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:
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.
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.
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