Fashion is an art expression that is often a reflection of what someone enjoys, likes, feels confident in, is practical and so on. To express this art form however, requires the use of the planets limited resources. But what are the effects of our consumption, especially with the rise of fast fashion? Numerous questions and possible solutions are being discussed on how to tackle factors of climate change from years of damage to the ecosystem; fashion consumers and producers are making genuine attempts to be more conscious about their impact on a global scale. In the pursuit to make fashion more sustainable, companies are revamping both their business models as well as supply chains to cut down on the environmental impact and also to upgrade their factory conditions to more socially accepted standards. Adidas, for example, as part of its sustainability effort, recently announced the release of a 100% recyclable shoe, called the Futurecraft Loop. Such actions indicate that the growing fashion-conscious consumer trends are being noticed by big fashion brands.
Adding to the discussion on how we can create a more sustainable environment for fashion to thrive in, is the concept of recycled clothing. To draw this conversation to Africa, many countries on the continent receive tonnes of second hand clothing from the U.S., Europe and China, known in Zambia as “salaula”, which means to ‘rummage through’. These items are usually sold in the street or in markets (where people rummage through piles of clothes to find what they like), whilst others are sold in shops that sell secondhand items such as Development Aid from People to People (DAPP) retail shops which is part of the Clothes and Shoes Project in Zambia. An Oxfam report in 2005 reported the global trade in second hand clothing was valued at US$1 billion. In 2016, it had risen to the excess of US$3.7billion, with the SADC region importing a total value of US$272 million, of which Zambia imported 4%). Whilst most clothes are donated as an act of charity/goodwill, they are often sold off by companies such as Oxfam to traders for re-consumption. The market for salaula in Africa grew exponentially during the late 80’s and 90’s. Why? Governments implemented The manufacturing industries in many countries have since struggled, with second hand clothing being one of the causes.
I recently attended the Fashion Revolution Week event hosted by the Lusaka Global Shapers (part of the World Economic Forum), featuring a panel discussion on sustainable fashion in Africa. The discussion topic was “Sustainability and African Fashion: tapping into years of best practice” and featuring Mulenga Kapwepwe and Ruth Mooto of My Perfect Stitch on the panel. I posed a question to the panel about whether the salaula market in Zambia aided sustainability efforts and what impact it had on the Zambian fashion industry. My question was answered by Ms. Kapwepwe, who described the salaula market as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it was a clear example of the effort being made by the Western countries to recycle clothes. However, it also means that the responsibility of disposal of these clothes now lies on the African countries that receive them. She also added that there could be a market in repurposing clothing. Relooping Fashion is doing such a thing. It is an initiative based in Finland that recycles old clothes made from cotton and repurposes the thread to make new clothes which can again be repurposed. In Zambia, where the textile manufacturing plants are sitting idle , this could be an initiative we take up to get the manufacturing plants working again, aside from producing our own textiles and garments.
In East Africa, President Kagame of Rwanda moved to ban the import of second-hand clothing into Rwanda in 2018. The story is that East African Community (EAC) members — Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania, increased import tariffs in an attempt to support and develop their local industries. In retaliation, the United States of America threatened to revoke the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) — which allowed African countries such as those in the EAC duty-free imports into the U.S. market for 6,500 exported products in exchange for removing barriers on U.S. trade and investment. The other 3 countries chose to drop their tariff increases, whilst Rwanda stood firm on its decision. The repercussions of this ban becoming permanent would be that the people of Rwanda who earn an income on selling second hand clothes will be severely impacted, as they already are being hurt by the import tariff increases. Additionally, the export market in Rwanda will be affected by not being able to export to the U.S. duty-free, hurting the manufacturing industry that it is trying to uplift. Whilst this is not yet on the table for Zambia, it is a lesson on the impacts of attempting to stimulate manufacturing industries in the face of aid agreements. A comment was made during the Global Shapers event that perhaps a quota should be implemented for Zambia — if clothes are of poor quality then we should not allow them to come in, or a limit be placed on imports each year. Currently in South Africa, second hand clothing imports can incur duty costs and must have an import permit.
Taking the conversation back to sustainability, what can be done? What role can we as Africans—as Zambians, play? As discussed, the possibilities are endless when it comes to redefining the fashion and textile industry in our country. We are at an advantage due to the developments being made in creating reusable and eco-friendly clothing, factories that recycle cotton and more environmentally conscious consumption. Ms. Kapwepwe spoke on our Zambian heritage and how our forefathers created clothes from animal skin to make leather but without chemicals to treat it, as well as tree bark and raffia leaves — all of which are considerably regenerative sources.
As we look to having the Zambian textile industry reopened, such ideas can be implemented, putting us forward as the benchmark for sustainable practices. As consumers, simple solutions such as not being wasteful shoppers, salaula and repurposing our old clothes instead of dumping them into landfills where they will take years to decompose are a great start. A great example of an initiative to encourage clothes recycling is through a company called reGAIN. ReGain works with fast-fashion retailers such as Boohoo to reward consumers with shopping reward points for donating clothes into reGAIN recycle bins.
The future of the fashion industry lies with us as Africans, just as much as it does with the Western countries, and it is up to us to be the change we want to see.
*****Note from the editor: this article was originally published on Medium**
Featured image | Nilay Sozbir | Unsplash
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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