Chinese fast fashion company pledges €14m to help waste-workers in Ghana

Move is response to backlash against secondhand `dead white man’s clothes’ sent to West Africa amid claims 40% is no good

Chinese fast fashion company Shein has promised $15 million (€14.08 million) to help fashion waste workers in Ghana, as part of a $50 million (€47 million) pledge announced at the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen.

On Tuesday, The Irish Times published a report on the backlash against secondhand clothes in West Africa, which included interviews with staff of the Or Foundation, the organisation that Shein has now committed to partner with. Each week about 15 million garments find their way to Ghanaian capital Accra, which has one of the region’s biggest secondhand clothes markets, Kantamanto.

About 40 per cent of what arrives is clearly waste, activists say. In Ghana, secondhand clothes are known as “obroni wawu” – or “dead white man’s clothes”. Many were originally donated to charity shops or put in clothing recycling bins in Europe or North America, before being shipped to Africa. Traders say the rise of fast fashion has drastically reduced the quality of the clothes arriving on the continent.

In a statement posted on Instagram, the Or Foundation said $50 million from Shein will go into an Extended Producer Responsibility Fund over five years. The foundation called it an “industry template… allowing for financial compensation to flow in the same direction as clothing waste”.

“Through this agreement, Shein acknowledges that their clothing may be ending up here in Kantamanto, a simple fact that no other major fashion brand has been willing to state yet. This acknowledgment is a first step toward our goal of industry-wide reckoning.”

While the Or Foundation’s statement said this money is not reflective of the cost of fashion waste to communities around the world, it “is a vital tool to begin delivering the tangible change that our community within the Kantamanto ecosystem has been calling for”.

During an interview with The Irish Times, Or Foundation staff member Chloe Asaam previously said that she’d rather people in the West completely stop buying clothing rather than donating money afterwards. “The problem is [people are] consuming so much. We advocate for people to stop for a while to come to terms with their own participation in the crisis,” she said.

This week, secondhand clothing has also been in the news across the continent in Kenya after presidential candidate Raila Odinga advised against the import of what are there called “mitumba”, saying secondhand clothes were “worn by dead people” and that he’d like to support local manufacturing instead. Mitumba means bundles, or bale, in Swahili.

This sparked a discussion online, with #Mitumba and #MadeInKenya trending on Twitter. Some Kenyans began posting photos of themselves wearing secondhand clothes they had bought, with the hashtag #MyDeadPeopleClothingChallenge.

“With just 2,000 Kenyan shillings (15.93 euro), I can look this stunning. Mitumba is our way of life,” posted one woman, along with a photo of her wearing a baby pink minidress and hot pink blazer.

“I wear mitumba, [I] am not dead, [I] am a voter in this country,” posted a man, who – in his photo – wore a bright blue hoodie and jeans.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa