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Ecoafriq eshop - Issue #20 History & Future of Sustainable Fashion in Africa

Ecoafriq eshop - Issue #20 History & Future of Sustainable Fashion in Africa
By Ecoafriq • Issue #19 • View online
In a world where sustainability is taking on a new importance, Africa is building its fashion industry on a solid foundation of ecologically sound practices. With only 24% of those living in Sub-Saharan Africa having access to safe drinking water, the conventional fashion industry’s huge amounts of water waste is not an option. Environmentally compatible fashion alternatives, both in raw materials and consumer behavior, are replacing the wasteful ways of the past.
History of Sustainable Fashion in Africa
Tracing back the history of clothing to its roots, one finds that the original proponents of “sustainable fashion” lived thousands of years ago. Archaeological evidence shows that bark cloth with color pigmentation and ornaments was used by people in Africa almost 200,000 years ago. Since then, a lot has changedin the world of fashion and clothing design, but some practices have stood the test of time.
A little more recently, namely, almost 25 years ago, South African Fashion Week was created. Its focus on ethical fashion is embodied in how the shows themselves are presented. Modest lighting, smaller sound systems, and an emphasis on reducing the event’s carbon footprint are second only to the promotion of sustainable textiles. 
 While the practice in recent decades was to import cheap and less durable clothing from China, a turn to eco-friendly, long-lasting garments produced within the continent’s borders is emerging.
Improvements in Consumer Behavior, Business Practices, and Raw Material Sourcing
The practice of circular fashion is gaining popularity in Africa. Circular fashion is a system in which clothing circulates as long as its maximum value is retained. The items are then returned to the biosphere (recycled or composted) naturally as organic material when their usefulness as garments has passed.
The world-changing, yet simple, goal of the circular economy is that the practice completely removes waste from the fashion equation throughout the entire lifecycle of a clothing item. For example, in a circular economy, clothes are made from recycled materials, and are also made to be recyclable so that the materials can be used again in the future. From raw material producer to manufacturer to consumer, each actor accepts their role and, in removing waste from each step of the process, an eco-friendly alternative arises.
Besides circular fashion, many African consumers and brandsare embracing the idea of upcycling. This process sees clothing manufacturers producing garments from materials that would otherwise be considered waste. Repurposed second-hand items are broken down into their basic parts and used to create new garments.
While jute, ramie, and flax are considered alternative fibers for western clothing manufacturers, their innovative African counterparts take the concept even further. Local clothing producers are using banana tree bark to make textiles while footwear manufacturers are leveraging pineapple waste as rawmaterial for their shoes.
To combat waste, some of today’s African clothing manufacturers operate on a made-to-order model. This comes in stark contrast to the obscene amount of waste produced in the ‘fast fashion’ industry of conventional fashion. The model that conventional fashion companies follow requires the mass production and delivery of billions of clothing items. When the season ends, the unsold department store stock ends up in landfills and incinerators.
The multi-billion-dollar clothing corporations that perpetuate the vicious cycle of waste often outsource their production to factories in Asia and the Middle East. Many of these production facilities don’t undergo routine textile testing that ensures quality standards are met. With African clothing brands promoting a viable zero waste model, unethical practices become less prevalent in the textile industry.
Women Taking a Leadership Role
One of the exciting characteristics the sustainable fashion movement is taking in Africa is the prevalence of female entrepreneurship in the sector. A true driver of social integration, the African textile sector provides an organic way for women to assert their independence and lead a trend to be adopted in other industries.
Women in the African fashion industry are not simply opening up shop and hoping for the best. Entrepreneurs like SindisoKhumalo with a master’s degree in textile futures, are launching brands with the intent and capability to compete internationally against established global market players.
What the Future Holds
For Africa, there is no turning back from the sustainable fashion paradigm. Funds are being devoted to infrastructure that uses zero liquid discharge facilities. The zero liquid discharge method recovers all of the water used in the manufacturing process while any waste is contained in solid form, often to be repurposed. The clothing manufacturing process includes equipment that meets the strictest water consumption regulations and utilizes non-toxic dye houses.
These practices lower production costs significantly and allow environmentally sustainable fashion businesses to become viable international market participants. If this trend continues, sustainable clothing brands from Africa will be able to assert an ever-growing market presence overseas.
Some African companies are also investing in alternative textiles that are fully biodegradable and compatible with the circular economy that the locals practice.
Fortunately, many African countries are finding support for these sustainable practices in their governments. Policymakers in several African countries are enacting regulations that are supportive of ethical and sustainable methods.
Show Your Support
There are two ways of creating a sustainable future. The first is to take advantage of scientific innovation while the second involves drawing from cultural traditions. In an age of rampant globalization where ancestral identity is crushed underfoot, the African fashion industry is a bright glimmer of hope.
With more and more sustainable African fashion brands appearing in the west, supporting them with your patronage is a sure way to effect change in the world. As demand shifts, large fashion manufacturers and retailers that engage in unethical and unsustainable practices will be forced to change or go bankrupt under the weight of the wasteful economics that support them.
ecoafriq’s team wishes to show appreciation to the author Lena Milton, a freelance writer covering sustainability, health and environmental science. She writes to help consumers understand the environmental and ethical challenges in everyday life so we can find viable solutions for both. 
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