Fashion Waste and Poverty
Infinited Fiber is a Finnish start-up company developing new clothing from old materials. The impact of waste management for textiles is more than $1 billion annually, and garment workers globally receive, at best, mediocre pay. Infinited Fiber strives to create longer-lasting clothes to reduce textile waste while paying garment workers appropriate salaries. Longer-lasting clothes will be more cost-effective for the individual and help with the more significant issues of fashion waste management and poverty, including the ever-rising costs in the clothing market.

Poverty in the Fashion Industry

Fashion waste and poverty are significant problems in the fashion industry that Infinited Fiber is tackling. Garment workers are incredibly subject to poverty while working in the fashion industry. There is an overwhelming wage gap between garment workers and their company’s CEOs. The Industry We Want, an organization fighting for fair wages for garment workers, found significant wage gaps between the workers’ earnings and what they should be earning. Globally, garment workers earn only about 55% of the wages they need to have a living wage.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the treatment of garment workers worsened. Many garment workers went extended periods without receiving any compensation. When in-person shopping stopped globally, many factories paused operations, leaving the garment workers destitute. In those factories, garment workers deal with poverty regularly due to the economic status of their home countries. Still, the stopped income left them facing starvation. Fashion waste and poverty do not end with garment workers. Unfortunately, their poverty and economic struggles are a large portion of why Infinited Fiber seeks new techniques and practices in the fashion industry.

Devastating Fashion Waste and “Fast Fashion”

“Fast fashion” is cheap, easy-to-produce fashion that often goes to waste quickly. Fast fashion is a sector of the fashion market that employs exceptionally cheap labor. This form of fashion marketing took over the global-fashion market when large-name brands like Zara and Forever 21 began expanding business operations. Fast fashion proved to be a profitable market, causing fashion industry markets to see substantial increases in generated income. Despite the promising outlook of fast fashion, due to the quick turnaround in products, the industry will likely see decreases of up to $52 billion in profits due to waste management and textile losses. Management for textile waste costs up to $100 billion annually.

One of the methods for waste management that will also cut costs globally for waste management is transforming the clothing production process. There are calls to improve recycling methods for textiles, beginning with policymakers. Textile recycling is an expanding market for investment in the fashion industry. As of 2021, the textile recycling industry had a value of $4.5 billion in 2021, with expectations for fast economic growth. Thankfully, textile recycling also reduces the costs of dealing with textile waste management. While textile waste costs continue to mount and landfills fill up rapidly, textile recycling benefits all involved by taking the wasted textiles, cleaning them and repurposing them workers create a new product. The repurposed textiles save money in landfill and textile waste management and create new job opportunities as textile recycling grows in popularity. Infinite Fiber’s goal is to end the cycle of fashion waste and poverty through textile recycling.

Infinited Fiber’s Goal to Ending the Cycle of Fashion Poverty

The company’s founder and CEO, Petri Alava, hopes the clothing the company produces will be low-cost for the consumer, long-lasting and reduce textile waste. The company creates “circular fibers” by taking old materials, cleaning them and breaking them down to a polymeric level. The process requires fewer chemicals and leaves less waste than the typical processes of fast fashion.

Infinite Fiber is partnering with large-name brands, such as H&M and Inditex. Inditex is Zara’s parent company and is known not to pay its garment workers a fair wage. As the company is expanding and creating its partnerships, Infinite Fiber is receiving significant investment opportunities that are proving beneficial to the company, and its workers, while spreading its influence of eliminating fashion waste and poverty.

Infinite Fiber recently signed a new deal to develop a partnership with Patagonia, a U.S.-based clothing retailer with operations worldwide. One of the keys to operating with Patagonia is that Patagonia implements safety precautions that many garment factories do not. Patagonia also pays its garment workers fair wages. The connections Infinited Fiber makes with companies like Patagonia prove its commitment to a “Fair Trade” life with improved wages and social and economic improvement is on the horizon globally.

Infinite Fiber’s work creating new textiles is becoming a global operation, presenting job opportunities everywhere the company reaches. In Brazil, Infinite fiber’s work to erase fashion waste and poverty involves taking wood pulp and turning it into new textiles. The company’s goal is to slash fashion waste and poverty that result from waste. Infinite Fiber is dedicated to improving the quality of the fashion industry, which comes with living wages for all workers, minimal waste, and job opportunities worldwide.

– Clara Mulvihill
Photo: Flickr

Fast Fashion Waste
Across Africa, there are massive piles of unwanted, low-quality clothing sporting familiar brand names like Target, H&M, Shein and more polluting waterways, village centers and fueling a dangerous resale business. Many blame the fast fashion industry for fueling this issue and creating immense waste, which often arrives in developing countries as donations from more developed nations. African-owned fashion brands are providing a solution to fast fashion waste currently.

According to Merriam-Webster, fast fashion is “an approach to the design, creation and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.” Mckinsey-Sustainability, a sustainability consulting firm, found that from 2000 to 2014, clothing production doubled and people began keeping clothes for half as long. According to the World Economic Forum, 85% of all textiles become waste each year.

Results of Fast Fashion

The results of the practices are evident. When Western European countries ship their unwanted garments to West African nations, many cannot be resold or worn in their shipped condition. As a result, in Accra, Ghana’s capital, a 20-meter-high cliff has formed from unutilized clothes on the shoreline of the city’s Korle Lagoon.

The usable clothing from the shipments usually resells in large clothing markets. It is largely the poor and desperate, often young women, who have to do the back-breaking work of carrying bins of clothing from stall to stall needed to run these markets. One worker in Accra, who had traveled there from northern Ghana, reported making only $4.50 a day moving clothes. The worker also stated that she even needed to send some of it back to her family.

In June 2022, “fast fashion giant” Shein announced that it would be donating $15 million to workers in the Accra resale industry, drawing mixed reviews from the public.

Beyond donations, some African businesses have begun actively fighting the pileup of wasted textiles. Here are three African fashion brands creating change:

1. NKWO

NKWO is fighting the modern world’s desire for “more.” It is a Nigerian-based company that uses slow fashion techniques and locally-sourced materials to celebrate traditional African artisanship and extract the most from fast fashion waste. Among its products, NKWO primarily sells a mix of shirts and dresses made of a patchwork of scraps and patches of unwanted jeans.

NKWO also has a commitment to the concept of zero waste. It has invented an innovative African textile called “Dekala cloth,” which uses a modernized method of strip-weaving to create high-quality garments from bits and scraps of clothes that would otherwise be thrown out. The innovative designs and practices have earned features at Lagos Fashion Week.

2. Suave Kenya

Suave Kenya is an East African fashion brand that uses materials taken from last-chance clothing to create stylish bags. It focuses primarily on repurposing denim and the company incorporates a variety of recycled materials, from dress shirt silk to worker jacket leather into their backpacks, totes and more.

The Gikomba Market in Nairobi inspires the brand, which is the largest open-air flea market in East Africa. Similar to the markets of Accra, fast fashion waste goes there either for the market to sell or condemn to a landfill. Suave Kenya chooses to save as many textiles as possible and reintegrate them into entirely different products, showcasing the numerous possibilities of recycled textiles.

3. Ahluwalia

Visiting Aswani Market in Panipat, India, which is “the global capital of recycling garments” and seeing the heaps of clothing waste in Lagos, Nigeria inspired Priya Ahluwalia to create Ahluwalia. The fashion brand combines its founder’s Nigerian and Indian heritage to create designer clothing out of a mix of recycled, surplus and natural materials. London Fashion Week and Vogue have shown Ahluwalia’s clothes, bringing revitalized fashion from the developing world to the global stage of high fashion.

On top of its dedication to fighting fast fashion waste, Ahluwalia makes all of its clothing in woman-owned factories. It has also produced collections in partnership with SEWA Delhi, an Indian women’s union.

Looking Ahead

At the moment, brands fighting fast fashion waste are focused on creating designer and luxury goods. Many of the listed items cost well over $100. The products and brands are out of reach for many, especially the 80% of Africans who live on less than $5.50 per day, because of their high cost.

The lack of affordable clothing made from recycled materials leaves ample space for new businesses to truly put a dent in the unwanted clothes piling up in the developing world. Until then, these businesses provide a model for actionable solutions to fighting waste, a showcase of African artisanship and quality opportunities for African makers.

Ryan Morton
Photo: Wikipedia Commons