The Duck of Minerva

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Fast fashion and the politics of disposability

September 5, 2021

Fast fashion has become a juggernaut. Since 2000, the global production of clothing has doubled. Brands like Zara and H&M are staples of an industry that has made their owners among the world’s richest men. But even they are beginning to be eclipsed by retailers like Shein, which have further accelerated the pace of fast fashion by constantly marketing new designs at very low prices. Much of it is poorly made, with glued rather than sewn-in seams, for instance. Fabrics pull and pill and can’t withstand a normal washing machine cycle. These brands fuel microtrends that revolve much faster than the seasonal cycles of luxury fashion, spurring consumers to buy more often. Despite the poor quality, the cheap prices make these garments irresistible to middle-class shoppers who drive most of the consumption by purchasing many pieces at a time.

We are left with clothing that is cheap and plentiful. It’s also poorly made and out of fashion within weeks. These garments are designed to be disposable: worn a couple of times and then discarded. Even if you donate your used clothes to a thrift store, chances are they won’t make it to the shop floor. In any case, consumers in the Global North often donate dirty, stained, and worn clothing that charities can’t sell. Brands also vastly overproduce clothing that has to be discarded. What is unable to be resold, recycled, or incinerated in the Global North is exported to countries in the Global South, like Ghana, which are faced with the burden of this textile waste.

Dead White Man’s Clothes

The Dead White Man’s Clothes Project documents the second-hand clothing market in Accra, Ghana. For years, Kantamanto Market has been the beating heart of the trade. Traders there tend to specialize in one kind of garment, buying a bale of suits, or tops, or jeans. The traders take a gamble when buying these bales – all they know is the kind of garment they contain, not their quality. The retailers then resell what’s inside at a profit to the local market. Many mend or upcycle these pieces into new designs. The second-hand clothing trade was able to offer a hard yet decent living, as well as a creative outlet for many of its traders.

“We have become the dumping ground for textile waste”

Fast fashion is hitting the Kantamanto traders and the city of Accra hard. Traders are overwhelmed with more clothes of poorer quality. The bales they buy may now contain very few profitable pieces, meaning they may make a serious financial loss. According to Solomon Noi, who oversees Accra’s waste management, 40 percent of the clothing imported each day goes straight to landfill, as Ghana doesn’t yet have the ability to recycle fibers. “We have become the dumping ground for textile waste that is produced from Europe, from the Americas and [elsewhere]”, says Noi. The Kpone landfill, designed to last 15 years, filled within five years because of the influx of poor quality garments. With each heavy rain, waste textiles make their way into the ocean, polluting Accra’s beaches and threatening the livelihoods of fishers. The landfill has caught on fire, generating toxic smoke and displacing the waste pickers who work there. 

Disposability

Meera Sabaratnam writes about the politics of disposability in international intervention. She argues that disposability is an attitude that sees the time and effort of the targets of intervention as worth less than that of the interveners. That, fundamentally, their needs and histories do not matter to the design or evaluation of intervention. Disposability is entwined with colonial relations that have persisted far beyond the formal institutions of colonialism. Disposability is also a useful concept for thinking about the political economy of fast fashion.  

The political economy of fast fashion is premised on disposability: the literal disposability of garments that consumers wear a couple of times before tiring of, and the disposability of people’s livelihoods in places like Accra. When discarding clothing, the consumer in the US, Europe or Australia likely doesn’t see or want to think about how they are a link in a commodity chain that includes Kantamanto traders or the waste pickers at Kpone landfill. The politics of disposability has affected the second-hand clothing trade, transforming it from a way to make a living to something more akin to “waste colonialism”. Fast fashion’s effect on Ghana includes dispossession through the pollution of lands and waters, as well as the dispossession of market traders who may sink further into debt with each new bale of clothing. It overwhelms vital infrastructure, like waste management. Ghana, already underdeveloped through British colonialism, is now shouldering the costs of overconsumption in the former metropole, the UK.

Fast fashion is the site of interlocking systems of capitalism and colonialism. These systems link consumers (and overconsumption) in the Global North with the dispossession of people in the Global South. In the coming weeks, I’m going to be blogging more about the fast fashion industry – particularly those on the production end of the commodity chain – and what it reveals about the operation of gender and colonial relations in the global political economy.

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Catriona Standfield is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Worcester State University. Her research focuses on the gendered logics of diplomacy and mediation, particularly at the UN. Her research has been published in European Journal of International Relations and International Feminist Journal of Politics.