Have You Heard of Kantamanto Market?

Image via Fashion Revolution

Kantamanto Market is the largest secondhand market in the world.  Located in Accra, Ghana, it is the place where our donated castoffs are sent.  It is estimated that only about 10% of donated clothing is actually sold in our local communities.  Whatever doesn’t sell is packed into bales and shipped to the Global South. 

So let’s do a quick breakdown of how the system works. 

  1. We donate our unwanted clothing items to our local thrift shop.
  2. Unsold items are packed into bales and shipped to the Global South.
  3. Importers purchase containers, spending up to $95,000 on one container.  They are purchasing these garments sight unseen.  They have no idea what they will receive or what kind of condition the items will be in. One importer will bring in 3 million garments per year. 
  4. Importers will either sell the garments themselves, or sell bales to local sellers.
  5. The bales are transported by foot by women and girls (as young as 12).  Referred to as Head Portors, they carry heavy bales, some up to 200 pounds on their heads.  They can walk a mile or more to their destination and do many trips per day. They walk the bales to the market for garments to be picked and sold.  This work pays very little.  I read only $4-$5 per day. Many of these women are also carrying their babies on their backs while carrying these heave bales and maneuvering through large crowds. Children have been know to be killed by dropped bales.  Not only is the work difficult and physical, but it’s also dangerous.
  6. The seller then goes through the bale and divides the pieces into piles of sellable items or trash items. The items in good enough condition to sell, will be displayed for sale in their shop.  The trash items go to landfill.  At the end of the day, many of the unsold items, are bundled up and sent to landfill as well, transported in overflowing trucks.  
  7. The next day, this whole process begins again.  

The cycle is daily.  Clothes arrive everyday, except Sunday when they are closed. An estimated 40% of the clothing they receive goes into the landfill everyday. It is approximated that roughly six million garments each week leave the market as waste.  Waste that is then dumped into landfill.   160 tonnes of textile waste, every single day.  This is waste colonialism. 

Kantamanto Head porter

Photo Credit: Nana Kwadwo Agyei Addo, Accra Studios

As fast fashion has been on the rise year after year, the quality of clothing the importers are receiving is getting worse.  Many of it is unsellable as it is stained, ripped, dirty,  missing buttons, falling apart and not worthy of resale.  Cheap, poor quality clothing is taking over in their bales. Our (Global North) cheap, poor quality, clothing.  People living in developing countries do not want our trash.  If you wouldn’t wear a garment in the condition it is in, why should someone else?  The people there feel disrespected by the garbage we donate.  There can be 180-200 items in one bale of clothing.  Often only 50% is in sellable condition but it can be as few as less than 10 items in a bale that are in good enough condition for resale. So those remaining 150+ items, go straight to landfill. Their landfills that were designed to accept waste for 15 years, are being filled up in just 5 years. The result of this is slum cities now having unregulated dumps right next to their homes. Those living in poverty are forced to live with and deal with our waste. 

The unsold clothing that is sent to landfill is destroying their local waterways and beaches, killing ocean and wildlife, and making an unhealthy environment for those living near. Mountains of clothes are burned to keep the towering heaps of clothing from toppling.  It is not uncommon for the skies to be black with smoke for days while clothing, often made of synthetic fabrics, are burned. 

Kantamanto Landfill

Photo Credit: The OR Foundation

Another affect of us flooding their secondhand markets with our unwanted clothes, is that local makers can’t complete with the cheap prices. Our secondhand cast offs are essentially killing their industry of local makers.  Traditional African clothing has now become too expensive for everyday wear.  We talk passionately in the Global North about supporting local and shopping small business, but our overconsumption is responsible for other countries loosing parts of their culture.  Imagine if all your favourite local brands who support and employ experts in their creative field were no more and now your only options were cheaply made fashion cast offs. 

When the rain hits, the unwanted clothing that lines the streets, is washed into their storm drains and chokes the water ways resulting in flooding in the streets.  The garments that are swept away into the uncovered storm drains end up in the ocean.  The massive tangles of garments that end up embedded in the beaches are referred to as tentacles.  They can be 8-30 feet in length and up to 3 feet wide.  You can imagine the impact this has.  Local people can be tangled up in the clothing masses while swimming.  Some have even drowned from this.  Fishermen have issues with their boats and equipment being caught up in the clothing tentacles.  Beaches are littered with clothes.  Sea life is being choked by the enormous amount of clothing waste.  Clothing waste being disposed of by us, the Global North. This is where it ends up.

Kantamanto Beaches

Photo Credit: The OR Foundation

Have you heard of the term “Dead White Man’s Clothes” ? “Dead White Man’s Clothes is the translation of the Akan expression Obroni Wawu, which is a common term for secondhand clothes in Ghana meaning ‘the white man has died clothes.’ This expression comes from the idea that someone would have to die to give up so much stuff, implying that the concept of excess was foreign.” ~ DeadWhiteMansClothes.org

This is how the Global North’s waste is seen by the Global South.  The only explanation for our excessive fashion waste problem is that white people are dying in mass and that’s where all this excess is coming from, because why would people get rid of perfectly good clothing that has been made for them?? Because remember, only a small fraction of our donated clothes are actually sold locally.  The rest gets shipped overseas and a big majority of that goes into their landfill.

So who is to blame for this waste colonialism?  Brands.  Brands overproduce by up to 40%.  According to CleanClothes.org , “a staggering 100 billion items of clothing are produced each year, that’s nearly 14 items for every human being on the planet.”  Considering the vast majority of that is for the Global North’s consumption,  you can see where our waste problem is starting from.  Also considering that those living in poverty, or low income households are not the ones over consuming fast fashion brands, there is a whole lot of clothing being produced for the wealthiest people of the planet. We are consuming fashion at an alarming rate. “American shoppers snap up about five times more clothing now than they did in 1980. In 2018, that averaged 68 garments a year, the online firm Rent the Runway told the New Yorker. As a whole, the world’s citizens acquire some 80 billion apparel items annually.” ~ Wall Street Journal  When we start to do the math and see how much clothing is never even worn and goes straight to landfill, how much is being purchased, how much is excess, and the resources needed to make it all, it’s easy to see why change is needed.

Photo Credit: The Daily Mail

So what can we do?  It can feel really overwhelming because it is overwhelming.  Fast fashion brands continue to grow with labels like H&M saying they want to double their sales by 2030 and companies like Shein recently getting a $100 Billion evaluation. Their evaluation has tripled in just 2 years.  It can feel really disheartening and I think because of this many take the, if ya can’t beat ’em, join ’em approach.  I get it. But…even the smallest actions by many can make an impact.  Maybe I’m a delusional optimist, but I truly believe we CAN do better.  We must do better.  Five easy steps to take today:

  1. Wear the clothes you have.  Cherish those items.  Care for them. Mend them. Launder them properly.  Wear them over and over again.
  2. Shop less.  By simply doing nothing, you can make a huge impact.  This costs you nothing and will actually save you money.
  3. Shop secondhand first.  When you are in the market for something, try to source it secondhand. As I’ve just talked about, there is so much unwanted clothing out there waiting to be rescued.
  4. Educate yourself.  Whether you’re taking the time to read posts like this, reading books, listening to podcasts, or watching documentaries, learning is our way forward. We need to know who makes our clothes, what is in our clothes, and what to do with our clothes at their end of life.
  5. Take action!  Commit to making changes in your own shopping habits.  Call out Fast Fashion brands who continue to exploit people and the planet.  Fashion Revolution Week is April 18-24.  Follow Fashion Revolution on Instagram and see how you can get involved.  What pledges can you take?  What actions can you take today?  There is work to be done.  How can you make a difference?

“I went Value Village to drop off a bag of clothes… When I went to the drop off area I saw giant bales of clothes being hauled into trucks and it hit me, this idea of excess and waste when it comes to clothing.  Even thinking “I’ll just buy this, wear it a few times and give it to a secondhand shop and it’s all good.” does not factor in the amount of clothing they can’t sell and will end up as garbage.”  ~ Danielle C. (Jen Pistor Community Follower)


Sources as well as Recommended Viewing, Reading, + Listening: 

ABC News (Foreign Correspondent episode about Kantamanto Market) 

Preloved Podcast with Emily Stochl (Season 6,episode 11)  

Wardrobe Crisis Podcast with Liz Ricketts (Episode 150)

Fashion Revolution’s Dead White Man’s Clothes by Liz Ricketts

Fashion Revolution’s The Burden of Excess: It Falls On Her

All The Small Things Podcast by Venetia La Manna with Chloe Asaam (Season 9, Episode 5)

Dead White Man’s Clothes Organization 

Clean Clothes Campaign: CleanClothes.org

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