Reduce, reuse, recycle.
This phrase has been a hallmark of the climate change movement that started in the early 2000s. We don’t hear it as much anymore, but it encompasses everything we should be doing to help curb the destruction of our natural environment, especially when it comes to the fashion industry. In 2018, according to a report by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the industry was responsible for about 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, or 4%of the global total.
Reduce the number of garments that are created to just end up in landfills, reuse pieces that we find second-hand whether it be thrifted or vintage and recycle the fabric that otherwise would end up in landfills with the rest of the trash polluting our planet. And yet, sustainability hasn’t had quite the impact that some thought it would.
It started small, with a few brands attempting to make a statement or trying to follow pop culture trends, but over time the fashion industry decided to confront their detrimental effect on the environment.
Sustainability looks different to every designer. Rag & Bone started a denim recycling program for its jeans and Stella McCartney relies on ethically sourced and organic fabrics for its collections while some dedicated designers use deadstock materials and even trash to create their apparel. American designer Daniel Silverstein has spearheaded a few different projects that were solely built with what he likes to call “pre-consumer, post-production waste.” Silverstein, as well as a few other designers, literally take the industry leftovers and create something new, giving new life to what was once deemed as trash.
The rising popularity of thrift and vintage shopping also shows consumers’ efforts to turn the old into the new – someone’s old T-shirt or jeans can be a completely new product to you – making the argument that the potential sustainability of a piece should not just be considered at the end of the production process, but at the very beginning.
Luxury and high-end brands have the ability to slow down their production and focus on the deliberate quality and craftsmanship that make them such coveted brands. But the use of the best cottons and leathers only mean so much if you can talk about how these materials were sourced, the manufacturing process, and the longevity of the garment once it is created. The impact at the start is essential to fashion sustainability, just as the reexamination of the materials and the garments at the end.
When it comes to African fashion, it may take less effort to create responsibly made garments, thanks to the age-old traditions and techniques that inherently encourage a sustainable approach but the effort is no less deliberate. African designers create with intention, with a transparency that is built into their processes – local artisans hand-make shoes, bags and accessories from raw materials sourced from the natural world across the continent – and with a backstory that tells the consumer about the items they wear and where they come from.
That is because more and more people increasingly care about where their food, their beauty products and their clothing originate from, along with a story, an explanation of how these pieces fit into their lifestyle and preferences. Young people of today, also known as Gen Z, are very vocal about their values and beliefs, and are willing to make their displeasure known when brands and organizations are not up to their standards. The idea of knowing where exactly the cotton was grown to make your blouse, or the specific weaver who used their hands to bring life to a dress speaks to not only sustainability and transparency, but trust and loyalty. And making consumers feel involved with the production process will feel more collaborative, like they are partners who are doing just as much to save the environment as these fashion brands are.
In his recent sportswear line with Adidas, South African designer Rich Mnisi partnered with Parley Ocean Plastic to create pieces made partly from recycled materials, as one of the sports brand’s efforts to help end plastic waste. For his AW22 collection, which was shown at Paris Fashion Week in March, Nigerian designer Kenneth Ize spent time in New York searching thrift stores for vintage finds. Driven by the fact that Western countries ship their unwanted clothing to Africa, plenty of which end up unused, Ize’s solution to the problem was to incorporate vintage clothing into his collection. On the runway, upcycled denim and leather pants were paired with the designer’s signature aso oke jackets.
Mnisi and Ize’s use of recycled materials is nowhere revolutionary for the industry or African fashion, but it shows how the focus on recycling and sustainability can also be the basis for many African designers who wish to pay homage to their home countries.
For some designers, it means placing a heavy emphasis on craftsmanship and dedication of African traditions. Shekudo, a women’s shoes and accessories brand, produces all of its items in Nigeria with the goal of shining a spotlight on the local artisans and how their skills contribute to its contemporary aesthetic, fashioned from aso oke weaves and locally sourced leather, and making sure that every material is traceable back to those artisans and the African continent.
“The reason I use weaves is because it is sustainable,” Shekudo’s founder and creative director Akudo Iheakanwa says to The Folklore. “Weaving here is a wonderful practice. It has reduced drastically over the years but we have those that are still doing it and it can be made in abundance.”
The homegrown aspect is also an important factor for Iheakanwa. Of woven fabrics she employs, she says, “the quality, compared with other things, is much higher. It’s a very intricate craft and it’s done very well by those who do it. I love that it’s local, that it’s sustainable and that it’s something I can continuously return to. That’s why I’ll continue to use our local fabrics as much as I can.”
But the issue with incorporating sustainability into fashion design and manufacturing might still lie in the fact it is slow and it isn’t cheap. Consumers today are used to getting their products quickly and at a small cost. Even with pollution and climate change concerns on the front page, many people still shop at retailers such as SHEIN and Forever 21 who promote fast fashion; cheap sheer dresses that seem to be exactly on trend still beat out the $500 handcrafted pieces that showcase years of skill and craft.
And that doesn’t even take into account people’s aversion to thrifting. Even if it’s dirt cheap, clothes still need to appear clean or brand new and untouched. If only we could remember how cyclical fashion trends really are and see the value in recycled and deadstock fashion design as well as thrifted and vintage clothing.
Not all luxury brands embrace sustainability when they have the means to do so, and not every African fashion brand champions their connection to the natural world. There are too many questions that, if asked, could explain why sustainability’s mantra of reduce, reuse and recycle isn’t widely applied.
Do people not care as much about the environment as we think they do? Is being sustainable too expensive for consumers? Is it just another trend that will soon die out? Time will tell.