Chinese retailer Shein is hoping to balance the export of its secondhand clothing to Ghana by throwing money at the waste that clothing generates.
During a global fashion summit in Copenhagen last week, Shein announced plans to donate $15 million over three years to The Or Foundation, a nonprofit that studies fast fashion waste in Ghana. The foundation described the donation as “groundbreaking,” and director Liz Ricketts lamented the “backbreaking” requirements of today’s Ghanian fashion-waste workers. “We have been calling on brands to pay the bill that is due to the communities who have been managing their waste,” Ricketts said. “This is a significant step towards accountability.”
It is a step, but how significant is up for debate. Shein’s pledge fails to do one important thing: Stop secondhand Shein products from adding to the problem.
Ghana’s hub for secondhand clothing
Each week, an estimated 15 million secondhand garments arrive in Ghana from Europe and North America, lumped together in bales that resellers then sort through en masse. Only about 60% of these clothes prove useful; the rest end up in landfills around Accra, Ghana’s capital city and one of the main hubs for secondhand clothing in west Africa. This weekly influx of what’s known locally as “dead white man’s clothes” is leading to an overwhelming buildup of waste.
Through its new pledge, Shein is acknowledging that its clothing is part of that problem, which the Or Foundation says is “a simple fact that no other major fashion brand has been willing to state yet.” The foundation says its agreement with Shein is “a first step toward our goal of industry-wide reckoning,” and Shein’s $15 million pledge is part of a $50 million “Extended Producer Responsibility” fund that will go toward textile waste-management and circular-economy initiatives.
But as the biggest player in fast fashion, Shein also has strong motivation to play nice. It’s the most popular fashion app in the US, and second most popular fashion website in the world. The company is valued at over $100 billion—more than Zara and H&M combined—and has built its success on selling cheap, low-quality goods with murky supply chains. Fast-fashion purveyors are also criticized for making clothes from new plastics and ripping off ideas from independent designers. In Ghana, some young designers say they have given up on producing collections because fast fashion easily crowds them out.
Shein’s initiative in Ghana does little to address those larger critiques, and is already getting panned as mere “greenwashing.” The Or Foundation describes the agreement as allowing “for financial compensation to flow in the same direction as clothing waste.” What it doesn’t do is reduce the flow of clothing waste in the first place.