Fashioning Change in Africa

Fashioning Change in Africa

In May, I wrote an article for Treehugger about whether the fashion industry, with its current fixation on African-inspired prints, was empowering or imperialistic in its relationship with the continent. In the end, my conclusions were underwhelming when it came to the big names doing much to help advance development.

Little over a month later, there are positive signs that this may be changing. Some of the industry’s biggest names have teamed up with the United Nations through Fashion 4 Development (F4D), a platform dedicated to advancing the Millennium Development Goals in a new way. F4D is not about charity, but instead is laying the foundations for a strong manufacturing sector on the continent to produce fashion and apparel, a path they believe will contribute to poverty alleviation.

F4D initiatives are underway in Ghana, Nigeria and Botswana, where the organization is influencing the reduction of tariffs on threads and fabric, raising capital for new factories, training local artisans, and collaborating with established designers.

Manufacturing can be an important industry for development, just look at Asia for proof past and present. But unlike Taiwan 20 years ago or China today, this isn’t about manufacturing absolutely everything and cheaply. Instead, F4D is a vision for producing high quality fashions cost effectively in Africa, and in turn building a highly skilled workforce.

Many African countries are primed for the international fashion industry, having skilled textile artisans and a wealth of raw materials. According to Franca Sozzani, a partner with F4D and the editor-in-chief with Italian Vogue, capital, skill development, and access the right materials affordably, are what’s needed. She firmly believes that Africa can be well positioned to produce high quality garments at a profit.

Already dozens of brands and manufacturers, including Saks Fifth Avenue and Gilt Group have pledged their support, including plans to produce collections featuring items produced in Africa. Other projects include creating scholarships for African garment workers and a partnership with Scandinavia’s Sustainia consortium to launch a shop featuring African-made products.

It’s an exciting development. We’ve long been fans of brands like Oliberté, Dsenyo, !SYOU, and Modanik for blazing a trail, demonstrating that sourcing materials and manufacturing in Africa can lead to cost-effective and high quality pieces, while also making a real difference in people’s lives by creating opportunities for meaningful employment. It’s an exciting approach and one that we hope will be more than a passing fad if F4D is successful.

July 2, 2012