When you hear the word “sustainability,” what comes to mind? Do you roll your eyes? Or get really excited and interested? Sustainability in fashion and business continues to be a serious and trendy topic. I have found this topic becomes even more nuanced by comparing how the West is maneuvering it and how Africa lives within it. Let’s unpack that.
Why Sustainable Fashion In The West Has Room For Improvement
The fashion industry in the West has become very comfortable with using the terms “sustainable, “ethical,” and “organic” to label campaigns and products that are supposed to curve this industry's impact on the environment. However, to some, these attempts are in vain. According to Michael Stanley-Jones from the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, “The urge to sell more and get consumers to buy more is still in the DNA of the industry. Clothes have a very short lifespan and end up in the dump.”
This is where “fast-fashion” enters the chat. Did you know that for brands to deliver low prices and quick style changes, they rely on fossil fuel-based synthetic materials? These materials are cheaper, adaptable, and more widely available than natural materials. As a result, according to Kenneth P. Pucker in Harvard Business Review, polyester has become the number one synthetic fiber and represents more than half of all global fiber production. Polyester is derived from nonrenewable resources, requires a lot of energy to extract and process, and releases a lot of byproducts.
Now, I’m not here to bash your cute $7 top from SheIn. Or that cool $14 sweatshirt from H&M. The business of fashion and consumer behavior do not exist in a vacuum…or separate vacuums for that matter. A lot of the data on fashion’s impact on the environment is Western-based. Thus, we must also take into account the Western lifestyle of hyper-consumerism, not having a tailor in every neighborhood, matching budgets, capitalism, and the lack of knowledge of the life cycle of clothing and apparel.
These elements significantly influence and impact any attempts towards transparency, recycling, or innovation within so-called sustainable fashion. I feel this might be why some sustainable initiatives seem to be missing the mark altogether. For example, the second-hand clothing segment of fashion in the West has become a confusing source of the problem instead of the solution.
There is a misconception that donating clothing saves the issue of overflowing landfills. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Some of the clothes might make it in thrift stores, but that only possibly prolongs the time that item will end up thrown away. According to OEC, the Observatory of Economic Complexity, the biggest exporters of used clothing in 2019 were the United States, at $720 million, the United Kingdom, $469 million, China, $372 million, and South Korea, $312 million. The biggest importers of used clothing in 2019 were Ukraine, $209 million, Pakistan, $189 million, Ghana, $168 million, Kenya, $165 million, and the United Arab Emirates, $151 million.
Photo Credit: VOA News
These imports have caused significant issues. For example, in Ghana, used clothing is suffocating both the clothing market and environment. According to OR Foundation in this DW article, 15 million individual items of used clothing arrive in Ghana weekly, but 40% of that is discarded due to poor quality. Those discarded items end up in landfills and the ocean. Awareness continues to be raised on how this is contaminating drinking water and marine life in the region, but not much pushback has occurred. The local fashion industry, according to Roberta Annan from Africa Fashion Foundation, loses $500 billion a year due to fashion waste.
How Sustainability In Africa Is Evolving
The fashion industry in Africa has many layers and evolving rules. Let’s focus on the life cycle of a made in Africa clothing item from the African consumer perspective. By default, the item is handmade and bespoke with quality materials that are mostly locally sourced. It is made to fit as well as grow with who it was designed for. That person keeps the item well. Wears it more than once. Will get it altered for their new shape or new style preference. Due to the materials it is made out of, this item will also be passed down to the next generation and continually reused and kept safely.
If you expand the scope of products beyond clothing, this also adds to the routine of finding a new use for every item and the attitude of not throwing things away until it has truly provided every purpose it could. Remember, this depends on the materials.
Photo Credit: Business Of Fashion
Now, let’s focus on the African producer perspective. This is where more evolution and innovation are occurring. Sustainability in African production involves more solutions for people and the community. For example, Sara Diouf of Tongoro shared in this article, “it’s the ability to create value through a commercial product without compromising, if not bettering, the wellbeing of the human resources required in the process.” She further added, “if you have more artisans making a decent living, they become economic contributors; they regain a certain dignity; the perception of the craft is renewed, and the creative sector holds more value, which can attract investments and the development of more businesses.”
Keeping people and communities as a top priority, more projects and collaborations across the African continent are redefining business models and further enhancing sustainable methods. Do you remember the used clothing import issue I mentioned earlier? The Africa Fashion Foundation’s “Recycle, Rework, Reuse” project was showcased at the Sustainable Innovation conference in 2021. It featured designers from Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal developing a collection from used clothing in the used clothing markets in those countries plus a 3D look book by BALMLABS. A push to impact the waste produced by imported used clothing.
Regarding business models, according to David Nwachukwu in Industrie Africa, “what African designers bring to the circular economy discussion is the opportunity for the industry to slow down and create with intention.”
How Does Bandele Muse Incorporate Sustainability
Overall, “sustainability in fashion and business” holds a delicate balance between being hijacked as a trend and successfully redefining a vast industry. Shifting the responsibility to the consumer to purchase more expensive items or research labels and supply chains is not effective. Large corporations have the biggest footprint in this, but their lobbyists have yet to choose (but may gradually) to make history by pushing regulations to reprioritize the wellbeing of the environment over profit. There are a plethora of small fashion businesses that promote environmentally friendly products, supply chains, and methods, but are all still uncertain how much of an impact any of that is making.
This is where feeling overwhelmed comes in. As a business, there is an endless list of initiatives, gaps, and issues that can be addressed. How does one truly make an impact without getting lost in that list? To start, I focus more on what is on the ground.
Bandele Muse products are produced by local artisans using locally sourced materials. Bandele Muse packaging is produced to be reusable accessories and storage. Designs are created with the intention to be timeless and durable. Products are created in small batches and made to order. In addition to this, the intentions behind the education, entertainment, and lifestyle aspects of this brand connect to the notion of sustainability not only being what you do, but more of sustainability being how you live.
Again, this is a start. The more the business, and I, learn, the more we can further incorporate sustainability that aligns with the well-being of people, communities, and the environment.
How would you like to see sustainability incorporated in fashion and business? Make sure to join the Bandele Muse newsletter, if you have not already, to continue the conversation. I look forward to hearing from you.