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Vogue Traders: Ethical Fashion in Africa

How can tracing the supply chains of fashion items aid development in Africa?
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While fashion is not an obvious field of development policy, there is a growing belief that the “ethical fashion” movement could make a significant contribution to the lives of those in need of fair employment in African countries.

What's ethical fashion?

Ethical fashion” is a term used to describe the design, production, retail and purchasing of items. It covers a range of issues such as pay and working conditions, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment and animal welfare. In the contemporary global economy, materials and labour can be purchased globally, wherever costs are lowest, with less regard for other considerations. More industrialised methods of cotton growing have meant fabrics are produced quickly, cheaply and in big quantities. All of this has made shopping cheaper for the consumer and has allowed clothes to become much more disposable.

The ethical fashion movement aims to change this. Its growing popularity demonstrates growing consumer awareness of how clothes are produced. And ethical suppliers such as SOKO, Mantis World and ASOS Africa are satisfying shoppers’ desire for better ethics. These retailers offer transparency, traceability, personal contact with their staff and guaranteed good work practices and conditions in countries such as Malawi and Tanzania. 

The newly-set up Africa Fashion Guide shows that there are plenty of brands out there that fit in to each of these categories, especially as the African fashion industry has taken off in Nigeria, East Africa, Ghana and globally amongst diaspora and fans of African style alike.

The Ethical Fashion Forum, based in London, is sure that fashion can bring about positive change. It proudly describes the role the sector is playing in employment across the continent. However, what Africa has offered the global fashion industry is predominantly cotton in its raw form. And this has resulted in serious problems for development.  

Dangerous trends

Eliza Anyangwe, a former cotton officer for Pesticide Action Network, described how many farmers, encouraged to dedicate their cotton growing to external markets, are sold hazardous pesticides to ensure higher yields. She went on to add, “Farmers in Benin work in the cotton fields without any protective clothing or safety equipment, unaware of the dangers posed by using these toxic and highly hazardous pesticides.”

This is largely because the safety instructions are written in English. Considering most of the farmers who are educated will speak and read French, they may overlook warning labels.

The director of the Environmental Justice Campaign has said, “the pesticides are applied in fields where illiteracy is high and safety awareness is low, putting both the environment and lives at risk”. This frequently causes sickness amongst farmers and their families, particularly with barrels of fertiliser sometimes stored in homes and used to store water once they’re empty.

A season for change?

Anyangwe has worked with farmers to help them understand the best practice for using these fertilisers, and supplied safety equipment. However, she argues “It is the responsibility of the governments to regulate the selling of these pesticides to ensure farmers are not putting themselves and their families at risk.”  

Additionally, she explains, traders ought to dictate the price of cotton themselves. The lack of information about the market leaves farmers at the mercy of the buyer and means that they cannot sell at competitive rates. Anyangwe assures us that this is changing slowly. For example, some production lines in Uganda and Tanzania are beginning to process their own cotton from its raw form into thread.

Vertical supply chains are a central tenet of ethical fashion. As the leading ethical clothing supplier Mantis World has achieved through a partnership in Tanzania, conducting each process of the raw material, organic cotton, on one site, under one roof. Traditionally, the benefits of a vertical integration model can be increased efficiency and cutting out middle men. However, a vertical model has the advantage of keeping environmental costs down and can have social benefits as well. In the case of companies such as SOKO, which export clothes made by women in Kenya, the particular social needs of staff are at the heart of their ambitions to be sustainable and ethical.  

Transparent gains

The key benefit of turning to ethical retailers rather than mainstream retailers is their transparency. If consumers can trace and understand every step of the production process, they can play a part in ensuring that harmful pesticides, poor working conditions or child labour are not involved. With practices such as those at Mantis World and SOKO, it is possible to know what has taken place during the production of clothing and see some of the effects this work has, particularly on the lives of women.  And with a growing range of ethical brands aiming to be better employers and use cleaner, organic cotton, it is becoming easier for fashion lovers to shop a bit more ethically.

This article was updated on 9/1/2012. Eliza Anyangwe was described as a representative of PAN. She no longer works for the organisation. This has been corrected.

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