Lecture by Yayra Agbofah - THE REVIVAL - about old clothes imports to Ghana


By Prof. Martina Weiß

What happens to our clothes after we have disposed of them? Because we don't wear them anymore, we don't like them anymore, because space has to be freed up for something new in our closets? While consumers are increasingly focusing on the sustainability aspect of the textile value chain in terms of raw material extraction and production conditions, the further journey of our discarded garments remains in the dark.

An online lecture at MDH, organized and designed by Odessa Legemah, founder of Assemblage Worldwide ( https://www.a-ssemblage.net/ ), was dedicated to this topic. Assemblage Worldwide is a creative platform that links sustainable actors, NGOs, universities and organizations in the field of production and design. The goal of Assemblage Worldwide is to share knowledge, exchange skills, and develop and implement new, meaningful ideas on a global scale. Guest speaker Yayra Agbofah, who joined us live from Ghana - the country where our textile waste ends up - talks about the direct consequences of our clothing consumption.

Used clothing on a landfill in Accra, Ghana

For decades, we have lived in the belief that as long as we dispose of our discarded clothing in used clothing containers or as donations to charities, we are actually doing something good. That our clothing donations (the word alone fatally suggests something charitable) are being resold in charity stores for a good cause or donated to those in need. But with the rise of the fast fashion industry and the trend towards online shopping, our consumption of clothing is also growing - every German buys around 60 new items of clothing per year, and the trend is rising. According to a study by Greenpeace, about 40 percent of these are hardly worn or not worn at all.

Only between 10 and 30 percent of our second-hand donations to charity are actually resold in stores. Most of our consumer waste disappears into a business system that goes largely unnoticed: donated goods are sorted, categorized and then resold to trading partners, often for export to the Global South.

And then end up in Ghana, as Yayra Agbofah explains. Every year, 40,000 tons of old clothes are imported into Ghana from the U.S., UK, Europe and Asia to be resold at West Africa's largest second-hand market, Kantamanto Market in Ghana's capital Accra. Up to 15 million new garments arrive here every week. Almost half of these are unsaleable, such as winter clothing, underwear, or tattered clothes. This part ends up on huge garbage dumps that characterize the image of the city. At the seaside, on the beach, in the street corners, on the outskirts: mountains of clothes piled meters high. The environmental consequences are catastrophic. Apart from the fact that chemicals (e.g. from leftover dyes) end up in the water cycle, the clothing waste of the global North decomposes only very slowly or not at all - the fast fashion industry in particular often relies on inexpensive synthetic fibers that are not biodegradable and at best decompose into microplastics. We know all too well the labels in the photos Yayra uses to illustrate his talk, which he took at garbage dumps in Accra: a pair of tattered Nike sneakers here, an H&M label on a filthy sweater there.

It's not just the environmental consequences that are fatal. Ghana's clothing industry - once an important economic factor with over 30,000 employees - is collapsing under the competitive pressure of imported cheap goods. Today, only about 3,000 employees work in production, as Yayra describes. The economic impact goes hand in hand with social and cultural decline - the old-clothing trade is too risky and not profitable enough for the local players to provide a secure income, and destroys the cultural independence of the local clothing industry.

Yayra's words - "you won't die when you miss a fashion trend" and "I am always so sad when I pass the landfills" - and the pictures of his lecture caused oppressive silence and great consternation among the audience and the professors Martina Becker, Claudia Schwarz and Martina Weiß from the Fashion Management course.

Online lecture at mdh organized and designed by Odessa Legemah, founder of Assemblage Worldwide

Yayra's commitment is at the same time encouraging: in order to draw attention to the growing mountains of garbage and the multi-layered problems associated with them, and to initiate a counter-movement, Yayra founded THE REVIVAL (https://www.therevival.earth/) - a non-profit organization for sustainable design - in 2018. THE REVIVAL collects unsaleable, used, discarded clothing from Kantamado Market and Accra's garbage dumps, employs local artisans, and works with fashion students from local universities and members of the public to involve them in the creation of new outfits and give new artistic and social value to items labeled as "trash."

Unsaleable used clothing is collected and upcycled

THE REVIVAL currently sells the designs - largely individual pieces - in pop-up stores in and around Accra. The business is tiny and can only recycle a fraction of the goods that arrive in Kantamanto, because the amounts of waste are huge and there isn't enough demand for it, Yayra said. So an important task to raise awareness for THE REVIVAL is to find people suffering from clothing shortages and explore ways to help them through the upcycled garments.

In Ghana, for example, more than 80,000 pineapple pickers suffer cuts and bruises when they harvest fruit without proper safety gear - the workers have no money to buy protective clothing. So in 2020, THE REVIVAL developed protective clothing made from discarded denim imports, which the brand then donated to farmers across Ghana. The coveralls for the pickers are pieced together from old denim jackets and pants and screen-printed by THE REVIVAL with a pop-art pineapple design. The market for such garments would be huge - pineapples are grown all over Africa and the Caribbean. And the overalls are cool - they could hang in every concept store in Paris, Tokyo and London.

Denim tote from THE REVIVAL in the museum store of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

So far, only accessories from THE REVIVAL's collection have made it back to the global north: THE REVIVAL cooperates with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and has designed a bag made from jeans waste for the museum store (https://www.vam.ac.uk/shop/fashion/bags-totes/recycled-denim-tote-bag-b…). Also collaborating are Central Saint Martins School (London) & London College of Fashion and The Hopenclass (Paris). And the Mediadesign Hochschule is also aiming for cross-location cooperation in the coming winter semester - in order to support the work of THE REVIVAL and make it better known, collection and marketing concepts are to be developed in various modules of the Fashion Management course. After all, everyone can contribute to the fact that less clothing waste is produced and exported to the global south by changing their own consumption behavior.

26.07.2023 - mdh Fashion Management Munich