, and what are the organisations’ main aims today?

After I graduated, I moved to NYC and decided that instead of working in the fashion industry I would work for the industry. I called myself a ‘consultant’, offering up my services to anyone that was claiming to make the fashion industry better – and one of these companies was a fair-trade fashion label that was co-founded by my (now) partner, Branson, and a Ghanaian artist named RAAM. This was my entry point into Ghana. 

Today, Branson and I work with young people in order to liberate them from a dominant consumer-based relationship with fashion. We have taught thousands of teenagers in the USA, Ghana and South Africa. I have seen the many benefits of bringing fashion into K-12 curriculum and in particular into middle schools with students ages 11 to 13. It not only reaches youth at a time when they are just beginning to express their identity through fashion, but it also presents fashion as a subject worthy of intellectual inquiry. 

Too many people view fashion as superficial, which it can be, yet this view is largely informed by the patriarchy, or the fact that fashion is gendered female in consumption, production and design. Until people take fashion seriously, we won’t be able to have the nuanced, or human, conversations that we so desperately need to have.

Image: The Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana, Credit: Nana Kwadwo Agyei Addo, Accra Studios

What was it that sparked your interest in the Kantamanto market in Accra, and ultimately the creation of the ‘Dead White Man’s Clothes’ research project?

The largest exporters to Ghana is the UK and then Canada, followed by the USA and the Netherlands, and then China, Korea, Australia and other countries. While Kantamanto is waste management for the Global North, it is also a model of sustainability from which the Global North would do well to learn. 

There is much to be admired about the upcycling culture of Kantamanto. And it is not just clothes being upcycled – our friend Mawuli Daniel Quist creates amazing collections of glasses and hats that are incredibly unique and well considered. 

Everything that is imported into Kantamanto provides an opportunity for Ghanaian entrepreneurs to not only curate and sell the higher end items to fellow Ghanaians, yet to also flip the script and sell these items back to the Global North with a little Ghanaian flair.

However, this upcycling vibrancy is being overshadowed by the endless overflow of goods. Kantamanto sees 15 million garments coming through it every week, in a country of 30 million people. 

Image: A pile of second-hand 'single use' t-shirts from Western brands at the Kantamanto market, Credit: Nana Kwadwo Agyei Addo, Accra Studios

How is this oversaturation of textile waste from the west affecting the local welfare in Accra?

Over a three-year study ,we found that 40% of the clothing that is unbaled in Kantamanto leaves the market as waste. Excluding clothing that makes its way to other markets, and other countries, that is between 4-5 million items of clothing leaving the market as waste every week. 

This waste has a devastating impact. The local government, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), picks up 70 tonnes of clothing waste from Kantamanto every day (up from 50 tonnes since our research began in 2016). 

These 70 tonnes were being dumped in Kpone landfill, which was the one sanitary, or modern engineered landfill in Accra. However Kpone started overflowing after just four years in operation and went up in flames in August 2019. It is still on fire now. 

However, the fire does not mean the waste has stopped piling up — and it has left the Director of Waste Management for Accra, Solomon Noi, with an impossible decision. He could reopen Kpone once there is no visible smoke, and consequently put the lives of 500+ Waste Pickers at risk by allowing them to work on a mountain of trash that is emitting toxins, has hidden sinkholes due to subterranean burn and could explode further once vehicles return. Or he could apply for foreign financing to build a new sanitary landfill. However, this would take more than a year and would put Ghana in debt, even though the clothing waste is foreign waste. This is the epitome of waste colonisation

However, most of Kantamanto’s clothing never gets to landfill in the first place because the AMA does not have the budget to transport it all. Instead, some of this waste will be swept into the open gutter system where it absorbs all sorts of industrial and human excrement before being pushed out to sea. 

Image: A kayayei at the Kantamanto market, Credit: Nana Kwadwo Agyei Addo, Accra Studios

What consequences does this have for the natural landscape around Accra?

Every year, Accra experiences life threatening floods that are exacerbated by the clothing waste, as clothing has a tendency to wrap around itself into big knots that clog the gutters and stop the flow of water and waste. Not only do these tangled masses of clothing contribute to destructive floods, but when the gutters get choked with clothing and plastic waste this increases the risk of malaria and cholera. Second-hand clothing waste is a public health crisis. 

Once clothing makes its way to the sea some of it will wash up onto the beaches where it will then be burned. We organised a beach clean-up in January and it took 40 people more than three hours to recover 600 garments. These 600 items of clothing were not floating on the surface of the water, they were embedded in the sediment. When we managed to dig the garments out of the earth, we found that the sand was black.

Image: Textile waste and old clothing is embedded into the sand of the beaches around Accra, Credit: The OR Foundation

What is the sentiment of the local people towards the influx of second-hand clothing into their country? Is their decision to shop second hand based on aesthetics or sustainability, or is there a deeper colonial significance?

Across every profession, age and gender, almost everyone in Accra intentionally shops at Kantamanto – there is a sense of both reliance and desire to it, and there isn’t necessarily a political consciousness of what second-hand means. Young Ghanaians tell us that second hand is important to their style articulation and that second hand offers a connection to aesthetics that many young people associate with global relevance. 

Yet the origin of this trade is inherently political in that it is colonial – it has never been a question of ‘want’. Ghanaians were taught by the coloniser that their traditions were primitive, and told to wear Western style dress to signal that they were civilised. The second-hand clothing trade grew to provide Ghanaians with ‘professional dress’ which allowed them into certain spaces and in proximity to colonial power. 

Many Ghanaian citizens blame themselves for the waste and tell us that they are ashamed of ‘their people’ for being so filthy. This breaks my heart. This internalised shame feeds the colonised mind and halts real progress. 

Ghanaians should not be ashamed of waste that is not theirs, and Ghanaian citizens should not be ashamed that they do not have enough landfills – is having many landfills really something we should be proud of, or aspire to? 

Waste and greed are two sides of the same destructive path. Fashion loves to emphasise the material consequences of the industry, but swapping one material for another is transactional, not transformative. If we fail to address greed, if we fail to reverse priorities, if we fail to decolonise fashion, then I don’t have much hope. 

Waste is killing people. The burning, the floods, the way clothing tangles around machinery at the landfill – these things kill people. Female head porters, called kayayei, live near the dumpsite in Old Fadama. Not only are they breathing in toxins, but the work they do is literally backbreaking. Kayayei carry bales of clothing from importers, to retailers. These bales weigh between 120-200 pounds and kayayei are paid less than a dollar per trip (which can be up to 1 mile long). Some of these girls die when their necks break under the weight of the bales they are carrying. These are the realities of our obsession and denial of overconsumption.

Image: Organising a beach clean up to remove over 600 waste garments, Credit: Nana Kwadwo Agyei Addo, Accra Studios

What can the Global North learn from Ghana about building a more sustainable culture around clothing?

The Global North — including the sustainable fashion community — has a narrow understanding of what the second-hand economy is, and we are interested in breaking down those misconceptions. I believe nuance is important to justice work because nuance humanises ‘problems’.

For example, ThredUp stated in their 2020 report that they have ‘recirculated’ 100 million items and have been in business for almost ten years. By contrast, Kantamanto ‘recirculates’ 100 million items every 4-5 months. I appreciate platforms like ThredUp and TheRealReal, yet what I do not appreciate is how the sustainable fashion community celebrates these reuse platforms without acknowledging Kantamanto’s contribution (and that of the many communities like it) to sustainability. 

That doesn’t mean Kantamanto is a ‘problem’ that we study. Kantamanto is a community. And while I am not Ghanaian, this community has been the most consistent force in my adult life. So yes, we work to collect accurate data, we document and tell stories, we recover waste, we advocate for change both in the USA and in Ghana — yet it has never been about researching for the sake of researching. 

Do I want to post pictures of waste and talk about trash all day? No, I do not. I want to be able to talk about Mawuli’s upcycled creations all day instead of going to landfills and washing faeces off our clothing. I am tired of people asking me for images of specific brands in landfills as if that will be the thing that changes the world. I am tired of people requesting imagery for their IG feed and offering no other form of support for our community. I am incredibly privileged to do this work but if, in ten years, I am still trying to awaken people with images of clothing washing up on beaches in Ghana then we have not progressed. 

Image: The landfill site in Kpone is oversaturated with textile waste, Credit: The OR Foundation

What can we be doing today to actively fight waste colonialism, and help slow down the influx of textile waste overseas?

What we would like is to see people get their hands dirty — joining us on the landfill instead of the conference stage. Progress would mean that I can stop documenting trash and tragedy in hopes that people in the Global North might be moved to help. 

We’d like to see is shopping centres around the world modelled after Kantamanto with designers, tailors, dyers and menders working directly with citizens. We’d like to see zero waste policies created with a global perspective instead of cities and countries setting ambitious landfill diversion targets that can only be reached by shipping waste to developing countries. We’d like to see greater transparency across ‘reverse’ supply chain companies. We want clothing collectors and exporters to publish data on exactly how much of their clothing is reused in the country of donation, how much is downcycled and how much is exported (and to what countries). 

We are building a textile recycling centre in Ghana and have been working with a local textile manufacturer to understand what is necessary to turn the textile waste into feed for new materials. The hope is for these materials to revitalise the local textile and fashion industry, while also reversing colonial trade routes. Justice looks like investment in solutions that benefit the communities, like Kantamanto, that have shouldered the burden of our waste for decades. 

Image: A tailor at the Kantamanto market upcycles an old pair of trousers, Credit: Nana Kwadwo Agyei Addo, Accra Studios

Thank you to Liz and Branson for all their work. Support the Dead White Man’s Clothes project by donating here.

From rental to resale, find out how to dispose of your clothing responsibly when cleaning out your wardobe

Learn more about waste colonialism, and how UK recycling systems are exporting plastic pollution overseas.