How ethics and sustainability are struggling to take hold of the African fashion industry
by Pearl M. Kasirye and Maria Angela Maina
The African fashion scene is robust and deeply complex with embedded cultural symbolism. The discourse about sustainable and ethical fashion is often Eurocentric, leading to a one-sided view of its reality in other parts of the world. It is important for scholars to have a holistic, globalized understanding of sustainable and ethical fashion to analyse how its principles are implemented in the African continent.
To put it simply, sustainable and ethical fashion is an approach that aims to minimize the fashion industry’s negative impact on the environment. Furthermore, it involves maximizing the benefits of the fashion industry to promote the ethical treatment of workers. This is done through allocating fair wages to all labourers involved in the design and manufacturing process. It also includes the production of high-quality fashion products that last for a long time and can either be upcycled or wither back to their organic state when discarded. These authors describe it perfectly:
“Sustainability involves complex and changing environmental dynamics that affect human livelihoods and well-being, with intersecting ecological, economic, and socio-political dimensions, both globally and locally.”
The above description emphasizes the complexity of sustainability and its relation to the global fashion industry. The African fashion industry should be highlighted because it is often overlooked. While African fabrics are highly sought after by foreign fashion brands and designers, the cultural significance and narratives of the locals are specifically omitted from the current buzz about sustainability. Currently, the demand for ethical fashion is a niche market, consisting of about 1% of the global fashion industry. With this in mind, the African continent currently accounts for 1.6% of global trade with its fashion industry valued at 1.3 trillion US dollars.
During our research and interview process with various African fashion designers, it was clear that issues involving sustainability ran deeper than we initially predicted. This paper analyses the challenges African fashion designers face.