Circularity and Sustainability in the African Fashion Sector

May 17, 2024
May 3, 2024

                                                                                                                               Photo by Eyecity 

In the dynamic landscape of the global fashion industry, Africa stands as a compelling player, characterised by both its rich textile heritage and emerging contemporary fashion scene. Yet, as the continent rises to prominence, it faces the critical imperatives of sustainability and circularity, two paradigms that are fast becoming non-negotiable aspects of fashion discourse worldwide.

Within this context,  sustainable fashion refers to a holistic approach that incorporates ecological awareness and social responsibility in the sourcing and production of garments and accessories. Its close ally, circular fashion, refers to a regenerative system where apparel, shoes and accessories along the fashion value chain are continuously reinvented while retaining maximum value and returned safely to the biosphere when no longer being used. A good example is the Jean for bible cover trend initiated in 2011, where  scraps from old jeans are used to make a cover for the bible. In the average African household, parents encourage passing on the clothes of older siblings to the younger ones, instead of buying new ones. It seems reusing the old ones might have just saved the world a little.


Why is Circularity and Sustainability Important in Africa’s Fashion Sector?

The fashion industry in Africa is currently the second largest industry right after agriculture. This industry has an estimated market value of $31 billion.  If you’d like to know just how big the fashion industry in Africa is consider this. Research has shown that between 2019 and 2020, the production of organic cotton fibre in Africa rose by 90%, and currently accounts for 7.3% of global production. As a major player in the African economy, the production processes in the African fashion sector have to be evaluated to ensure compliance with ethical, safe and economical practices.

Why are we concerned about sustainability and circularity of the fashion industry? The African textile industry is said to produce potentially toxic metals, dyes, bleaching agents, and air pollutants, which cause water and soil pollution, thereby affecting public health. A typical example of water pollution is the Ngerengere river in Tanzania. The river has suffered pollution from Industrial waste discharges of The 21st Century Textiles Ltd, a textile company, causing the river to contain high levels of heavy metals, pH and colourants to the extent that it is considered unsafe by a 1000 times more than the WHO safe level for drinking water. To deal with the obvious pollution that the textile industry brings and reduce its negative impact on the environment, the importance of circularity and sustainability needs to be emphasised.

In the course of this research piece, we will explore the current state of circularity and sustainability in the African fashion sector and the actions being taken to ensure a positive social and environmental impact. Africa’s diverse textile traditions from the intricate beadwork of the Maasai to the vibrant Ankara prints emblematic of West Africa offer not just aesthetic value but lessons in sustainable crafting that can inform modern practices.

Current State of Circularity and Sustainability Inclusion in African Fashion Sector

While examining the African fashion landscape, there are concerns about the continent’s heavy dependence on imported garments, especially from the Western and Asian markets which could contain traces of hazardous chemicals or toxic chemicals that may eventually end up in various water sources. This dependence on foreign resources contrasts sharply with Africa's past, when nations like Nigeria had the largest textile industry with 180 textile mills while Kenya had 75 textile and clothing companies in the 1940s. 

However, this did not last too long. The liberalisation of African economies in the 1980s and 1990s led to the crumbling of various protectionist trade policies that supported the capital-intensive nature of the textile industries. With increased entry of foreign companies into the African markets, local industries struggled to compete as less expensive garments from Asia and the West were easily accessible. 

While the entrance of China into the African fashion scene may not be the sole reason for the sector crumbling, it affected the African fashion industry greatly by acting as a catalyst for increasing Africans' appetite for fast fashion. The fast fashion model is one that involves the rapid design, production, and distribution of fashion items in mass.

This is a threat to sustainability of fashion in Africa as fashion items from this  mass and cheap  productions have been found to contain elevated levels of chemicals due to the production process called “Textile Wet Processing”. Washing these clothes, for instance, can cause residual chemicals and dyes to come off. The wash water is disposed of into the sewer system and can contaminate water sources if not properly treated.

The reality of fast fashion thrives on trendy, low-quality clothing designed to be discarded quickly for the next trend. To keep up with the new trends, consumers have been said to discard clothes faster, implying that there is little to no recycling; the consequence of this is  increased waste. Furthermore, it has been reported that to maintain a cheap production rate and readily available clothings, fast fashion houses use non degradable synthetics products like  polyester, acrylic and nylon, 70% of the time

The question is how Africa can return to the previous sustainable and circular operations that favoured both the environment and economic growth. Some of the actions being taken to promote sustainability and circularity include: local and ethical sourcing, use of traditional craftsmanship and techniques as opposed to the Textile Wet Processing methods, made to measure clothing, use of regenerative fibres, upcycling & recycling and the use of modern digital technology. 

An infographic detailing the actions needed to foster sustainability and circularity in the African fashion sector

                                                                                                                                   Icons from Icon8

Realising this urgent need, some companies have prioritised these actions in their operations. One of such companies is NKWO, a fashion brand that deploys ethical production methods such as hand dyeing, weaving, beading, repurposing and reconstructing in its production processes.  Another company worthy of note is Quazi Designs in Eswatini, Southern Africa.  Quazi Design uses 100% recycled paper to make its products, which includes jewellery, handmade paper masks for wall art.  Similarly, Shekudo, a Nigerian-based shoe and accessories brand, hires local artisans to carve the wooden heels of its shoes and uses the traditional method of weaving to create its base fabrics for production.

An African woman holding a leather bag with flower embroideries.

                                                                                                                        Photo By Godisable Jacob

In addition to these companies, there are notable recycling companies such as Sofrip Textile Recycling, a Tunisian recycling company, with over 25 years of experience in the fashion industry, undergoing the processes of sourcing, sorting, cutting and recycling. Another exemplary recycling company is Clothes To Good, which has recycled 580 tons of clothes and helped 200,000 people to recycle their clothes, aiding both consumers and corporations engage in sustainable actions and influencing positive consumer behaviour. In Uganda, there is Africa Collect Textiles, which operates in the circular economy with the redirection and reuse of used textiles and footwear from landfills. Consequently, 70,737 kg of textiles have been collected and 353 tonnes of CO2 has been saved.

These case studies in Africa, show the growing acceptance of sustainability and circularity practices in its booming fashion industry, thereby ensuring a net positive contribution to the global fashion industry, society and the environment at large .

Current Actions To Encourage Circularity and Sustainability in Fashion Business

To encourage continuous efforts in the areas of circularity and sustainability, there have been concerted efforts by the government and private sector. Across Africa, various governments have taken steps in the funding, legislation and improvement of local production capacity. Take for instance, the National Industrial Revolution Plan established by the Nigerian government, which was created to address challenges that fashionpreneurs face from cotton production to fashion design. The Angolan government has also partnered with the government of Japan to improve its local production capacity; one of such projects being the rehabilitation of a textile factory to produce knitwear and denim products. Similarly, the Rwandan government implemented a gradual phase-out of the imports of second-hand clothes, directing policy support towards developing its local manufacturing capacity and improving the local fashion market.

Within the private sector, there is growing support for the fashion industry and sustainable practices. Kenya’s Equity Bank provided 40 fashion designers with access to financing via a KShs 100 million seed fund. The aim of this fund was to support the country’s fashion value chain, spinning and fabric trade. The Ethical Fashion Initiative in Nairobi, runs an accelerator mentorship program for African fashion brands that practise sustainable sourcing and minimal chemical treatment for materials. Additionally, The African Development Bank through Eyecity Limited and IMPACT Lab has implemented the Fashionomics Africa Incubator Program that has trained over 2000 fashion entrepreneurs from over 50 African countries in sustainability and circularity concepts (economics, social and environmental),covering topics such as:Eco-innovation Approach, Sustainability Hotspots, Life Cycle Inventory.

As we examine the intricacies and challenges that define Africa's fashion industry today, it's clear that the road to sustainability and circularity is neither linear nor one-sided. It is a collective tapestry woven from threads of innovation, resilience, and a profound respect for both our cultural heritage and the planet we inhabit. The most compelling element is not only the progress that has been made, but the untapped potential that lies ahead.

Every piece of fabric dyed with ethical sourcing, every garment sewn by skilled local artisans, and every policy that shifts us closer to an eco-conscious Africa, is a stepping stone toward an industry that could very well redefine global standards for sustainability. We are on the cusp of a transformative era where Africa does not just follow the global conversation on sustainable fashion, but leads it.

So as we anticipate more dialogue and follow through with actionable steps on this pressing subject.  Let us commit to being the architects of that future. After all, sustainability is more than a trend; it's an imperative. And in Africa, it's the legacy we must choose to weave for the generations that follow.

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