Earlier this month the Ethical Fashion Forum held a seminar and marketplace in London on why Africa is becoming increasingly important in the apparel industry. According to EFF, in Kenya alone 30,000 people are employed in the apparel sector and for each of these jobs, another five are generated. As fashion is labour generated and requires limited capital input to fund, traditional skills such as hand-weaving, hand-embroidering, printing and tailoring offer a high premium.
Trade in fashion products gives important opportunities to small impoverished communities in Africa. The rising demand for sustainable sourcing, coupled with recycling and organic cotton has created a user supply demand for high-quality fashion from Africa which has boosted the trade. In the slums of Korogocho, Nairobi, Kenya, fashion for the developed world has driven the premium for a handful of female artisans. In Korogocho 45 percent of the population are in their youth, many who are forced to stay impoverished because they are illiterate and unemployed as a result. Some adolescents only survive by turning to crime.
The handicraft initiative Bega kwa Bega which means “Shoulder to Shoulder” has helped many women from the slums work their way out of poverty. BKB have trained women from the slums of Korogocho and Mukura, which has been made a dumping ground for rubbish, to make handbags, scarves and jewellery. Many of the women have families to bring up and are also single parents caring for their elders. Through loans they have also been able to expand their initiative to cake making during off peak seasons and purchase more sewing machines to employ more women. Ignatius helps run BKB and he sees how giving women in the community employment has helped the economy of Kenya overall. “We export our crafts to Italy, Japan, Canada, [and] America where there are fair trade buyers. Our goal is to reach [as many] people as possible.”
Similar to Kenya, Zambia’s economy has grown steadily since 2003 from foreign investments. It relies heavily on mining, construction and the service sectors, according to the World Trade Organization’s trade policy review for Zambia this year. Since 2004, Zambia has been able to export directly to the US under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, cutting out all third countries, and ensuring the maximum premium is directed back to Zambia. To encourage the industry, the government have also reduced the import duty on imported raw materials for aid of manufacturing clothing and accessories.
Currently, Zambia’s apparel industry only contributes between 10 and 11 percent of gross domestic product. Zambia’s increasing dependency on copper mining, which accounts for 75 percent of Zambia’s total exports, has eroded any progress on diversity in the Zambian economy. The trade policy review also stressed the importance of reducing dependence on such natural resources, stating textile and clothing as an alternative option.
Fairtrade shops in the UK reflected the rising demand and reported a surprising increase in sales over the last month, while the Fairtrade Foundation announced a 22 percent increase in global Fair trade sales despite the financial crisis, in 2008. Global sales of Fairtrade certified cotton products doubled to 94 percent. The good news for the Fairtrade Foundation comes as fair trade sales grew by over 50 percent in seven countries, which include Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The UK and the US are still the strongest consumers of fair trade products as sales increased in the UK by 43 percent and the US experienced an increase of 10 percent.
The increase in sales has opened up doors for a number of new markets in places such as eastern Asia and South Africa. Although cotton is only the fifth most popular Fair trade product behind coffee, bananas, tea and sugar, the increase in sales proves awareness of fair trade fashion has risen.
The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs in the UK are also getting behind fair trade, as they have introduced a product roadmap called the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan in order to monitor the impact of clothing on the environment. Their aim is to “collaborate with a wide range of stakeholders” such as Arcadia Group which includes high street stores Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins, “to develop practical and effective actions to address the environmental and social impacts arising across the clothing life cycle”. SCAP’s plans include encouraging high street retailers to move towards more organic and Fair trade clothing production.
Their finding include using alternative pesticide-free fabrics made from jute, banana and pineapple, but also investing in handloom weaving cooperatives which will help communities in developing countries build a fashion-producing infrastructure.
Despite the trade apparel can generate, five percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic product is still lost every year due to shrinking trade income, a figure which has been known to supersede the total aid and debt flow to the region.
People Tree, the Fairtrade certified fashion label, say statistics show that only one percent of fair trade cotton accounts for all the cotton sold in the UK, but there was a 99 percent increase in Fairtrade cotton sales last year. Considering that all togethSer 30 million tonnes of natural fibres are farmed every year, and only 2.5 percent of the world’s arable farmland is used to grow cotton, fair trade and ethical fashion still has a long way to go. With the Fairtrade Foundations spending 30.4 percent of their total expenditure on public education and awareness however, fair trade may not have to wait for very long in order to become a staple diet of everyday life.