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In an open letter to the fashion industry, OR Foundation co-founder Liz Ricketts insists there can be no sustainability revolution without justice throughout the global supply chain. This letter was first published in https://atmos.earth/

LONDON – We are on the verge of a waste revolution – a revolution of waste technology and of systems driven by a revolution in the way we think about waste. Some people and organisations call this revolution the circular economy. Others prefer the language of regenerative systems. Whatever model or lexicon we choose, waste is quickly moving from out of sight, out of mind to the centre of design, business, media, and education. The away has moved from a myth to the marketplace, which is to say that waste is no longer “waste,” but instead has been reimagined as a “resource,” an “asset,” a “nutrient,” and an “opportunity.”

Corporate marketing campaigns claim that waste is now “beautiful,” and that waste is no longer a “problem,” rather it is the “solution.” I’ve heard people talk about waste as a “trend to design into” and other people call circularity the “waste-to-gold” revolution.

When so much of the fashion industry runs on a business model that extracts finite resources to produce an infinite amount of stuff, any conversation about recycling waste feels like progress. If we could just turn that stuff back into resources, then everything would be fine—right?

It’s not so simple. 

Waste and greed are two sides of the same destructive path. This means that waste cannot be revolutionised without a greater reckoning and reconciliation. And I don’t see much reckoning. What I see is a mass depoliticization of waste.

I think about and “deal” with clothing waste on a daily basis. Since 2016, my not-for-profit has been working with second-hand clothing retailers and upcyclers in Accra’s Kantamanto Market through our project called Dead Man’s White Clothes. Kantamanto is one of the largest resale and upcycling economies in the world. It is a vibrant, bustling hub of what the Global North now calls sustainability. It is also a mess.

In Kantamanto, 30,000 people work six days a week to sell, repair, clean, and upcycle the Global North’s clothing waste. This should be applauded, but it should not be romanticized. These 30,000 people take on a level of risk that is unjust. Many of Kantamanto’s retailers take out loans with 35 per cent interest rates to purchase the bales of clothing that have been shipped from all over the world; clothing that has, in most cases, been donated for free by consumers or collected by brands as deadstock write-offs. With only 20 per cent of Kantamanto’s retailers making a profit, many refer to their business as a “gambling job.” On top of the steep financial risk associated with this business, the labour is physically backbreaking and spiritually dehumanizing. 

And then there is the waste.

Roughly 15 million garments flow through Kantamanto Market on a weekly basis. Kantamanto’s ecosystem of retailers, dyers, printers, cleaners, tailors, and upcyclers re-commodify exponentially more clothing than any “modern,” technology-enabled resale platform in the Global North.

For comparison, ThredUp’s 2020 report states that they have “recirculated” (an unclear term) 100 million items in total and 4 million “fast-fashion” items since ThredUp began as a business in 2009. Kantamanto recirculates (in this case, meaning rehabilitates and resells) 100 million items—the overwhelming majority of them “fast-fashion”—every four months. But unlike resale platforms like ThredUp, there is no outlet for the clothing that Kantamanto cannot sell. If our clothing lives within a linear economy then Kantamanto is the end of the line.

Not only is there nowhere for unsold clothing to go after Kantamanto, but for Kantamanto retailers, there is nothing even resembling the hundreds of millions of dollars of investment that ThredUp, and similar platforms, have received. 

Despite the best efforts of Kantamanto’s entrepreneurs, 40 per cent of the clothing leaves the market as waste. Accra lacks the landfill space for this clothing waste, so much of it is burned in the open air, swept into the gutter from where it eventually makes its way to the sea, or dumped in informal settlements where Accra’s most vulnerable citizens live. 

I have worked alongside waste pickers clawing through garbage in hopes of finding valuable materials and I have washed human faeces off of clothing recovered from landfill; clothing that was manufactured by some of the world’s largest and most profitable brands and that was sent to Ghana in the name of diversion and circularity. Waste is not an abstract concept to me and that waste is all the more real for the people who work in Kantamanto day in and day out, playing a game they cannot win.

I remember the first time a brand referred to our research findings as a “goldmine.” It was last April and they were talking about the waste from Kantamanto. Hearing this from one of the largest fashion brands on the planet and from a member of their sustainability team, no less, sent my heart into my gut. It confirmed the fears that provoked my not-for-profit to launch Dead White Man’s Clothes (and to name our project as such) in 2016, while simultaneously making me wonder if sharing it so publicly would end up doing more harm than good.

This is a company whose leaders hoard wealth gained by exploiting the labour power of disenfranchised women who work in garment factories. This is a company that has no trouble projecting sales across dozens of different countries and cultures while claiming that a living wage for garment workers is simply incalculable. A company that uses its massive marketing apparatus to prey on the insecurities of young people, making them believe that consumption will solve their problems. A company that relies on disposability to grow with godlike limitlessness. 

For this company (and others since then) to call Kantamanto’s wastestream a “goldmine” isn’t merely absurd. It’s violent. 

For our Ghanaian team members, the word “goldmine” stings. It evokes an immediate connection to the Gold Coast Colony – a name given to many diverse West African nations by foreigners. It is a phrase that speaks to the historical exploitation of mineral resources and of human life. Heard within the word “goldmine” is also the specific ongoing environmental and human cost of small scale gold mining called Galamsey; the politics of which are entangled with the current neocolonial scramble for Africa. It is a reminder that little has changed since the recent time of formal colonization. The minds of foreigners are still capable of collapsing all the richness that Ghana represents into an extraction site for foreign benefit.

Personally, when I hear “goldmine” the first image that comes to my mind is of a baby boy. I don’t trust the internet to respect intimate details, so we will call this baby boy “O.”

O’s mom had worked as a “kayayo” in Kantamanto. This is a job that requires head carrying large, heavy bales of imported second-hand clothing throughout the market, often traveling a mile or more between importers and retailers. As a kayayo, her labour fuels the Kantamanto economy, which, again, is one of the largest reuse, resale, and upcycling economies in the world. Her labour does not afford the luxury of childcare, so O had to go to work with his mom. She carried him wrapped around her back while also carrying 120lbs of clothing compressed into a bale on her head. O’s mom was careful, as all kayayei are, to walk steady with a straight neck and a hand holding the side of her bale. But as she turned to carry the clothing up a flight of stairs, the narrow and uneven steps threw off her balance. 

The bale fell backwards onto O, crushing his skull. 

When we met, O’s dad pulled out his mobile phone to show me photos of his baby boy’s body; photos you expect to see when researching armed conflict, not when researching secondhand clothing. O’s mom couldn’t speak about what happened. She blames herself.

You might be wondering if O’s story is an anomaly. It’s not. Mohammed Salifu, the director of the Kayayei Youth Association, carries the weight of many stories like this. Babies who have died. Kids whose limbs have been crushed by bales. Kayayei whose necks have broken under the weight of the clothing they carry falling dead in the street.  

I want to pause here to honour the horrific nature of what I just shared with you and to clarify what it is that we are talking about. The bale that crushed and killed O was composed of deadstock from brands (including returns) and of second-hand clothing that was unwanted by citizens of the global North.

Thinking that their clothes will find a second life with someone who needs the thing that they no longer want, most people have truly kind, however naive, intentions when they donate clothing. Most people believe the clothes they donate will be kept out of landfill. Clothing donations are billed as socially positive and environmentally sustainable. And now, many companies are marketing their own take-back clothing collection programmes as the green way to shop for new clothes, often rewarding consumers with an in-store credit for dropping their old clothes in their bins. But the purported sustainability of the global second-hand clothing trade is founded on the deficit myth. It is true that there is too much clothing in the Global North, but it is not true that there is a deficit of clothing in the Global South.

The truth is that most of what ends up in Kantamanto is donated simply because fast fashion requires turn over, not attachment. Fast fashion isn’t made to be loved, to be kept, to be cared for. Clothing is donated because there is a never-ending supply of new clothing to replace it. The second-hand trade is the outlet necessary for the first-hand trade to exist.

Few people understand this because there is almost zero transparency or traceability in the second-hand supply chain. What you may know as “second-hand” is the primary supply chain for millions of human beings, including millions of Ghanaian citizens. If there were transparency and traceability we would understand that the ethics of second-hand are not so simple. Clothing donations, collection, sorting, exporting, importing, and resale is a big business reaching nearly every corner of the globe in the same way that the creation of new, first-hand clothes does; one industry does not exist without the other. Second-hand clothing is part of the Fashion Industry.

The fact that we – consumers, fashion industry advocates, and even second-hand clothing exporters – know so little about the “afterlife” of our donations speaks to our priorities and underscores the colonial legacy of second-hand markets. The story of Kantamanto is not something new, rather for decades it has been both intentionally hidden and unintentionally overlooked thanks to the implicit bias of those, myself included, who are complicit in upholding and advancing white supremacy. And only now, as the conversation around circularity has become embedded within a fashion industry seeking to rebrand itself as green, does the story of Kantamanto’s overflowing waste seem relevant to the brands searching for their next “goldmine.” 

This has everything to do with profit and nothing to do with impact: a clothing company that calls itself “circular” while continuing to overproduce is not interested in solving the problem – it is interested in extracting profit from the problem.

While “goldmine” might roll off the tongue as a seemingly benign corporatism, it is insulting and painful for those who have been doing the work. It is insulting to the Ghanaian designers who have been upcycling and using deadstock because second-hand clothing is the only material available to them now that the second-hand clothing trade has decimated their local textile economy. It’s insulting to the thousands of retailers who clean, iron, dye, sort, and clip threads from our unwashed donations. And to the kayayei who transport clothing from here to there and back again, over and over and over, literally risking their lives so that each garment has a shot at another life. “Goldmine” isn’t just a word – it is an attitude and orientation toward the world.

Another phrase comes to mind: it takes money to make money. In many ways, this is the pervasive motto of capitalism, implying that the people willing and able to risk the most financial capital can reap the most rewards. But what about the people risking the most human capital? We need to reckon with the fact that the people who shoulder the most risk are not the people with the most secure profit stream and that the companies now calling waste beautiful are the companies that have never dealt with the ugly truth of waste. 

A materials economy where waste is considered a resource is not revolutionary if this system continues to operate within a global economy built on colonial trade routes, extractive capitalism, and a growth imperative. This model will substitute waste for raw resources, but it will do so in a way that takes us down the same destructive path that we have been on.

We have to be explicit about what we want for the future of fashion. 

I don’t want to turn waste into “gold.” I want the waste dumped in Ghana to be recovered so that soil can be regenerated to support food sovereignty and so that free, clean drinking water can flow. I don’t want the waste to be recovered so that clothing can be turned into more clothing. There is a difference.

Justice will not be the inevitable by-product of take-back programmes, clothing donations, or recycling technology. Fashion’s waste crisis is the result of compounded exploitation. Without a concerted effort, circularity does nothing to address the colonial legacies on which the prevailing fashion industry is built. In fact, by decoupling resource constraints from corporate growth, circularity could turn even more of the world into a corporate colony. But it doesn’t have to.

Firstly, we must talk about production quantities and then we must reduce them. There is too much clothing in the world. This is not a radical opinion. It is a fact. I’ve seen the end of fashion’s linear economy and it is literally overflowing into the ocean. As a global society, we do not need more clothing. Any brand who says otherwise is delusional or outright lying. Many independent brands speak openly about this but Big Fashion does not. Brands should be required to publish information about how many units they produce of each item that they sell. Journalists should ask questions about production volumes, and media outlets should illustrate the excessive scale of production in the same way that some clever people have illustrated the mind boggling difference between median income and billionaire wealth. As advocates like Aja Barber have said, we can no longer divorce scale from impact.

Secondly, we must redistribute wealth; this can come in many forms. After all, a circle is inherently redistributive. 

The Circular Economy, as promoted by the titans of linear industries, has been ripe for greenwashing because it is a materials-based framework with little mention of people and no mention of capital. As a result, brands launch take-back programs before they pay an actual living wage. In fact, it seems as though the companies investing the most in the circular economy are also the most likely to be exploiting garment workers. We should also illustrate the gap between garment worker pay and CEO earnings and stop giving centre stage to the people who are openly exploiting thousands of people for personal gain. With wages so low and environmental consequences externalised, clothing is so disposable that store returns are not worth restocking and are instead landfilled or diverted into the second-hand economy. Through the prevailing model of the fashion industry, brands are invested in disposability. Paying garment workers a living wage is not only just, it is perhaps the most accessible mechanism we have to catalyze a divestment from overproduction. There are several possible legal mechanisms that could accelerate the living wage prerogative. By way of example, I suggest looking at some of the recent initiatives around which the https://payupfashion.com/ is organising.

Another form of wealth distribution is eco-reparations and equitable investments in communities like Kantamanto who have been trying to clean up fashion’s mess for decades. The people who live in proximity to the problem are also closest to the solutions. The Global North loves to talk in circles, debating the legitimacy of the word “sustainability” while the people who labour day in and day out in Kantamanto have been doing sustainability. Let’s prioritize Kantamanto’s work to create a Circular Economy, not that of the people who have benefited most from the linear economy. It bears repeating that Kantamanto is among the largest resale/reuse/recommerce/upcycling platforms/economies in the world. We should invest in it as such, not as a goldmine for the extractive corporate interests, but as a place of real impact for a future we all share.

Make less stuff, move money, and decentralize power. There can be no “sustainable innovation” without justice. Waste will either be the next frontier of colonialism and greenwashing or waste will serve as an opportunity for greater reckoning and reparation. Choose the latter.

The OR Foundation is a USA and Ghana based not-for-profit

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