Cleaning up fashion’s waste is dirty work. Why is Shein the only one paying? #780


Shein’s controversial $15 million cash injection into non-profit The Or Foundation is going toward cleaning up Ghana’s clothing-clogged beaches and managing fashion’s unending waste stream. It’s money other brands have not been willing to give.

In May 2022, The Or Foundation was a scrappy non-profit with a lot of big ideas. Today, its dozen or more initiatives are transforming the landscape of textile waste in Ghana, one of many countries on the receiving end of all the worn clothing that leaves the Global North on a daily basis.

The organisation, based in both Ghana and the US, operates routine beach cleanups around Accra; an apprenticeship programme for women who want to leave their dangerous, low-paying jobs behind; and material innovation projects to divert clothing scraps from landfills. It is studying microfibre pollution in local waterways, and preparing to begin work on an infrastructure upgrade in Kantamanto, said to be the largest secondhand clothing market in West Africa. The ad-hoc construction that enabled the market’s rapid expansion has left it unstable, prone to fires and unprotected from heavy rains, meaning that flooding routinely shuts the market down. The Or Foundation also provides direct relief for local vendors selling used clothing when they face an immediate crisis.

All of The Or’s work is toward tackling the unsustainable volumes of used clothing entering the country through the global secondhand trade. It’s gruelling work that should be done by the companies responsible for the waste, but isn’t. The Or has been particularly vocal in both its calls for EPR and in communicating why the need for it is so urgent. In the absence of legislation, The Or has spent years asking brands to create an EPR fund voluntarily.

No fashion companies have ever stepped up to answer the call, until Shein. A game-changing injection of funding last year from the ultra fast fashion behemoth increased The Or’s approximately $250,000 operating budget 20-fold, almost overnight. Under the agreement with Shein, announced in June 2022 as an extended producer responsibility (EPR) fund, the company commits $5 million annually over three years to The Or.

With the money, The Or has been able to advance its efforts from concept or pilot phase to all hands on deck, and the momentum around them on the ground in Accra is tangible.

The source of the funding has drawn criticism, with many industry observers considering the money — from one of the industry’s biggest producers and polluters — to be tainted. The allegations against Shein range from accelerating fashion’s overproduction problem, to the use of forced labour in China, to routine copyright infringement. A Shein spokesperson says the company has zero tolerance for forced labour and takes all claims of infringement seriously.

The funding agreement is not a partnership, however, the organisation says. “We have taken a voluntary EPR grant from Shein. That does not mean we support Shein. All it means is that Shein is admitting that they are part of the problem,” says Sammy Oteng, senior community engagement manager at The Or.

Our agreement is not an endorsement of Shein’s business model,” adds co-founder Liz Ricketts. “This fund is them paying a bill that’s due.”

Shifting the burden of waste

Environmentalists have long called for EPR schemes to be created for any number of consumer products industries as a way to shift the burden of managing waste onto the brands creating it, as well as to incentivise more sustainable production in the first place. Increasingly, those calls are spreading to fashion.

The fund does not qualify as a formal EPR programme, which would operate with independent mechanisms for collecting and distributing funds, and some form of oversight to ensure the integrity of the programme. However, it gets closer to the concept of EPR for fashion than anything that exists in practice today.

While philanthropic donations from fashion brands are fairly common, they are typically positioned as charity: a company funds a cause, often benefitting from a PR boost while putting distance between its operations and the problem its philanthropy is helping to solve. In recent years, some brands have begun to fund organisations working on issues that their own operations have contributed to in some way, such as Kering funding Conservation International to scale regenerative agriculture and land conservation.

Few, if any, are positioned as payment for a debt the company itself accrued — in any aspect of the supply chain, and certainly not at the waste stage of the life cycle. That’s what sets the fund from Shein apart, however problematic the company’s business model is. It is positioned as payment for services rendered, not as a charitable donation.

The fund is not a sign of partnership with the brand, Ricketts stresses. It’s a transaction to fund the work — the very manual labour of digging clothes out from under wet sand on the beach, of carrying bale after bale of used clothing through the hot, crowded streets of Accra — that goes into managing the waste-filled reality on the ground. It’s work that other brands — and, recent developments in Europe indicate, governments as well — have so far been unwilling to fund.

While Europe and California are considering EPR legislation, it’s unclear how aggressive they will be — and it will be years before any new laws are passed and implemented. In the meantime, clothes have already accumulated beyond what is reasonable or manageable. And, while brands have faced consumer and investor pressure to improve aspects of their operations, from workers’ wages and factory conditions to fossil fuels and the use of toxic chemicals, they have largely escaped having to reckon with or be held responsible for what actually happens to their clothes or for the work involved in managing them.

“Until mandated EPR policies become globally accountable, we need companies to step up and follow Shein’s lead in creating voluntary funds that put resources into the hands of the people who are most impacted by fashion’s oversupplied linear economy,” says Ricketts.

The fund comes with no strings attached for how The Or spends it, according to Ricketts. That is key, because local voices should be responsible for deciding how outside dollars are spent; anything else is a recipe for disaster.

The responsibility question

Fashion has accelerated its sustainability efforts in recent years, but brands and coalitions have focused primarily on the supply chain — investing in renewable energy, for example — while downstream questions, such as where clothes go when consumers are done with them, remain largely unaddressed.

rands talk a lot about circularity and have launched take-back programmes, creating the impression that they are taking responsibility for the end of life of their products. However, a circular economy needs infrastructure that does not yet exist, and brands can only repair or repurpose so many products under the current system.

In reality, many of the clothes accepted through take-back programmes, in addition to the secondhand clothes that charities and resale platforms are unable to sell, are exported through the global secondhand trade. In their annual corporate reports, many brands and textile processors categorise this as “reuse”. There’s no system for verifying or ensuring that fate, or even for defining what reuse actually means — does it count if a person only wears a garment once, for instance, before it falls apart or gets replaced with a new one? And, there’s virtually no consideration for what happens to the clothes, even if they get reused for a long time, when they eventually become waste.

While brand-level circularity efforts and government initiatives can potentially curb fashion’s waste problem in the future, the need to deal with what has already accumulated is vast and immediate, and clothes will continue to accumulate in places that are not equipped to manage it.

“Who is going to take care of the textile waste already on the beach, already on the ocean floor?” says Oteng.

The work of EPR up close

Last month, The Or marked one year since the launch of the fund. At a team meeting in mid-July at its office in downtown Accra, the organisation took stock of what it has achieved in the last year, and where it plans to go in the years ahead. Vogue Business attended the meeting, and spent the week leading up to it visiting the various projects that The Or has underway.

Some of it is mundane — the installation of fire extinguishers throughout the market, for example — and may seem irrelevant to the issue of textile waste management. But in Kantamanto, fires occur all the time, many vendors and local residents said. It’s the low-tech, basic needs that also illustrate why it’s vital for spending decisions to be made locally. Apparel companies, textile recyclers and environmental advocacy organisations operating overseas do not know the minutiae of the daily challenges facing the communities that process the world’s clothing waste.

Most of the fund is spent on more laborious efforts, such as beach cleanups and gutter cleanouts, upcycling projects and skills training programmes, and on much higher-hanging fruit — including lobbying politicians and identifying solutions for challenges that currently have none available. For example: how to repurpose textile scraps into products that serve a real purpose, textiles that have ended up in Ghana under the guise of resale or reuse programmes but in reality are littering the city and choking its basic infrastructure.

One avenue The Or’s team has come up with is a design for a mop to sell on the local market, tested and refined over months, that is made from shredded T-shirts — and ideally, will replace the plastic mops imported from China that are so common in Ghana — while another is the development of a fibre board made with shredded T-shirt fibres and glue made from local, natural materials like cassava starch.

Since the funding last year, The Or has gone from hosting one or two beach cleanups per year to doing them monthly — at either the beach or in Old Fadama, an informal settlement in Accra that sits in the shadow of an open, sprawling dump site. Efforts are also underway to expand that capacity further within The Or’s own team, in addition to now also sponsoring an outside group to do an additional beach cleanup weekly.

With the fund, The Or has also accelerated its efforts to develop fibre-to-fibre recycling capabilities; ramped up its apprenticeship programme that offers skills training and other educational opportunities to women who have left the kayayei (female porter) life behind; and is finalising plans for a market “upfit” project to make Kantamanto safer and less vulnerable to fires or flooding from rains. The Shein fund is enough for a demonstration section of the market; they estimate they’ll need more than $30 million more to upgrade the full market. In the meantime, when a fire or flood does hit, or if a retailer buys a bad bale of clothes — a regular occurrence, since buyers cannot look through a bale before buying it and cannot return it if they don’t like what’s inside — the organisation’s “solidarity fund” provides relief money directly to those affected. In the last year, it has distributed over $500,000 to more than 1,200 people to help them get back on their feet, or avoid having to take on debt — or, very often, deepen existing debt — just to get by.

On the ground, the Shein EPR fund is significant because of the work it enables, not because of the brand it came from. The EPR fund does not absolve Shein of any wrongdoings or mitigate the damage it may cause; it is the least a company can and should do.

What communities in Accra and across the Global South wonder most is not how the fund makes Shein look, but why more brands aren’t also paying up. Shein is far from the only name they see on garment tags during their routine cleanup efforts. Ricketts’ hope is that other brands will follow Shein’s lead and volunteer to take financial responsibility for the mess their companies create, theoretically establishing a steady source of funding for the work that needs to continue as long as the world continues to generate clothing waste.

The real criticisms should be directed at policymakers, says Daniel Mawuli Quist, an Accra-based designer who sits on the board of The Or, for not forcing all companies to pay for what happens to their clothes, and for not regulating the behaviour of companies like Shein. “The people who can implement sanctions on Shein’s ability to bring so many clothes to the marketplace are refusing to make these decisions, because they have a stake in the grand scheme of things,” he says. “It is their fight to fight. It is not mine.”

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