Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The life-cycle of our clothes

When I drop off my latest bag of pre-loved clothing to my local charity shop, I just assumed that it all gets sold. Maybe I was a bit naive, but I guess I've also never really stopped to think about it before. I don't want it anymore but somebody else in my local area will right? Perhaps, or perhaps it will have to travel to the other side of the world before it gets a new home. 

'The Secret Life of Your  Clothes' was a recent BBC 2 documentary that explored the journey that our castoffs make to Ghana every week, all 1 million pounds worth. An estimate 30,000 tonnes of second hand clothing arrives in Accra, the capital of Ghana, every year. Our desire and obsession with fast fashion has produced a lucrative business for Ghanaian people, with money being made every single day. 'Obrani wawu' is the local term for these garments, meaning 'dead white mans clothing'. 

Image via here
It is from here, Accra's wholesale market, that these garments begin to filter down through a tiered class system. Wholesalers sort through their purchases and rank the items as 1st, 2nd or 3rd class. 1st and 2nd class garments are worth much more due to quality, condition and the label. Marks & Spencer, Ben Sherman and River Island are some of the 1st grade labels mentioned. These bales are then sold onto stall holders within Kumasi market. These are sold for around £40 per bale and are sold unseen, meaning a lot of risk is involved when purchasing and emotions can run high between traders, wanting to buy the best stock possible. Many are sold on the roadside in remote villages, where traders will travel for miles to Kumasi to pick up their stock. They sell these garments within their villages for as little as 25p per garment.

Image via here
20 years ago Kumasi was seen as just a normal market, but the explosion in disposable fashion in the western world has created a second hand revolution in Ghana. Re-cycled clothing has taken over from traditional dress and even westernised wedding dresses are available to buy for a mere £10 -£15, and are often worn at traditional Ghanaian weddings in place of traditional attire. You'll even find thick winter coats at the markets which seem to have no place there, but actually do get sold. They're worn back in Europe, where they came from, on family holidays and business trips. Second hand is big business here. The clothes are RTW, cheap and in plentiful supply. Many of the people featured in the program said that they used to get their clothes made to measure but now it just costs too much money, they couldn't afford it even if they wanted to. Old castoffs are not just sold, they have inspired a new industry. Much like myself, many traders give their garments a make-over. Through simply just ironing them to look more presentable or customising them into new garments. Trousers are made into skirts, shirts are taken in to be more fitted and dye is added to jeans to look brand new...anything to make their stock more desirable to their customers. Every year the 2nd hand market grows bigger.

Kumasi Market. Image via here
For me, when I travel somewhere new, be it in the UK or abroad, I like to immerse myself in the culture of the place, buildings, scenery, food, crafts, dress...as much as I can fit in, exploring the ins and outs of that place and what makes it special. This documentary gave me mixed emotions. Yes, it's great to see people being enabled to support themselves and their families through work but is it right that somehow we're the ones dictating how and when? Yes, through our consumerist culture we have provided this country with the opportunity to earn a living but at what cost? Our love for fast fashion is seeing centuries old traditions fading quickly before us. Is our western worlds killing the culture of some countries that most of us have not even been to?

Kente cloth is traditionally worn on special occasions by The Royal Family and State Officials. It takes at least 1 year in training to learn how to make traditional Kente cloth, taking 4 months to weave just one piece. There is history in the clothes they wear. One man featured in the programme said that traditional clothing is becoming less popular, Ghanaians are 'dressing like westerners not africans'. 'They are taught to regard the western world as civilisation'. 'If we are not careful and respect our own things, our traditions will be lost, history will be lost'.

An Example of Traditional Kente Cloth. Image via here

There used to be over 250,000 people employed in textile and garment factories in Ghana, now there is only one factory left that produces textile cloth. Akosombo Textiles was producing nearly 2 million metres a month in 2009, but this has fallen by 75 per cent. Steve Dutton, the company manager, described their current situation as 'urgent'. "we feel like we’re on the brink of not being able to carry on". They not only face the challenge of competing with the used clothing industry but also from factories in the far east who are under-cutting them and producing fakes and copies of their designs. The factory is close to closing down. The Ghanaian textile industry is struggling.

The government in Ghana is making some small effort not to let Ghanaians forget their heritage. They persuade workers to wear traditional dress once per week on 'Thank Ghana it's Friday'. This is seen as a 'dress down' day, much like businesses and schools have here in the UK. When speaking to some workers par-taking in this weekly ritual, they were asked on their views of traditional versus 2nd hand clothing. Traditional dress is seen as a statement maker, worn if you want to impress. The younger generations are seeing the latest trends on 'MTV' and want to adopt these looks and see 2nd hand clothing as a way to achieve this. Many opt for mixing the two cultures, whatever looks 'cool'.

Whilst we cannot say for definite that this surge in our castoffs reaching Ghana has directly and solely decimated their textile industry, nor can we prove that it has directly impacted the decline in desire for traditional Ghanaian dress, it's clear to see that it has gone some way to damage it. Irreversibly? I don't know, I guess that's up to us to decide. Our donations go on a meandering journey, geographically and ethically, but both beginning and ending in some of the poorest countries in the world, Made by some of the poorest people in the world and ending up being worn by some of the poorest people in the world. I don't believe that the answer is to stop donating our unwanted stuff to charity but instead to perhaps take heed of this simple advice:

"Buy less, Choose well, Make it last" 
- Vivienne Westwood

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