VENTURES AFRICA: Some call it Eco-fashion, others call it Ethical fashion; but the main point is both terms speak about socially and environmentally conscious fashion. Last week, I wrote an article about Nina Bloom- a designer who uses waste from billboards to design handbags and other fashion accessories. Although I have come across designers and articles about ethical fashion and how it helps the environment, I recently found deep interest in it because of the fact that you can change lives, help improve the environment and still produce fashionable clothing at the same time.

It was reported that in 2000, the world’s consumers spent 1 trillion dollars worldwide buying clothes. This shows that the world of fashion has some power on the economic, political, environmental and social sectors. Although the eco-fashion industry is still in its infancy, it would be great to see more African clothing manufacturers and fashion designers start using sustainable materials and processes. We might over look this issue and say- Fashion is fashion, clothing is clothing; what is the difference? Well, maybe when you realize that a bag you just bought was made by steaming an animal alive. Ethical fashion is just one of the ways we as consumers can reduce poverty, improve the environment and make the world a safer place.

What is Ethical Fashion?

According to the Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF), “Ethical fashion” is a term used to describe the design, production, retail and purchasing of items. It covers a range of issues such as pay and working conditions, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment and animal welfare. Ethical fashion aims to address certain problems such as environmental damage, waste, animal cruelty, use of dangerous chemicals and exploitative and forced labor. In a bid to make consumers better aware of how these clothes are produced, manufacturing partnerships through ethical brands such as SOKO Kenya and ASOS Africa offer better traceability and transparency.

Focus on Africa

From research, mostly international brands really make use of the plethora of raw resources we have in Africa in “Fashion sense”. I realized that most African fashion designers/brands don’t make use of these raw resources, but most of them prefer to just buy materials, cut and sew.

For example, Cotton is one of the most popular cash crops in Africa and the industry employs over one million people. Given the strenuous and harmful stages it takes for cotton to be finally processed; and being aware of the environmental and social costs of cotton production, more Ethical industrialist have recognized that organic cotton is a sustainable alternative.  The use of organic cotton helps cut cost, eliminates the need for harmful and expensive chemicals, demands a higher market price, which in addition helps reduce poverty. All these resources can be tapped by getting more involved in ethical fashion practices.

Hopefully, more designers like Nina Bloom will boldly embark on this journey. This is not a means to completely stop the usual process of going through mainstream retailers, but to encourage African designers and entrepreneurs to go through ethical retailers and also get better involved in Ethical Fashion. The fashion sector provides opportunities for some developing countries to be competitive on a global scale. This also leads to poverty reduction, sustainable livelihoods for most disadvantaged communities in the world and grant them access to skills and resources.

Ethical Fashion Forum, a non-profit that aims to develop social and environmental standards in the fashion industry estimates that in Swaziland about 28,000 jobs created in the fashion sector benefited 100,000 people. In Kenya, 30,000 people are employed in the apparel sector, each job creating five other jobs. In Lesotho, $234 million of textiles and apparel products exported in 2001, equating to 94% of merchandise exports; as a result, GDP increased from $558 in 2001 to $3000 in 2004.

According to Oxfam, If Africa, East Asia, South Asia, and Latin America were each to increase their share of world exports by one percent, the resulting gains in income could lift 128 million people out of poverty. A closer look at some of the statistics and recent news in the media about African fashion shows that the creative industry and fashion in particular can target and improve economic development.

Besides the involvement of the government in issues related to the African Fashion Industry, designers, retailers and suppliers can re-strategize and involve making eco-fashion an important and profitable aspect in the industry.

Ethical Designers

Vivienne Westwood is one of the international designers in support of the Ethical fashion movement. In collaboration with the Ethical Fashion Programme, she released a new collection focused on handmade bags made in Nairobi Kenya. The bags were made using recycled material from roadside advertisement banners and safari tents. These designs were hand crafted by communities of women such as widows, single mothers, HIV/AIDS victims and people living in extreme poverty.

Ethical Suppliers/Retailers

Transparency is the key benefit of turning to ethical suppliers and retailers. They are able to trace each step of production, have personal contact with the staff and farmers to ensure good practices and conditions. Mantis World and SOKO Kenya are one of the ethical suppliers making this possible.

SOKO Kenya

SOKO was set up in 2009 by Joanna Maiden. Joanna’s vision was for SOKO to provide the link between the international fashion industry and the community of Ukunda, Kenya. With the help of more brands, designers and retailers in Africa, it will encourage transparency gains which is a key benefit of turning to ethical retailers; this is one of the aims of SOKO Kenya. They ensure that poor working conditions, child labor and dangerous pesticides are not involved in the production process. They ensure the production of quality, competitively priced, fashion driven garments to the international fashion industry. SOKO supplies the European and US market, both high end and mainstream, with quality products made to the highest manufacturing standards.

Through such linkages, designers and retailers, some of the poorest people in the world are provided access to jobs and income which benefits communities and the economy as a whole. Having more African designers involved in this process can help link designers and communities of ethically produced items with international designers, retailers and distributors of mainstream luxury goods. According to Elizabeth Laskar, Founder of Ethical Fashion Forum, ethical fashion is not about charity. It’s all about taking into consideration the triple bottom line – People, Profit and Planet.

“It’s only the beginning. People say fashion is frivolous, but in its own way, it can change people’s lives” –Ali Hewson of Edun

What are your thoughts about Ethical fashion and its involvement in Africa? Please share your thoughts.

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