Ghana: the dark side of the fashion world

A sound of rattling sewing machines, small radios and shouts pervades the gigantic market.

Ghana: the dark side of the fashion world

A sound of rattling sewing machines, small radios and shouts pervades the gigantic market. Minister of Labor Hubertus Heil (SPD) paves a way between a seemingly endless tangle of narrow aisles, tables, chairs and mountains of clothes.

Kantamanto in Ghana's capital Accra - one of the largest second-hand textile markets in the world. Around 100 containers with around 15 million items arrive here every week, some from Germany, such as worn-out FC Bayern shirts. Seamstresses combine parts of old Gucci dresses with Adidas, Primark with Nike or denim with shirt pieces made of synthetic fibers.

Old clothes, mainly from Europe, have been tailored, dyed and traded on the market for a long time. Meanwhile, a lot of second-hand clothing from China and America also ends up here. Fast fashion - i.e. cheap, quickly changing clothes - and collecting old clothes worldwide have allowed the market to continue to grow in recent years. Today, an estimated 30,000 people work in around 5,000 stalls - and mostly try to make ends meet without social security or protection from released chemicals.

As in a burning glass, the downsides of the ubiquitous availability of cheap clothes are revealed here. But what should consumers do in Germany, for example, so that old clothes don't become a problem elsewhere?

People's incomes are depressingly low

Heil, who is visiting West Africa with Development Minister Svenja Schulze until Friday, finds it "impressive" here, he says. But the income of the people is depressingly low. "It's dangerous work. When there's rain, chemicals are washed out." Fires keep breaking out. But the market is also a livelihood for many people. "Everyone is trying to find a niche," says Regina Bauerochse, Ghana's head of the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ). And there are hardly any clothing chains in Ghana like those in Munich, Düsseldorf or Berlin - what the market has to offer gives the broad masses of the population cheap and often original and pretty clothes.

For the Bonn development expert Friedel Hütz-Adams from the Südwind Institute, the shipment of mountains of old clothes to West Africa is "a frustrating issue", as he says. According to the expert, as early as a quarter of a century ago, the textile industry was considered the driving force behind industrialization in a number of countries such as Ghana. However, under the pressure of free trade, imports of old clothes swept over them "like a tidal wave" from the 1990s, says Hütz-Adams. Today there is a growing domestic textile production again - but compared to the huge amounts of old clothes, these are beginnings on a minimal scale.

Koako Mensah runs a small shop in the Kantamanto Market. When the 32-year-old gets new second-hand goods, he cuts them up. "Then I put the pieces back together," he says. But many things also have holes and are already unusable when they arrive at the market. Disposal? The textile waste goes away, says Koako Mensah at first. In the end, a lot of things are simply washed away by the rain, he then adds.

What should I do?

A few kilometers away, Bernard can tell you what that means. The 36-year-old lives with his five children by the sea, just over two kilometers away. Mountains of rubbish are washed up here, via rivers and lagoons. In addition to textiles, there is also a lot of plastic. Fishermen used to throw their nets from the shore, but that hasn't been possible for a long time because of the pollution. So the fishermen always have to go out with their boats. But, as Bernard tells it, they often don't catch enough anymore. "The rubbish also ends up in the nets."

After the tour of the Kantamanto market, Labor Minister Heil pointed out, among other things, that the Ghanaian government is responsible. Germany is also working on development opportunities in the country. "And there is also a corporate responsibility."

But one could also be more careful when it comes to consumption, says the minister. "I'll think a little more about what I buy." High- and middle-income people in Western countries also buy many things that they hardly need. "And then every year you clean out the closet and it ends up here." The Bonn-based development expert Hütz-Adams believes that consumers shouldn't just throw their old clothes in the nearest clothes bin. Much of it is pre-sorted industrially, moved on and then ends up in West Africa.

At the Kantamanto market, the charitable OR Foundation is trying to improve conditions. Your co-founder Branson Skinner has a wish for consumers. "We need a new relationship with our own clothes," he says. "We have to appreciate them more and not throw them away so quickly."