Thanks to fast-developing technology and growing investment in material innovation, the creation of sustainable alternatives to replace traditional fabrics is gaining momentum in fashion. And given that the production and processing of standard materials make up most of fashion’s carbon footprint, it’s no wonder. Textile manufacturers, once concerned primarily with performance and price, are now introducing a range of materials to cater to surging consumer demand for sustainability and ethical practices.
Designers, too, are embracing a more sustainable way forward, experimenting with varied and unconventional materials to create products like Swiss knitwear brand FTC’s seaweed-derived cashmere, French luxury house Hermès' shopper bag made from mycelium, pineapple leaf-based leather alternative, Piñatex; and Taiwanese textile company Singtex’s coffee ground yarn. These environmentally-friendly fabrics are catching the attention of the next generation of shoppers.
But in a system designed to maximize growth and profit over the minimization of detrimental environmental impact, billions of dollars' worth of capital and further innovation are needed to achieve the industrial scale that would enable alternative materials to compete. However, giving a second life to existing materials (including consumer waste like plastic and fabric cutoffs) presents an opportunity for brands and designers to experiment with fabric innovation in a less economically stressful way.
Due to a lack of resources, designers on the continent have, more often than not, sought to find such innovative solutions—from repurposing old fabric or adopting a slower production model that consists of traditional production techniques and made-to-order collections.
Read on to discover the brands making the case for a thriving, innovative, sustainable textile industry emerging in Africa.
A model wears The Tank Set. Photo via @nkwo_official.
Led with intention and care, Nigerian label NKWO is what founder Nkwo Onwuka herself describes as a “mindful brand”. When it comes to design, Onwuka places upcycled materials front and center in an attempt to make better use of the staggering amount of secondhand clothing donated in the West and exported to Africa, much of which cannot be resold. Sustainability is NKWO’s key mission, and their dedication to waste reduction led them to create a new strip weaving technique made by using innovative cutting patterns and recycled fabric manipulation. The result was the invention of a new kind of cloth, which they dubbed “dakala”.
“Dakala Cloth was invented as a means of reducing textile waste,” Onwuka explained in an interview with online magazine Fashion Africa Now. “Being a research-focused label, we are constantly experimenting and looking at ways of solving the very modern problem of excess textile waste.” Fashioned out of secondhand clothing bought from Nigerian markets and off-cuts from the country's tailors, these materials are stripped into yarn and subsequently rewoven by traditional aso-oke artisans. Since the Dakala Cloth’s development, the ingenuity and importance of the material has been consistently and widely affirmed. In 2020, the brand was nominated for a Beazley Designs of the Year Award, and in 2022 they were awarded the Bicester Collection Award for Emerging Designers at the CNMI Sustainability Awards, an honor given to talent that strives to make a significant positive impact in the global fashion community.
Strips of denim used by NKWO to create their garments. Photo via @nkwo_official.
One of the garments NKWO makes using the Dakar cloth. Photo via @nkwo_official.
Founded by mother and son duo Zainab and Shaheed Martin, nuun is a Cape Town-based multidisciplinary design space and clothing brand that’s become known for its simple, high-quality pieces as well as their use of 100% biodegradable packaging and utilization of recycled plastic carrier bags. According to Shaheed, nuun is rooted in “sustainability and culture and practicality and the relationship between those concepts.” Currently, the brand has several products in store that make use of the ‘second life’ concept. The nuun t-shirt is made using rPET fabric produced out of 6x500ml plastic bottles which are then blended with organic cotton. They also stock beach cleanup bags made from recycled plastic carrier bags that are fused together to form a leather-like, water-resistant, and durable material. Then there is their biodegradable, water-soluble packaging solution, developed from PVOH/PVA (polyvinyl alcohol) and plant-based materials. It dissolves within minutes in water and offers an alternative for brands looking for less harmful packaging options.
“Ideally, a product is one that serves its purpose and breaks down naturally without harming the environment such as our water-soluble poly bags,” Shaheed tells us. “But we cannot expect every product to be made in this way in the current world, which is why we are adamant to find ways to give existing products a second life once their purpose has been served.” He explains that there are infinite amounts of uses for already existing materials. It just requires brands to be willing to take a few extra steps instead of opting for commercial solutions, which are generally harmful to the environment. “Ultimately, a shift in mindset is needed in order for this process to become common practice. We need to be willing and excited to think this way and we have to share resources rather than gatekeeping ideas within our respective industries.”
Model wears the limited edition 100% cotton quilted 'bag one.' Photo via @nuun_concept_space.
T-shirt made from a blend of 6 500ml plastic bottles and 100% cotton, wrapped in the nuun-developed water-soluble plastic sleeve. Photo via @nuun_concept_space.
A model wearing some of nuun's eco-conscious apparel. Photo via @nuun_concept_space.
A model wearing nuun's eco-conscious apparel paired with a 100% cotton quilted hat. Photo via @nuun_concept_space.
The Reform Studio tote made from 58 recycled plastic bags. Photo via @reform_studio.
An internationally-renowned ethical accessories and lifestyle brand founded by Hend Riad and Mariam Hazem, Egypt’s Reform Studio’s signature material is Plastex—a striking material that Reform Studio created from upcycling discarded plastic bags—which aims to remedy one of Egypt’s major environmental problems and prolongs the lifespan of a plastic bag while saving it from polluting the earth as landfill. “We came up with the idea of ‘Plastex’ during our last semester in university, directly after the 2011 revolution in Egypt that ended the three-decade-long presidency of Hosni Mubarak,” the design duo said in an interview with Design Indaba. “The feeling of responsibility towards serving our society and environment gave us the motivation to solve one of the major problems in Egypt—waste. We started to deal with waste as a raw material trying to transform its negative impact into a more positive one.”
Today, Reform Studio offers a range of hand-made, high-end eco-friendly fashion accessories, furniture & home accessories, ranging from different-sized tote bags, backpacks, belt bags and fanny packs in an array of vibrant colors. The brand is a pioneering one in the Arab world. Their factory employs a team of Egyptian plastic cutters and fabric weavers, all of whom are tasked with converting the humble plastic bag into the durable Plastex thread that underlies Reform Studio’s products. “The main factor behind our work is design for a cause,” they explained to Atelier 55 Design. “We design for a better quality of life. So what inspires us is simply solving problems through design.”
Each Reform Studio tote bag contains a label detailing what it's made of. Photo via @reform_studio.
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