There’s a denim jacket in Sammy Oteng’s wardrobe that he has a particular tender attachment to. It’s not that the jacket fits just right, or that it makes him feel a certain way when he wears it. It matters because it represents a personal turning point and the moment when fashion took on a whole different meaning for him.
Sammy is a qualified fashion designer who’s also the Accra-based senior community engagement manager at The Or Foundation. The Foundation is a charity that was co-founded in 2011 by American designer and activist Liz Ricketts.
Ricketts remains executive director of the Foundation that’s registered in both the United States and Ghana, working for a “justice-led circular economy”. The “Or” in their name stands for choice. “Choice is agency – agency to escape the predominant violent socio-economic system of corporate colonialism and to change it from within,” reads their website.
Sammy Oteng. Image: Photo courtesy of The Or Foundation
Its goal is to disrupt the cycles of fashion overproduction, and overconsumption in the West and raise awareness of how it fuels growing inequalities faced by among the most vulnerable women and girls in Ghana. Added to this is a devastating pollution and waste crisis in that country.
This is also a story told in Sammy’s jacket. He says: “That denim jacket I’ve had since about 2014 and I wear it almost every time I go out. I come from a household that has always appreciated second-hand things. When I got the jacket it was an off-white colour and had some stains on it. I was learning to dye fabrics and fibres at that time and I was experimenting with that jacket, dyeing it black.
“I realised that a lot goes into making a jacket. There is also a lot of talent to turn a skill into a craft to do dyeing. That amount of work put into it is what gives the jacket a sentimental value for me,” he says.
Sammy says the disconnect we have with our clothes as modern consumers has meant we no longer care for our clothes. There’s less we cherish about our clothes because they’re easy to discard and cheap to replace.
There’s less we cherish about our clothes because they’re easy to discard and cheap to replace.
Our throwaway culture is no more evident than in Accra’s Kantamanto Market which is primarily a second-hand clothing market that supports an estimated 30 000 vendors. The Or Foundation’s work is centred on this market and its communities.
Selling and buying clothing at the Kantamanto Market. Image: Photo by Nana Kwadwo Agyei Addo, courtesy of The Or Foundation
While the second-hand textile industry has always been an important part of the Ghanaian economy, Sammy says things have shifted in the past 10 or 15 years. He talks of the impact of rapid globalisation, coupled with fast fashion and the ease of online buying, and the rise of digital economies. It’s meant the sheer volume of second-hand clothing ending up in Ghana has exploded. Fast fashion also means lower quality and less resale value, even just junk.
The clothes arrive in bales at the port city. Locals call the bales “obroni wawu”, which means “dead white man’s clothes”. They are items donated to charities in the West and then sold on to markets in the developing world. Even though they have gone through an initial sorting, there’s no guarantee of what’s inside each purchased bale.
Photo by Nana Kwadwo Agyei Addo, courtesy of The Or Foundation
Sammy calls them “lucky packets”. And in recent years “lucky” has turned more into lucked-out. Fewer garments in the bales are of a good enough quality to fetch premium prices and more of the clothes – an estimated 40% – end up in landfills, according to waste management officials interviewed in a report by Australian broadcaster ABC News in 2021. Added to this, Accra’s monsoons bring downpours that wash clothes waste into the oceans and giant textile tentacles clog the sea bed or wash back up on beaches.
Locals call the bales “obroni wawu”, which means “dead white man’s clothes”.
Sammy says it was on a rainy day at the market in around 2013, when he had “an epiphany”. He says: “It had been raining and there was a lot of water. And I kept thinking that I would see ripples in the puddles but instead, there were just clothes everywhere getting wet. And I was disgusted. In that moment I realised that I didn’t want to work in an industry that isn’t respectful to clothing and I knew then that I wanted to do something to counter this problem,” he says.
He joined The Or Foundation. Over the past dozen years, Ricketts’ first-world access and platform have raised awareness of the literal thread that binds a world facing a shared crisis of a planet under pressure. It’s also forced a reckoning with the truth that there are unequal burdens on developing nations who end up facing what The Or Foundation calls “waste colonisation” as poorer nations become dumping grounds.
Clothing in a landfill. Image: Photo by Nana Kwadwo Agyei Addo, courtesy of The Or Foundation
There are multiple layers of inequity and inequality and, for Sammy, a particular profound injury revolves around the labour of girls and women in the Kantamanto market.
He explains that because of the sheer volume of clothes in the market, it’s a labyrinth of congested stalls and clothes. It’s too windy and too narrow for trolleys or any kind of mechanised transport to move through. The job of moving bales of clothing between importers and vendors becomes the role of head porters or kayayei. Many of the porters are just girls.
Fast fashion relies on cheap labour. Think if that girl carrying 55kg on her head were your sister or your daughter – someone is carrying the cost of what you consume
“The girls are climate migrants from the North of the country and people come to the capital because they believe there will be work here,” he says of the collapse of agriculture with unpredictable, extreme weather-changing farming practices.
The girls, some barely teenagers, carry bales that weigh about 55kg each. According to The Or Foundation, it’s led to many of these girls developing back and neck injuries and deformities.
Kantamanto Market. Image: Photo by Nana Kwadwo Agyei Addo, courtesy of The Or Foundation
The Or Foundation has made immediate interventions by giving chiropractic support to girls and women and raising awareness around child labour and human rights abuses. They now offer 160 girls training in sewing schools and other apprenticeships as ways to divert the girls from the literal back-breaking work.
“We are trying to find different pathways so these girls understand that they have options that they don’t have to work as head porters in Kantamanto,” he says.
Another key thrust for the foundation is to push for greater Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for the industry and governments. EPR is described as an “upstream shift” policy approach. It makes producers, not municipal waste managers, responsible for managing their products when they’ve reached their end-of-use stage.
For Sammy, the same kind of responsible fashion consumption should also slot in for the everyday consumer. He says: “Fast fashion relies on cheap labour. Think if that girl carrying 55kg on her head were your sister or your daughter – someone is carrying the cost of what you consume,” he says.
Nabia from The Or Foundation works with Apprentices in the No More Fast Fashion Lab. Image: Photo by Alhassan Fatawu, courtesy of The Or Foundation
In June 2022, The Or Foundation became the first recipient of ultra-fast fashion brand Shein’s EPR fund which is worth $50 million over five years. It was launched in June 2022 and is a first-of-its-kind agreement. Critics though say the amount doesn’t begin to cut into the profits of the Chinese behemoth that’s headquartered in Singapore and some have slated it as mere lip service and a form of greenwashing.
Sammy though says funding by corporates is a necessary resource – it’s how chiropractic intervention has been paid for. And partnerships are also a way to make giant fashion brands recognise and reckon with their failings, obligations, and need to stop fuelling a consumption addiction.
Sammy is the son of a dressmaker. He remembers his mother sewing garments – lovingly cutting traditional cloth and mindfully crafting a dress. His denim jacket connects him to the old ways his mother worked with cloth – some value and respect for the threads. It should endure and it’s why he won’t be parting with his denim jacket any time soon.
The Or Foundation team. Image supplied by The Or Foundation
- Sammy Oteng will be one of the speakers at the Africa Textile Talks in Cape Town on Thursday, 17 August 2023. He will be joined by Kennie MacCarthy and Yvette Ya Konadu Obieley Dickson-Tetteh who also work with The Or Foundation. To view the programme and book your ticket click here.
- Cover image: Bales in storage. Image: Photo by Joshua Ganyobi Odamtten, courtesy of The Or Foundation