Fast-fashion giant Shein pledges $15m for textile waste workers in Ghana | Global development

Chinese fashion behemoth Shein might be the organisation least expected to win applause at an international conference on fashion sustainability, but that’s what happened at this week’s global fashion summit in Copenhagen.

The industry’s largest forum for sustainable progress saw the ultra-fast fashion brand praised for making a donation of $15m (£12m) over three years to a charity working at Kantamanto in Accra, the world’s largest secondhand clothing market.

Liz Ricketts, director of the Or Foundation, a Ghana- and US-based not-for-profit working with Accra’s textile waste workers, announced the fund, tearfully telling the audience that the workers are doing “backbreaking” work.

“They are economic migrants from north Ghana, and are often women and children, some as young as six. They’re carrying clothing bales on their heads which weigh 55kg, being paid a dollar a trip, and coming home to sleep on concrete floors.

“Some carry their babies on their back. Sometimes they fall backwards because of the weight of the bales, and their children are killed [underneath them].”

Ricketts said that 15m secondhand garments arrive in Ghana every week, 40% of them waste. “Ghana doesn’t have landfill or incinerators,” she said. “The clothing enters the environment; some of it goes into the oceans – there are millions of garments on the ocean floor, and the currents push the garments on to the beach.

“There’s a narrative in sustainable fashion that says: ‘There is no ‘away’’. This is the ‘away’.”

A waste worker in Accra sorts through discarded secondhand clothes sent from the west. Photograph: Muntaka Chasant/REX/Shutterstock

Not everyone was convinced by the gesture. “This was public greenwashing,” said one attendee who asked to remain anonymous but echoed the sentiment of several at the summit who believe reduced production of fast fashion is the answer. “This is too easy for Shein; it’s too soon to call them a leader here. They have been valued at $100bn [£80bn] – they have millions to spare. They should be addressing the root cause of the problem.”

The Or Foundation runs a weekly clinic for waste workers in Ghana, assessing the physical damage done by carrying these heavy clothing bales. “We can see the harm this work is doing to their bodies but we can’t do anything to help them,” said Ricketts. She said the Shein fund was not a substitute for responsible behaviour, but part of its extended producer responsibility.

The money promised is from a $50m pot that the firm says is intended to address the ecological and social problems of the global clothing trade.

The foundation says the money will fund an apprenticeship programme for Kantamanto women, help community businesses recycle textile waste and improve working conditions at the market.

Ricketts called on other brands to be honest about their involvement in the waste crisis: “We have been calling on brands to pay the bill that is due to the communities who have been managing their waste, and this is a significant step towards accountability.

“What we see as truly revolutionary is Shein’s acknowledgment that their clothing may be ending up in Kantamanto, a simple fact no other major fashion brand has been willing to state as yet.”

Adam Whinston, head of ESG at Shein, said the company had an “ambitious” impact agenda. “Addressing secondhand waste is an important part of the fashion ecosystem that is often overlooked. We have an opportunity to make change in this space, and we look forward to working with the Or Foundation on this first-of-its-kind effort.”