Having now interviewed over 50 designers and artists mostly in Africa, I have discussed (at least briefly) sustainability in the fashion industry in at least 40 interviews. This is not surprising. In the past decade, the voices calling for slowing down and rethinking the art of creation and expression in fashion have been getting louder. In addition, and as in a number of other industries, Africa has become the center of innovation and trailblazing almost forced onto the continent by the combination of youthful population too impatient to follow the beaten path, the shortage of resources resulting in creative allocation and/or adaptation, rediscovery and appreciation of the unique voice and identity – all against the backdrop of the unfolding crisis of stalls and lands overflowing with secondhand clothes from the Global North.
So, what is sustainability? Somebody might laugh at this question, yet, in the conversations that I’ve had on the subject, there were as many definitions and interpretations as there were people. The United Nations defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But let’s not be kidding ourselves – if all of us were only concerned with our needs, then each of us would have only one pair of jeans. In the culture of over-consumption introduced, nurtured, and protected by the fast-fashion brands, we learned to give in to our “wants” because we “can” buy another pair of jeans, we are “worth” having more than one pair, and we “deserve” showcasing our large-wardrobe-owner status publicly. I still remember the days, when my mom would buy me one new dress for the summer because my wardrobe “needed an upgrade”. But in today’s world, shopping goes beyond upgrading the wardrobe – it’s entertaining, it signals status and wealth, it offers an opportunity to socialize and network, it gives us a sense of accomplishment, and the list goes on. So, whoever says they can quit shopping “cold turkey” would totally deserve a spot on my wall of fame – in the corner reserved for unattainable role models.
Giving up shopping is unrealistic, at least for now. Is it realistic to ask brands/designers to slow down production, so there would be less to shop for? The answer is probably yes, BUT – it’s complicated. According to multiple sources, the [widely debated] approximation of the number of garments produced every year globally comes to 100 billion – or about 14 garments for each person on earth. About 3 out of 5 of the garments end up in a landfill within the same year. So, reducing the production of new garments by half would make a big difference, right? Well, not so fast. According to the International Labor Organization, the garment industry employs over 60 million people, and, unfortunately, for many – their life literally depends on those jobs; and let’s not forget the ripple effect of lost jobs – because people without jobs don’t shop at local markets, don’t ride local transport, don’t do their hair, and have to give up a number of other things that pay money to other people in their communities. In 2008, when the global financial crisis hit, I lived in a large industrial town of about 300,000 people. During the crisis, about 3,000 people --- or just 1% of the population – lost their jobs; the impact on the town was devastating. And here we are talking about a reduction in production by 50% -- does this mean 50%, or 30 million jobs might be lost? This is not really a solution, is it?!
A truly sustainable, equitable solution should result in the improvement in garment industry workers’ working conditions, not the loss of jobs. BUT! such a solution should also bring about the reduction in the number of “disposable” garments produced every year. AND! This solution should not reduce the profitability of fashion business owners and brands to the point, where it becomes unattractive for someone to own/manage a business in this industry. Is it possible to find a solution that satisfies everyone?
In today’s world, such solution does not exist, and there are many (many!) articles written about the cons of seemingly sustainable solutions. Yet, there are a lot of experiments happening in the industry right now, which give me hope, and are worth celebrating, however imperfect they are:
- Repurposing old garments – a Rwanda-based brand Haute Baso is one of the fashion trailblazers, which offers its clients to bring an old garment they bought from the brand and have it made into a different garment. There is a potential, promising next step – making an entire new collection of the textiles from the previous collections.
- Repairing damaged garments – quite a few brands in Africa are already offering their clients to mend ripped/damaged garments for free to extend the lifecycle of these garments, including Kenya-based LilaBare, who would provide upkeep for your items for life.
- Upcycling second-hand fabric – The number of companies in East Africa engaging in upcycling is growing really fast, in part – thanks to the educators, who propagate the creativity of turning an old garment into a new and exciting one, e.g., the Records Fashion School in Uganda, whose students – the Seamline Atelier and Sanvra Couture – also become active in the upcycling space.
- Using only easily recyclable fabrics – Kenya-based Deepa Dosaja, one of my favorite brands in Africa, produces their collections almost entirely from silk, which is kinder to the environment than other natural fabrics (e.g., cotton or Tencel).
- Producing fabric from new/unusual fibers, like coconut fiber, orange peel, etc. – Kenya-based KikoRomeo has been experimenting with the novel types of textiles. While today, such textiles are energy and labor-intense, tomorrow might bring a different result.
- Reducing machine-reliance and switching to mostly hand-made – Machines are the reason our work got easy, they are also the reason our work got devalued. Quite a few brands in Africa are moving towards replacing machines with humans for a part or even the entire production process, e.g., Nigeria-based Ebuku Threads.
- Made to order instead of mass production – some brands make a conscious decision to only produce a garment, when it’s actually ordered and paid for, which significantly reduces the waste. But it does mean that the clients have to wait for 3-5 weeks for their garment to reach them, as in the case with Ghana-based Sika Designs, who naturally dyes all their fabric and produces all garments by hand.
Yes, these might seem like small steps for now, but progress never happens overnight, we must take small steps to make a big leap.
These small steps are not just for selected groups on one – or the other side of the fashion fence; they are for everyone. We are already seeing the makers looking for ways to become more sustainable. For us as fashion consumers, change in production means – we will have to “share” the losses with fashion producers: we will have to pay more for hand-made garments, we will have to wait longer for the garments to be made, we will have to find creative ways to use and reuse pieces that are already sitting in our clothes. And for a while, it will feel like less value for more money – for everyone. But once the fast-fashion detox is over, we will likely be happier, more energized, with more time to spend on things that matter – not on digging out a favorite pair of jeans from an overflowing closet.