Sustainability: The journey so far, and the journey ahead for Africa’s fashion industry
Fashion is a key economic contributor but is also infamous for its negative effects on the environment. Being the second-largest polluter after oil, fashion threatens the sustainability of the planet by contributing to 20% of global wastewater and emitting 10% of global CO2. In an effort to preserve the planet for future generations, consumers are demanding accountability from fashion companies, thus compelling them to lean towards more ethical and sustainable practices as they design their products. The African fashion industry is also a part of this shift, as its fashion brands are utilizing both traditional and modern techniques to create a more sustainable fashion industry. Players in the African fashion industry are aware that this objective is no small feat, and are demonstrating their commitment to the cause by making the most of the resources at their disposal.
Photo credit: R Boed
How is the African fashion industry promoting sustainable fashion?
Sustainable fashion essentially refers to garments and accessories that are produced and/or accessed in an ecologically and socially responsible manner. Complementary to sustainability is the concept of circular fashion, which is defined as a regenerative system in which garments are circulated for as long as their maximum value is retained, and then returned safely to the biosphere when they are no longer of use. In essence, a circular economy seeks to design waste out of the fashion system by ensuring all actors along the value chain are integrated into the process. Africa is making noteworthy strides towards engendering sustainability in its design processes through efforts such as those outlined below:
- Local sourcing. Many of Africa’s fashion brands are looking into local sourcing as a means of cutting their costs of production as well as achieving sustainability. In doing so, the carbon footprint associated with importing materials used in production is cut. More so, it boosts domestic economies by creating employment for local businesses.
- Use of traditional craftsmanship and techniques. Sustainability is rooted in most of the techniques that were traditionally used by Africans to produce fashion. In pursuit of more sustainable production methods, entrepreneurs in Africa are turning to indigenous methods such as the use of natural dyeing methods, hand weaving, embroidery, and spinning. Although the processes are time-consuming, they result in a reduced carbon footprint, more durable products, preservation of critical indigenous technical knowledge, and employment of local artisans as a bonus.
- Upcycling. Upcoming fashion brands are upholding sustainability by adopting a zero-waste approach to their production through up-cycling and recycling. Suave Kenya and Labakelagos are some of the brands championing sustainable fashion by repurposing second-hand clothes to produce new garments.
- Made to measure. In addition to sustainability, the made-to-measure model of production is prominent in Africa owing to its efficiency, when few resources are available. A number of African fashion brands have adopted it as a way of limiting excess stock, cutting down on the cost of storage as well as the carbon footprint emanating from the overproduction of garments.
- Using regenerative fibres. African fashion brands are also answering the call to a circular economy, by embracing regenerative fibres as inputs for their production processes. This ensures a cradle-to-cradle approach, where waste is designed out of the fashion value chain. Pine Kazi for instance produces stylish footwear from pineapple waste, whilst TEXFAD in Uganda harnesses the bark of banana trees to produce sustainable textiles.
- Using modern digital technology. Through virtual fashion shows and 3D illustrations, fashion brands are limiting travel and garment production associated with fashion shows. Fashion entrepreneur, Anifa Mvuemba became the first African fashion designer to have a 3D fashion show. In addition to being an innovative way to showcase fashion during the COVID-19 pandemic, the initiative also reduced the brand’s carbon footprint.
Photo credit: South African Tourism
What can be done to boost the sustainability of the African fashion industry?
The sustainability efforts made by designers and manufacturers in the African fashion industry are commendable, but their impact is limited by scale. Most sustainable fashion brands lack financial resources to invest in more cost-effective, sustainable methods of production, hence the high prices of their products. Their plight is further worsened by fierce competition from second-hand clothing and fast fashion, which is cheap in comparison to most local sustainable brands. Despite a growing middle class in Africa, the relatively low incomes of most consumers do not allow them access to sustainable fashion. Because of such reasons, improving sustainability in the African fashion industry and upholding circularity, necessitates a collective effort from various stakeholders if current efforts are to be amplified.
- Increasing investment in sustainable businesses. Channelling funds towards infrastructures such as zero liquid discharge facilities, non-toxic dye houses, and wet processing equipment that meets strict water regulations, will go a long way in improving the capacity of sustainable fashion brands. It significantly lowers their production costs, resulting in improved accessibility to the general populace and being better positioned to serve more lucrative export markets.
- Investing in regenerative textiles. Use of textile alternatives that are biodegradable and ultimately kinder to the environment will go a long way in achieving a circular economy. Companies such as Green Nettle Textiles in Kenya, are already taking the lead in this area.
- Integrating sustainability in policy making. By giving sustainable fashion sufficient attention and resources, policy makers will reinforce a culture of sustainability consciousness which facilitates responsible purchasing amongst consumers and ethical and sustainable business practices amongst companies operating in the fashion industry.
Cover picture: Arne Hoel/World Bank