Chinese fashion giant Shein may be the least applauded organization at an international fashion sustainability conference, but that’s what happened at this week’s Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen.
The industry’s biggest forum for sustainable progress has seen the super-fast fashion brand praised for donating $15m (£12m) over three years to a charity working in Kantamanto at Accra, the largest second-hand clothing market in the world.
Liz Ricketts, director of the Gold Foundation, a Ghanaian and US-based non-profit organization working with textile waste workers in Accra, announced the fund, tearfully telling the public that the workers were doing a job. “exhausting”.
“They are economic migrants from northern Ghana, and they are often women and children, some as young as six years old. They carry bales of clothing on their heads that weigh 55 kg, are paid a dollar per trip and go home to sleep on concrete floors.
“Some carry their babies on their backs. Sometimes they fall over because of the weight of the bullets, and their children are killed [underneath them].”
Ricketts said 15 million second-hand clothes arrive in Ghana every week, 40% of which is waste. “Ghana has no landfill or incinerators,” she said. “Clothes enter the environment; some of it goes to the oceans – there are millions of clothes on the ocean floor, and the currents push the clothes onto the beach.
“There’s a narrative in sustainable fashion that says, ‘There’s no ‘far’. It’s the ‘far’.
Not everyone was convinced by the gesture. “It was public greenwashing,” said one attendee who asked to remain anonymous but echoed the sentiment of many at the summit who believe cutting fast fashion production is the answer. “It’s too easy for Shein; it’s too early to call them a leader here. They were valued at $100 billion [£80bn] – they have millions to spare. They should address the root cause of the problem.
The Or Foundation runs a weekly clinic for waste workers in Ghana, assessing the physical damage caused by transporting these heavy bales of clothing. “We can see the harm this work is doing to their bodies, but there’s nothing we can do to help them,” Ricketts said. She said the Shein fund is not a substitute for responsible behavior, but is part of her extended producer responsibility.
The pledged money comes from a $50 million pot that the company says is intended to address environmental and social issues in the global apparel trade.
The foundation says the money will fund an apprenticeship program for women in Kantamanto, help community businesses recycle textile waste and improve working conditions in the market.
Ricketts called on other brands to come clean about their involvement in the waste crisis: “We’ve called on brands to foot the bill that’s owed to the communities that manage their waste, and that’s an important step towards accountability.
“What we consider truly groundbreaking is Shein’s acknowledgment that their garments could end up in Kantamanto, a simple fact that no other major fashion brand has yet been willing to affirm.”
Adam Whinston, ESG manager at Shein, said the company had an “ambitious” impact program. “Tackling second-hand waste is an important part of the fashion ecosystem that is often overlooked. We have an opportunity to effect change in this space, and we look forward to working with the Gold Foundation on this one-of-a-kind effort.