In tandem with our other initiatives we opened a community center and circularity lab in September 2021 located in the heart of Accra, adjacent to Kantamanto Market, in order to catapult innovations around circular product design, waste management solutions and skills training. The lab functions on cycles four to six months long where we choose one material/garment type from the waste stream to investigate. We purchase waste from Kantamanto, diverting several hundred pounds a month from landfilling or open dumping, and we collect several data points before sorting the waste by fiber composition and durability standards to determine what can be done with the materials. The lab space features sewing technology and an industrial textile shredder based on open-source designs and modeled on our initial pilot scale version that our team installed in a pop-up shop in early 2020, pre-COVID. We are currently building additional tools such as a heat press and manual washing machines. Utilizing these tools we are able to re-contextualize the waste, creating useful materials, products and feedstock, while also gaining valuable insight into the labor that is necessary to build a Justice-led circular textiles economy.
Through our direct engagement with the waste stream and our ongoing research in Kantamanto we are also gaining greater insight into the per garment cost to “manage the waste” within the current system, as well as the per garment cost to transition “waste” to “resource” or “feedstock” for the circular economy. This has given us a tangible understanding of what is possible locally and globally and what policies are necessary to support a just transition to the circular economy.
The lab also serves as a community center. Retailers and tailors participate in the upcycling and recycling process. We host dialogue sessions, film screenings and exhibitions about sustainability and circularity with stakeholders across the market. We are currently launching a hybrid residency program (virtual and physical) and crafting curricula to more formally engage community members across a variety of backgrounds, from university students and established entrepreneurs to women working as Kayayei and street hawkers, as well as international designers and brands in circular product design and material transformation. Ultimately offering public demonstrations as well as design competitions and incubator-style funding and mentorship, our aim is to spark investment ready solutions from within the informal economy of Ghana’s secondhand clothing trade.
To provide immediate relief and alternative economic opportunities for young women and girls living in dire conditions and working as Kayayei, we have organized a structured and paid apprentice placement program with local designers, artists and business professionals. This six-month to year-long program trains young women in marketable skills, provides a living wage income and builds bridges and mentorship networks across communities frequently divided by different regional and socioeconomic backgrounds within Ghana. As part of the apprenticeship program participants are encouraged to save a minimum of one third of their pay, ensuring that they have money to start their own business. The Mabilgu Program (meaning ‘sisterhood’ in Dagbani) includes a monthly class on financial literacy, entrepreneurship, women’s rights, workplace safety and various sustainability practices. We are also working to extend these classes to a broader community of young women outside of our apprenticeship program.
In addition to placing apprentices with other companies, we also offer direct skills training through positions within our No More Fast Fashion Lab. Apprentices in our lab learn to upcycle and recycle textile waste and attend courses on photography and media production. Not only does this programming provided a safe space for young women working as Kayayei to gather and learn new skills, these weekly storytelling workshops counter the dearth of female identifying photographers and cinematographers in Ghana who are vital to telling the stories of the women working as Kayayei, a necessary element to address the injustices and abuse that the young women and girls frequently face. Photographs and stories from some of our photography training alums were featured in Display Copy magazine, and we are currently working with other media partners focused on slow and inclusive journalism.
During Accra’s pandemic lockdown in April of 2020 we mobilized our social media community to raise US $20,000 for the Kayayei Youth Association to provide food for over 18,000 young women and girls working as Kayayei in Accra. When a fire destroyed the shops and inventory of hundreds of Kantamanto’s retailers and tailors in December of 2020, our community rallied once again and raised over US $20,000, which we distributed as grants to the individuals impacted by the fire. Building on this work we decided to make our Secondhand Solidarity Fund public in order to enable brands, resale platforms, thrifters, citizens and partner organizations to donate directly to the Kantamanto community.
For decades Kantamanto’s retailers and Kayayei have labored in the service of sustainability, recirculating far more clothes than any resale platform in the Global North, and yet they have received essentially no investment. There is no bailout for a bad bale. A fire or a week in COVID lockdown can mean starvation or debtors’ prison. The Secondhand Solidarity Fund aims to leverage the growing movement for secondhand clothing and circularity in the Global North to support the communities on the frontlines in times of crisis. As an organization we contribute any speaking fees and media publication payments to this fund and we call on businesses operating in the secondhand space, be those resale platforms or clothing collectors and exporters in the Global North, to step up in solidarity with the community that actually drives their bottom line.
Contribute and find out more via solidarity.theor.org
In conjunction with our chiropractic partner, Dr. Naa Asheley Dordor of Nova Wellness Center, we are coordinating an extensive study on head carrying, with 100 women who work as Kayayei in Kantamanto market receiving extensive evaluations, X-rays and health screenings. We are also supporting our chiropractic partner, Dr. Dordor, and the study participants, to continue with chiropractic care if so desired. The results of this study will be contextualized academically and published both domestically and internationally in publicly accessible formats. We are working to place the majority of study participants into apprenticeships, enabling them to leave the Kayayei trade for safer and more dignified jobs. In addition to providing treatment and alternative employment pathways we are engaging a broad range of stakeholders in our advocacy efforts. Since November 2021 we have been working with Kantamanto leadership, retailers and tailors to secure their support for ending the headcarrying of bales. From January to March 2022 we are engaging Accra-based media and traveling to Northern Ghana to engage elders within the communities from which many of the girls migrate. Beginning in March we will launch an international advocacy campaign that will continue along with our local advocacy until 2023 as we build on the research to develop the necessary policy and infrastructural changes.
Although nearly everyone dealing in secondhand clothes today knows that most of the clothing is originally given away by people who are still alive, the Twi phrase Obruni Wawu is still employed to describe secondhand clothing in Ghana. This phrase translates to Dead White Man’s Clothes and for us it speaks to the absurdity of the waste that we, as a society, create as a byproduct of our exploitative overconsumption and overproduction. Abundance and excess are not the same thing. Overconsumption is not a burden carried entirely by the consumer. Overproduction is not a burden carried entirely by the producer. These phenomena are interconnected and affect all of us, regardless of our role or our position in the global North or South. Kantamanto Market and the dumpsites surrounding Accra are specific areas where the impacts of this cycle are greatly evident, but so too are the malls of America and the High Streets of Europe.
Our research based on hundreds of surveys and interviews and thousands of hours of observation and garments sorted since 2016 has shown that roughly 40% of the millions of items that pass through Kantamanto Market every week leave the market as waste. These hundreds of thousands of garments on a daily basis represent one of the largest consolidated sources of waste in the city of Accra. And they are just the tip of the iceberg in relation to the global crisis of fashion’s waste. As an organization we have played a leading role in documenting many of the widespread impacts of this waste.
Just as the amount of waste is staggering, so too is the effort to recirculate clothing. Kantamanto is the world’s largest reuse hub. 30,000 people work to add value to garments through sorting and merchandising, remanufacturing, tailoring, screen printing, washing, ironing and dying, among the nearly countless tasks of transformation that are performed to recirculate roughly 25 million garments a month, far more than any dedicated digital clothing resale platform in the Global North. The many lessons of craft of use that are found throughout Kantamanto are the very lessons that we, as a society, must learn if we are to end fashion’s waste crisis.
To consider the impacts of the secondhand clothing trade within Kantamanto Market and across Ghana and West Africa more broadly calls for the consideration of global supply chains and socioeconomic systems, systems indeed spawned by the White Man.
Today Kantamanto Market, located in the center of the city of Accra, operates with high speed internet in the pocket of nearly every trader and with an increasing number of malls reminiscent of suburban USA offering new shopping experiences around the sprawling city and suburbs of Accra. These new technologies and developments are changing the decades-old secondhand clothing trade. Entrepreneurs scout out the best items from various market traders in order to sell at a markup on Instagram. Younger and wealthier customers spend time in the air conditioned malls. Whether or not they spend their money in the malls, the market scene of organized chaos that dominates Kantamanto Market is no longer the only place to buy European style clothes or to do business. How Accra as a society comes to balance the various tensions behind this evolving landscape is an important indicator of the city’s future both ecologically and economically and is a focus of our current work.