What comes to mind when you encounter the term “sustainable fashion”? For many, thoughts of environmental impact and effects on climate change immediately spring forth—understandably so given the well-known fact that the global fashion industry accounts for about 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But as far as fashion goes, the idea of sustainability encompasses so much more than just environmentally friendly practices. At each stage of a product’s life cycle—from the production of raw materials and designing to manufacturing and distribution—there is an opportunity for making a positive impact on not only the planet, but also on society. Hence, there are diverse aspects of sustainability to be considered, including the welfare of those creating the collections, the preservation of cultural heritage and handiwork, and the support of local informal economies to ensure minimal damage to the planet. Here are four African brands that are actively exploring these ideas and taking four distinct approaches to sartorial sustainability.
Capturing the rich and vibrant essence of Ghanaian culture, accessories brand AAKS stylishly champions sustainability through the act of preservation. The brand’s mission is to preserve the region’s age-old skill of basket weaving. In a world of fast fashion and growing concern about the loss of artisan cultures founder Akosua Afriyie-Kumi’s raffia bags are a contemporary reworking of traditional West African weaving technique, and with their confluence of exuberant colors and contemporary silhouettes, speak to the revival and sustenance of weaving as a thriving art. Launched in 2014, today AAKS employs over 60 women-weavers in rural areas of Ghana who work with Afriyie-Kumi to conserve this age-old craft and heed her ethos of preserving traditional techniques by combining them with modern design and function. And in line with her advocacy of slow fashion, the process of creating one of her bags takes about two weeks. “I saw all these amazing handmade processes here in Ghana, which there was no spotlight on this around the world,” she told Conde Nast Traveller. “Most of the artisans, they grow up with parents who are weavers, you are a weaver, your brother is a weaver, your granddad is a weaver. It's generations on generations... I show them where my brand has gone with their skill sets, and they're blown away, thinking, "Wow, I did this." Paid a stable price that’s above the market average, these artisans use skills and tools that are unique to northern Ghana to introduce a unique cultural practice to a global audience.
Homegrown Textile Promotion
Awa Meité Rainbow collection. Photo: via @awameitedesign
Handwoven dress and headwrap by Awa Meité. Photo: via Essence
Awa Meité FW’20. Photo: Courtesy of Awa Meité
Bamako-based designer Awa Meité creates unique handmade clothing crafted from cotton grown and produced right there in the country, pushing a sustainable strengthening of one of Mali’s most important industries through the use of homegrown textiles, slow methods, and natural materials. Though Mali is one of Africa’s largest cotton producers, less than 5% of the fiber grown there is processed locally. Meité is looking to draw attention to all the players in local cotton production—including growers, spinning wheel operators, dyers, embroiderers, tailors, and merchants—through her artisanal garments and to encourage the market value of the local cotton industry which employs around 70% of the country’s population. Every part of it is precious, she says, and she strives to utilize every piece in the creation of her richly textured garments. "I am a creative who is committed to promoting what is produced locally and to creating value within my society, in this case, Mali,” Meité told Industrie Africa in 2020. “Le Coton Reparateur [The Healing Cotton] has become the emblem of my brand.”
Reusage and Recycling
A Cairo-based accessories brand known for recycling old plastic bags and turning them into everything from backpacks and tote bags, to chairs and cushion covers, Reform Studio’s ethos of zero waste informs its sustainable practice. Established around a sense of responsibility felt by founders Mariam Hazen and Hend Riad toward their immediate environment, the brand developed “Plastex”—a handwoven fabric made out of plastic that's strong, durable, and tackles Egypt's mounting problem with the discarded material. Produced sans chemical components or toxic fluids, Plastex is crafted from reused shopping bags and recycled cotton threads that are interwoven via a process called handlooming. “It’s the brand's invention and is used in all our products,” says Riad. “It's a 100% eco-friendly handmade fabric that translates the need for environmental sustainability. The idea behind [it] is to prolong the life cycle of plastic bags before it gets labeled as ‘trash’. The focus of innovation lies in transforming [waste] into new raw material that has environmental, social and economical benefits.” Applied to a range of accessory styles including baskets and belt bags, Reform Studio’s invention aims to promote the use of recycled materials for everyday life and contribute to a healthier supply chain in the fashion industry. “We believe in sustainable luxury and ethical fashion. [This] means a product… that doesn’t harm the environment or the workers who make them,” says Hend.
Founded by Eszter Rabin and Rebecca Olivia Moore, Tanzanian jewelry brand Sidai Designs embodies the idea of sustainability through a mission to impact, empower, and uplift the community that they work with. A for-profit business creating sustainable livelihoods and offering opportunities for upskilling, they work in collaboration with a team of Maasai women to create handmade, contemporary jewelry and accessories. They also run social programs with a portion of their business profits, which are aimed at providing education to Maasai women and girls, and breaking cycles of poverty. “If our design processes don’t have positive effects on the community then we are not fulfilling our purpose at Sidai,” co-founder Moore tells Industrie Africa. “We use design-led craft as a catalyst for positive change, economic independence, education, and sustainable job creation for Maasai women.” Sidai Designs’ ethos is one of respecting and celebrating tradition. Through combining modern with traditional designs and techniques, they offer an elegant product that remains relevant in the market and offers the artisans themselves valuable market access. “Consumers are now looking for brands that also uphold their social and environmental responsibilities,” says Moore. “They want brands that are transparent, ethical and uphold the livelihoods of their workforce.”
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