Trade not aid – sustainable fashion sourcing in Africa

As host to the UN Climate Conference, Africa has recently attracted the attention of political commentators with a number of highly acclaimed, ecological beacon projects. Economic editors are much exercised by the toll-free access to the US market which is guaranteed by the AGOA agreement (African Growth and Opportunity Act) . Demographic problems are unknown, the population is growing and, with it, the national economy and the labour markets. In defiance of all the smouldering crises that continue to persist, the African continent is building a new vision of its future. CR expert Alex Vogt asks what this development means for the textile sector and, in particular, for sustainable fashion.

Through the news items emerging from the UN Climate Conference in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, an astonished international audience has now received insights into the extent to which the exemplary and radically sustainable transformations in the land of King Mohammed VI have already become a reality. Solar panels make it possible to ensure decentralised provision of ecologically generated electricity in country areas. The solar complex in Ouarzazate is planned as the largest power plant in the world that is fuelled by the heat of the sun and is set to provide 1.2 million people with clean energy. And there are four further units to follow. Public transport is also set to be electrified, stage by stage. At the same time, the Gulf States in the north east of Africa have begun a race to see who can come up with the most exciting green idea in the region: ideas range from cities in the desert that are self-sufficient in energy to CO2-neutral football world championships.

The African growth scenario
In a CPO study entitled ‘The global sourcing map – balancing cost, compliance, and capacity’, the Apparel, Fashion and Luxury Team at Business Consultants McKinsey, were already asking, some three years ago, whether Sub-Saharan Africa is likely to gain substantially in importance as far as sourcing is concerned. Over three quarters of participating managers were of the opinion that this would definitely or probably be the case. And some of the major fashion-wear producers are already active in Africa today. Numbering alongside the European and North American brands such as H&M, Inditex, PVH and VF Corp. are some of the big Asian and, particularly, Chinese companies like Li & Fung, together with Indian and Turkish producers.

The results of the survey caused the consultancy firm to conduct their own study in the region, which confirmed the findings, according to which China and Bangladesh are indeed maintaining their leading positions, but other regions are also going to be able to record significant growth. So, too, will Africa, even if it is still only at a very low level: according to McKinsey, the CPOs predict a tripling of their share of the sourcing market, from less than one to around three percent. Above all, it is, in this context, increasing wage and operating costs that are adduced as the drivers of this migration. And since the procurement officers polled for the said study represent, themselves, purchasing volumes of around 70 billion US dollars, it is not unreasonable to predict a dynamic picture of growth for the African textile market, in spite of the percentually low overall share.

Can Africa also be green?
But what does the picture look like as far as the sustainable segment is concerned? Can Africa also be a serious contender in this sourcing market? Whenever eco-fashion and Africa are mentioned in the same sentence, then the next one almost always contains the word ‘cotton’. For projects like Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), Fairtrade, Textile Exchange, Remei and others have contributed to African cotton enjoying an excellent reputation in the ‘preferred fibres market’. This market covers non-conventional approaches to the growing and trading of fibres that are nevertheless produced with an added ecological or social value. It now amounts to almost nine percent of the entire cotton market. The fair-trade project in Cameroon, Senegal, Burkino Faso and Mali alone is securing the livelihood of several thousands of small farmers who, last year, produced some 15 billion tonnes of cotton. Even this successful figure still seems relatively small when compared to the more than 340 billion tonnes of CmiA cotton (‘Cotton Made in Africa’) produced in 2015.

Yet over 90 percent of the cotton produced in southern and eastern Africa today is exported to be further processed on other continents. There is a notion around that, whilst Africa is a region for growing sustainable fibres, it lacks adequate production sites. But even in this respect, we are seeing some amazing developments: in the database of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the world’s most respected standard for ecologically and socially acceptable production, there are no less than 38 certified production sites in seven African countries, covering almost all stages of production and pretty much every product group.

Sourcing potential for large-scale and small-scale trade
This means that the continent is doing all the right things to become a firm component in the sourcing strategy of fashion-wear companies of all sizes, and thus has a realistic chance of playing the sustainability card as a distinguishing USP against the South and East-Asian regions of production. Africa’s great advantage is that, because the structures are still under construction in many areas, the ecological and social dimension can be taken into consideration at the very beginning of any cooperative venture and does not have to be grafted onto the existing set-up later on and implemented with considerable effort and cost.

As an example, the website of the Africa Fashion Guide presents no shortage of opportunities for sourcing sustainable fashion wear at grass-roots and intermediary level. Asos, for instance, has found a partner in the SOKO Kenya Community Trust, created in 2014, which guarantees fair and secure production and with whom the retailer is now working under the label ‘Made in Kenya’. The collaboration is distinguished by its transparency and its commitment to high levels of social responsibility.

Ethiopia has the general feel of being the country of the moment. Many large fashion corporations and retailers, including H&M, Primark and Tesco, have discovered this country for themselves as a place to locate production. And Messe Frankfurt have recently announced that they will, from next year, be launching a partnership with the Africa Sourcing & Fashion Week in Addis Ababa. With Texworld, Apparel Sourcing and Texprocess they will be bringing to this East African country their platforms for contract manufacturing and the textile industry.

Every chance of a green African success story
For Africa, the status quo as regards positioning in the international textile sourcing market is clear: the continent is at the beginning of a story of economic growth and success. What is needed now is to make sure that the right course is set, so that not only transnational corporations benefit from it, but that the local populations and national economies do so, too, and that apparel production in Africa really does become a success story.

There are a number of reasons for believing that sustainable fashion sourcing constitutes a real option for Africa in the future. For decades, there has been plenty of organically grown expertise in fashion wear as well as in ecological and social matters – be it in Egypt with the Sekem Cooperative, or in Tanzania, where it has proved possible to create local, completely sustainable production chains with biodynamic cotton from Remei AG and from GOTS and SA8000-certified vertical producer Sunflag. Also, the Textile Exchange will be organising a ten-day excursion to South Africa, which will focus on the potential for sustainable sourcing on the continent.

It remains to be seen, whether the shift in opinion, as it was presented in the media at the time of the UN Conference in Marrakesh, is just a short-term flash in the pan or a genuine and sustainable enthusiasm for a green future for Africa. In an age of real-time media reaction, changes of image are achieved quickly. It is now the responsibility of the people involved, the international fashion-wear buyers and local producers to join forces in building up the relevant structures for an ecological transformation alongside Africa’s impending economic boom. At all events, the continent definitely has the potential required.

Alex Vogt

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