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By The Creative Economy, Ghana | Serati, South Africa

What is sustainable fashion?
Is the African fashion industry sustainable?
What needs be done?

Africa is home to over 3,000 tribes, each with its unique culture, traditions, and clothing styles. The continent is rich in textiles, patterns, and colors. What this means essentially is that Africa is or should be creatively sufficient to meet African and global fashion consumers’ demand for diversity and culturally rich patterns and designs without breaking a sweat.

The cause for concern and only question to answer would be how does the industry adopt eco-friendly materials, such as organic cotton, hemp, and recycled fabrics, and produce through ethical practices, including fair labour practices and animal welfare (also tagged as sustainable fashion)?

A not so obvious revelation when you begin to take a closer look at the fashion industry is that Africa and its fashion industry has not had much of a say on sustainable practices and even if the continent did, it would not have any worthwhile impact on fashion brands or consumers in Africa for two reasons. The first being the large importation of clothing materials from China, where the manufacturing process involves the use of environmentally harmful chemicals. And two, the 80% and more of Africans (particularly from Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, and Kenya) who rely on secondhand clothing. This effectively leaves 20% or less of Africans to appeal to and largely lessens the influence of “the African say” on ethical fashion production and its consumption on the continent and beyond.

How is the 20% authentic African fashion industry thriving under the weight of fashion damp from the global north and less eco-friendly imports from China?

Ayotunde Rufai, a banker-turned fashion entrepreneur has this to say, “Sustainability is a darling word now in the industry. But African designers have always practiced sustainability. African designers are more resourceful when using fabric. They’re careful to minimize waste. Made-to-order is more common and the African fashion market is not as seasonal as the mainstream Western market.” It may be quite the fact that “Made-to-order” which has been the cross-cutting business model for African fashion brands lends itself to sustainable practices.

“Made-to-order is now recommended by environmentalists and business analysts as the future of sustainable fashion, though it has long been a tradition in Africa.” —

Though local textile and fashion industry may be saddled with inadequate production capacity to supply the needed fabrics coupled with a made-to-order model that can only serve a handful, these existentialities force fashion creatives to manage the resources available and reduce as much waste as possible while producing under environmentally friendly conditions.

If at all African fashion industries can begin to have any substantive say and impact on sustainable fashion on the continent, African fashion stakeholders would have to take a closer look at homegrown industries’ and answer a number of pertinent and unavoidable questions:

  • How can fashion brands build the capacity to produce sustainably to meet the growing demand for African textiles and clothing to satisfy evolving fashion taste?
  • How does the industry get on top of fast fashion dump and imports from China, whether through upcycling or other means?
  • The third and equally important question, how will fashion designers and textile manufacturers get the African fashion consumers’ buy-in?

What remains a fact is that the efforts of textiles producers and manufacturers, fashion designers and other stakeholders in the fashion value chain’s efforts to sustainably channel their creativity will be a daydream if the African consumer buy-in is not attained thereby encouraging ethical consumerism.

Ethical consumerism is a concept that refers to the practice of buying products that are produced through ethical and sustainable practices. Can consumers of fashion products in Africa be considered to be increasingly demanding products that are produced through ethical and sustainable practices? Are consumers in Africa becoming more aware of the impact of their purchasing decisions on the environment and on society, and are they increasingly opting for products that are produced through sustainable and ethical practices? How many ethical fashion brands are available on the continent to meet the ethical fashion demand at all relevant points (price, quality, accessibility and culturally relevant)?

Is there hope?

When it comes to sustainability it is clear that Africa does not have a fast-fashion problem. We are rather at the receiving end through dumping and imports. This is not because we lack unique and quality fabrics or designs or that our production practices are unstainable but rather a lack of industry buy-in and the decision to source, produce and consume ethically within the continent.

The continent needs massive investment and market opportunities. On the front of textiles and fabrics we need to revisit and improve on how it was done in the 1980s and 90s before African economies were liberalized and opened up to foreign trade following the structural adjustment programs recommended by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund—but this time, we need competitive offerings a range of fabrics that satisfy demand for quality and African.

Mass production of outfits should also be addressed, as this would provide textile producers with continued business, fashion garment producers with economies of scale to offer competitive prices, and consumers with adequate options for their multifaceted lifestyles. Relevant stakeholders, such as African fashion weeks, should advocate for the promotion of “Wearing Africa” and educate the public on sustainable and ethical fashion practices.

One way to promote sustainable fashion is to adopt ethical codes of conduct, such as the one designed by the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), which works with African designers and artisans to promote sustainable fashion practices. Global fashion brands, including Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, Edun, Zazi, Karen Walker, Mimco, Adidas, and Burberry, have partnered with EFI to promote sustainable fashion in Africa.

Emerging and established fashion brands should also limit excessive imports of secondhand clothing by incorporating foreign fabrics with local fabrics to create unique statement pieces through upcycling. BOYEDOE is a notable brand that champions DE’ENIM, a clothing line that merges authentic African fabrics with denim jeans to create iconic statement pieces.

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