Jessica Carvalho analyses just what sustainability has come to mean to African fashion and designers, and how their efforts are being hindered by the US and Europe.

Out with the old, in with the new. A statement that, apart from being a line from what is arguably the best song to come out of the High School Musical films, is a mantra for rebirth. The phrase gains popularity particularly at the end of the year, a motto that prompts us to do away with what no longer serves us and make way for all things which do.

As innocent as those eight words may appear, they can easily trigger a chain of environmentally negative occurrences, particularly when the “old” lies beyond our wardrobe doors.

A wardrobe purge isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, especially if those clothes are guaranteed to gain new purpose (and the purge isn’t an excuse for overconsumption of fast fashion), however it’s hard to know the fate of these bags of clothes the second they leave our hands. With luck, donated clothing arrives at donation points or recycling centres ready to either be sold to a new owner or be repurposed. Charity shops are the typical end point we envision for our donated clothes; however, this is only the truth for half of the clothes we donate, the supply so much more higher than the demand that these garments often follow a different path.

As estimated by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), half of donated clothes do end up in a new home, but the rest ends up being sold abroad for profit – or worse, incinerated or discarded in a landfill.

The US and the UK have made second-hand clothing into a market of its own, both countries being the world’s biggest clothing exporters. Items which don’t make it to the shop floor are exported, where their value increases exponentially, or they suffer a bleaker fate, their resting place being a landfill somewhere in the African continent.

Naturally, this comes with unimaginable environmental effects, especially when fast fashion is thrown into the mix: the clothes purchased are suddenly out of style, they are donated, arrive in a developing country and the surplus that isn’t resold or repurposed is thrown away. Ghana, which receives up to 15 million used items from developed countries, is home to a growing landfill, at least 60% of it composed of unwanted clothes.

Sadly, this is becoming a reality in many African countries, tonnes of clothes dumped into the continent to face a slow, environmentally harmful decomposition or incineration, small scale and large scale.

Still in Ghana, donated clothes may meet a happier ending by finding their way to one of the many street markets, though the amount is usually scarce. Sweat, stains and holes are enough to render a garment unsaleable, and importers desperate. The situation throws a punch at yet another pillar of sustainability; importers rely heavily on the donated clothes arriving in the country, and when those are in bad condition, their profit takes a major hit.

As people and the environment are affected by the tonnes of donated clothes, the fashion industry also begins to feel its effects. An increase in poor quality clothing means only a very small portion is put up for sale, and competition is fierce.

This gives way to a second issue, and that is the squashed efforts of African designers trying to make fashion more sustainable within the continent. Ahluwalia Studio, a brand created by Indian-Nigerian designer Priya Ahluwalia, aims to tackle the issue with clothes ending up at landfills; after a trip to Laos, Nigeria, the designer got to see the devastating effects of unsaleable donations up close.

Drawing inspiration from this, she went on to release her own Spring/Summer collection in 2019, all pieces created using second-hand clothing. As the youngest continent of the planet (population-wise), Africa is home to plenty of brilliant minds, now turning to bark cloth, beadwork, and traditional Berber weaving to clear the continent’s reputation as a dump for second-hand clothing. Bark cloth in particular is due to make waves in the fashion industry, a rather versatile material that was considered extremely special in Uganda and was used to make royal garments.

The Black Lives Matter protests have also shone a light on sustainable black fashion brands, most of which have lacked recognition until just last year.

African fashion designers are currently reshaping sustainable fashion by supporting two forms of considerate production; ethical garment production is highly encouraged, putting artisanal products centre stage and, therefore, supporting entire communities.

Furthermore, African brands play on the myriad of cultures of the continent to create truly unique garments from upcycled materials, and even the dyeing of fabric is done using natural dyes. Both actively counteract the damage done to the environment by clothing in landfills, all whilst allowing African creatives to make a mark in the fashion industry on a global scale.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway here isn’t to miraculously find a solution to the unsaleable clothes in African landfills, or to reverse the effects of their incineration (though I must say that can also be done on a smaller scale!). Change, though needed immediately, doesn’t always need to occur in big waves to have the most long-lasting impact. In fact, we can all do our own, little part to lessen the amount of clothes arriving into the continent: avoid overconsumption and playing into fast fashion trends, wear our clothes for as long as possible, and even look into upcycling or repairing garments to lengthen their lifespan.

Perhaps a naïve belief of mine, but change must start somewhere, and it doesn’t matter if it’s small, as long as it starts – everything we do now will have a direct effect on the rest of our lives, so if not for the rest of us, make change for the sake of your own future.

To read more of Jessica’s work, follow her Instagram @whatjesstypes.

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