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In the race to reach net zero worldwide, here’s what the garment industry can learn from the continent’s nascent garment sector.

By Tosin Onikosi

Aug 6, 2021

The global fashion industry, long built on the notion of desire and consumerism, poses dire consequences for the planet, decades after the great commercialization of garment manufacturing. In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic which imposed a worldwide shutdown of various organizations and industries, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere increased greatly—with 2021 recording the highest atmospheric amount in over four decades. According to an extensive report by McKinsey and Global Fashion Agenda, the multibillion dollar industry was responsible for roughly 2.1 billion tonnes of GHG emissions in 2018, accounting for 4% of total emissions—a figure that has since increased to 10% in 2021. This means the industry emits more than France, the United Kingdom and Germany’s total emissions combined. About 20% of global wastewater also comes from fashion corporations around the world. For those who love to get a new pair of denim each month? You might want to rethink. It takes 3,781 liters of water to make a pair of jeans, covering everything from the production of the cotton, to the delivery of the final pair to retail stores.

     
  

The remaining plastic fibers from a pair of decomposed stretch jeans. Photo: via @hustontextile

At a time where industry thought leaders are ticking off the sustainable development goals for 2030, other organizations like the International Energy Agency (IEA) have announced a global roadmap for corporate entities to curb emissions by 2050. The data presented in the report spotlights a plethora of solutions steeped in harnessing the power of renewable energy and sustainable manufacturing practices. Key suggestions include incorporating the use of solar thermal energy for industrial processes like drying and bleaching fabric, which require low-temperature heat (below 100°C). Companies like recycling company Circ aim to reduce the amount of clothes sent to landfills by contributing to the circular economy—seeing as 85% of all textiles thrown away in the US are either dumped into landfills or burned. Circ’s model breaks down and purifies textile fibres from fabric waste, recovering 90% of materials that would otherwise have polluted the atmosphere. 

Now these strides, while excellent in their commitment to reaching net zero emissions, still fall short without a conscious effort from Africa. The world’s second largest continent has the power to influence existing western systems of production, which arguably are the root of most environmental issues faced today. This is in large part due to the intricacies of garment production that are borne out of diverse cultures in different countries. According to The China-Africa Research Initiative, Eastern Africa’s emerging garment industry and budding cotton sector is marred by underdevelopment and an overwhelming dependence on foreign actors. July 2021 saw the International Trade Center begin the push for greener methods of manufacturing leather and traditional textiles from various East African countries. According to a recent report by the agency, large global fashion brands require the players in their supply chains to adhere to internationally agreed standards on wastewater and chemical management. While these textile sectors may show promise, the disconnect between effective policies from their respective governments and internal organizations are causing their garment industries to miss out on viable export opportunities.

In West Africa, slowly but surely, brands are employing age old woven textile practices to produce long lasting garments that design out waste while maintaining the glamour. Nigerian designer Nkwo Onwuka has been a pioneer of sustainabiity with her cutting edge work for the majority of her career. In the years since the 2012 relaunch of her eponymous label, Onwuka has consistently maintained her stance on ethical production methods: hand dyeing, weaving, beading, repurposing and reconstructing have been integral parts of her process. During a series of experimental studio sessions, the brand developed their signature textile, called the “Dakala Cloth”. The fabric is made through a modern 'strip weaving' technique that mirrors handloom woven cloth but with a distinctively African feel. 

Bottega Venetta alum, Abrima Erwiah, marries her Ghanaian heritage with a distinctly modern worldview. Her eco-friendly label Studio 189, which she co-founded with actress Rosario Dawson, works with local artisans in Accra to produce high quality clothes and accessories. These artisans engage in sustainable production methods that infuse plant-based dye, hand-batik and traditional kente weaving, resulting in colourful pieces that reflect the country that inspires them. In a conscious bid to push the conversation (and action) of sustainable creation forward, Studio 189 has partnered with the United Nations ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative—a move which helps the continent directly impact global systems at large.

For Ivorian fashion label Olooh Concept, the products are an ode to the indegenious artisans of Côte D’Ivoire. Creative director Kadar Diaby, who also doubles as an auditor and photographer, employs women workers in the commune of Treichville to dye the eco-linen used for the clothing. Garment finishings like their bronze buttons are made in the commune of Grand Bassam's artisanal center, while the materials for their accessories are sourced right in Abidjan.

“It’s really not good enough to consider circularity at the end of the life cycle of the garment but at the very beginning.”

Elsewhere, former LVMH finalist, Kenneth Ize’s contemporary design aesthetic brilliantly mixes his multicultural experiences gathered from studying fashion design and textiles at the University of Applied Arts Vienna with colorful childhood memories spent witnessing the reverence and beauty of the centuries-old woven aso-oke fabric. Dedicated to the precious, time-honoured handcraft practice of weaving on wooden looms, his meticulous design process—it usually takes about four hours on average for each yard strip of Japanese silk to be made—employs the expertise of local weavers and artisans, creating work opportunities within the garment production sector. This move ultimately makes him an early champion for sustainable design in the country’s luxury fashion space. 

What African designers bring to the circular economy discussion is the opportunity for the industry to slow down and create with intention. Fashion commentators and thought leaders would argue that consumers in the wake of the pandemic are more drawn to clothes and brands with strong stories and long shelf lives partly due to economic situations borne from a faltering economy. At Lagos Fashion Week’s Business Series Roundtable last year highlighting the circular economy, these sentiments were generously shared. Brand strategist and sustainability advocate Zara Odu, through her eco-conscious artisan collective Designers Consociate, is interested in the idea of how textiles can be transformed and the company makes a conscious effort to get the designers and artisans they work with to “focus on the raw materials that are available [within the continent], and making sure those items have longevity.”


Nkwo Patches Blazer made from Dakala Cloth. Photo: Courtesy of Nkwo.


Kenneth Ize FW‘20 Photo: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize


Photo: Glitz Fashion WeeThe Designer Shirt Project by Designers Consociate. Photo: via @designersconsociate

A year later, in the wake of the pandemic and the effects on businesses across the continent, the company maintains a firm stance on sustainability education. Zara explains, “That education affects their mindsets and allows them to produce and source better materials. Throughout the pandemic we tried working with brands who were unsure of the future of their companies and the industry at large. It serves brands well to have a more circular approach to their processes.” 

There are a number of solutions for policymakers and industry economists to take note of—the lowest hanging fruit can be seen in the viability of cotton industries and revisiting production techniques. In an interesting report by the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, we’re being asked to rethink these raw materials and the fibers that we mix. Luxury fashion brands have the potential to lead this conversation, as the core of luxury lies in deliberate quality craftsmanship with durability in mind. Zara advises brands to walk the walk, “It’s not enough to say you’re using the finest leather and richest cottons but there’s a need to go a step further and examine the impact of the materials being used. We have to ensure that those textiles in themselves can be recreated, recycled or reworked somehow. It’s great to know that designers are already taking that on as we’ve moved on from the first phases of being eco to really transforming waste.”

Her statement echoes Rewoven CEO, Esethu Cenga who also at last year’s roundtable noted, “It’s really not good enough to consider circularity at the end of the life cycle of the garment but at the very beginning.” Essentially, when local industries begin to tap into sourcing the right fibers, the core purpose of the circular economy is achieved with carving out waste from multiple stages of the cloth making process.