Models on the catwalk at the African Fashion International fashion show in Cape Town. Picture: Phando Jikelo.African News Agency (ANA)
Models on the catwalk at the African Fashion International fashion show in Cape Town. Picture: Phando Jikelo.African News Agency (ANA)

Designing Africa’s sustainable future

By Precious Moloi-Motsepe Time of article published Mar 28, 2020

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Many of us can relate to being given our older sibling’s hand-me-down uniforms and clothing, which were sometimes bought a size too big and taken in at the seams so they could stay in the family rotation just a little bit longer.

Despite the future of the environment directly affecting the livelihoods of young people, Statistic SA has found that millennials (those younger than 40) are the least likely to recycle.

Arguably, this could be because they have grown up in a different time. While older generations are likely to still have clothing dating back 20 years in their closet, younger people have been bombarded with fast fashion that was never meant to last.

International climate change activists are encouraging people and businesses to buy less, produce less, travel less and recycle more.

In an African context, this is difficult advice to adhere to, considering that one in three people in Africa live in extreme poverty, and local value-added production is yet to compete with global players.

Over the next decade, our efforts to grow a prosperous African middle class will come from investments and job creation in local manufacturing and innovation.

Made-in-Africa clothing is still a hotly debated issue. Locally produced clothing reduces costs because most raw materials are sourced from the continent and it creates a wealth of opportunity throughout the value chain.

Yet relatively high minimum wages, particularly in the South African clothing manufacturing industry, force producers to increase the cost per garment, compelling local brands to compete in the luxury market on pricing.

Economics tells us that when something is scarce, such as locally and ethically made clothing, the price and demand for that product is meant to be high. But what we see in the African clothing market is that ethically sourced and produced clothing cannot override our price-conscious consumerism and it isn’t enough to propel local demand.

When something is cheap and easily accessible, we’re more likely to buy it than to seek out an item that is more expensive.

Shifting our mindset away from imported fast fashion and to “Made in Africa” has a lot to do with what we value and many factors have come into play to make us value international brands more than the art of our fellow African designers.

Our perceptions of Italian and French artisanship being superior to the artisanal skills of African men and women was sold to us through centuries of country and industry branding. In reality, it has been found that some of our designer labels that proclaim “made in Italy” are made by Chinese and North African immigrants living in Italian cities. They are exploited as cheap labour because of their residency status. It’s in these cases that we should question exactly what these “made in” labels mean.

Besides its unquestioned perception of quality, imported clothing has flourished in the informal sector for years as well. It’s estimated that the second-hand clothing industry in East Africa alone supports the livelihoods of 1.4 million people. The only problem with this influx of clothing is that instead of creating opportunities through making our own, we are re-selling theirs.

While some of the items shipped to Africa can be considered vintage, with a long lifespan, a majority are discards.

Fast fashion has allowed us all to own the latest style trends and has arguably reduced barriers and discrimination that was faced by those who could not afford fashionable items before. While we know it’s wrong to judge a book by its cover, clothing is still a profound, silent expression of who we are and what we represent.

In recent years, we are beginning to witness the rise of minimalist fashion. In minimalism, it’s less about the “made in” heritage and more about the values a brand stands for, such as embracing inclusivity within their organisations and environmental sustainability.

In South Africa especially, this gives us an opportunity. We are able to leverage Africa’s resources of cotton, mohair and wool, and we can flaunt our Constitution for the creation of decent jobs.

The production of our own garments will drive innovation, the design will speak to our heritage - through symbols, patterns and textures that have been lost since imports flooded our local retail market.

Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe.

What we must consider is how to equip young people with pride in their African identity, which is vital if we hope to unleash their creativity and shape Africa’s unique contributions.

Afri ca’s heritage is our greatest source of wealth - and young people’s only guaranteed inheritance.

When we consider the concept of sustainability in Africa, we should equally consider the education we give our children and its impact on cultural preservation and social evolution.

For example, Dr Esther Mahlangu propelled Ndebele wall painting and beadwork to international acclaim. Through her school she is sharing her wealth of knowledge, which she learnt from her mother and grandmother, with young people who will pass that knowledge over to the generations that come after them.

Dr Mahlangu is igniting a domino effect that is growing our local appetite for art and other products that reflect our identity.

As more young people embrace these knowledge systems, and it becomes widely accessible, we will become accustomed to seeing our heritage represented in our clothing, art and other merchandise that we buy.

African lifestyles, particularly among our youth, have already transformed.

South African Ndebele artist, Dr. Esther Mahlangu. Picture: Jacques Naude/African News Agency(ANA)

What we need now is an update to our ideologies of value. If we value longevity, items that we can pass on to our children, then we should value the progress of Africa’s creativity.

If we value our cultural richness, then we should value the local capacity to create clothing that expresses who we are as African people.

Our shared goal is to enhance Africa’s voice and contributions to the world. In Africa, we don’t necessarily have to make decisions solely because of environmental impact, because when we value the talents and growth of our fellow man and woman, our actions can spur a sustainable economy.

* Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe is founder and chairperson of African Fashion International.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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