African fashion has a rich heritage and a style that sets it apart from the rest of the world’s textiles. However, many Africans are choosing not to wear their own brands, instead opting for more western designs and garments created outside the continent.
We should all be free to dress how we want, and it’s wonderful to be inspired by fashion from all around the globe. However, the impact of this shift has had negative effects on the African fashion industry. This article will take a look at some of the reasons why Africans aren’t buying their native brands, and some of the consequences of this change.
The Changing Face of Fashion
These days, fashion is fast, cheap and transient. Increasingly, high street brands all around the world are choosing to deliver quantity over quality, to fill the need for newness that was born out of consumerism. Clothes made from synthetic fibres are cheaper and quicker to mass produce, which means brands are able to keep up with the demands of the consumer who wants to keep up with the pressures of fast fashion.
Not only does this mean that it’s harder to find durable clothing made from natural fibres, but it has also generated a dramatic increase in the availability of used clothing - some of which finds its way into second hand shops; a large amount, though, is sent to landfills. According to the World Wear Project, textiles make up 5% of the world’s landfills, and this number is on the rise.
As well as the risk it poses to the planet, the overabundance of second hand clothing is also damaging to the textile industries of less wealthy nations, such as those in East Africa. There is a vibrant history of textiles in this region, but, with the availability of cheap, used clothes that have been sold on from western countries, the once thriving African fashion economy is struggling.
Fewer and fewer Africans are wearing clothes designed and made in their native countries, instead opting for imports of western offcuts.
A Brief History of African Fashion
Some of the first fabrics every created were made in Africa, crafted using an ancient method to create cloth from bark.
The distinct colours and patterns that many will associate with African fashion have a deep heritage, much like the colourful and rich history of the continent itself. Original trade routes with the Netherlands brought quality Dutch wax cotton to the western coast in the mid 19th Century. At the turn of the 20th Century, these fabrics had made their way across the continent, and the famous Ankara prints of bright colours and bold statement patterns were adapted and evolved into the clothing that is now synonymous with Africa. Each colour and pattern was designed to represent a different value and the tribes which carried them. Variations of African fashion, as with all areas of the world, became an indicator of status, but also of mood, personality and as a way to communicate with one another.
Alongside the traditional garments, such as the jalabiya in the north east, the djellaba in the north west,
the grand boubou in the west and the kanzu and kanga in the east, the second half of the 20th century saw African fashion become increasingly westernised.
What Are the Effects of Used Clothing in Africa?
Earlier this year, and covered heavily by the media, President Kagame refused to allow imports of used clothing into the country. President Trump retaliated by imposing tariffs on Rwandan clothes imported into the US. Kagame’s decision reflects a wider issue with the state of African fashion, and the impact that cheap imports of secondhand garments from countries like the US has on the nation.
Imported clothing has a negative effect on Africa’s economy. Used clothes usually enter the African market through charitable donations. Organisations like Oxfam and the Salvation Army sell clothes on to African countries (although recent statistics say that only 20% of donated clothes actually find their way into new locations - more on this in a moment). Since the late 1970s, textile-related jobs have been on a steady decline. In Ghana, the number of people employed in the textile industry has fallen from 25,000 to just 5,000 in 2015. Domestic textile production is being smothered by the steady stream of cheap, readily available used clothing that is flooding the market from western imports.
It’s not wise to romanticise about the economics; after all, African people need to be clothed, and why should they spend a fortune buying the garments from their domestic producers when they can find cheaper alternatives in second hand goods? However, the impact isn’t just on Africa’s finances: the effects of fast fashion are damaging to the environment, and that affects the whole planet. First of all, the energy required to produce and ship the ongoing stream of garments means more global warming and pollution. Secondly, the plastics use in cheap fabrics such as polyester have led to water pollution which is damage the entire ocean ecosystem. On top of this, many used clothes and textile waste ends up, not in African shops, but in landfills. Around 80% of donated clothing in the US is thrown away, causing further damage to the environment.
Classic African fashion tends to be crafted from natural cottons and silks, which are less damaging to the environment and are biodegradable, although no textile is without its own environmental footprint. Unlike fast fashion, quality clothing made in the continent is designed for comfort, style and durability. A high quality garment made from wax cotton could last a lifetime, and will never go out of fashion. If Africans were able and willing to make an investment in their clothing, and increase their spending on African brands, the positive effects would go much deeper than just economics.
Africans don’t wear their own fashion brands because it is cheaper to buy used clothing imports, and because the western influence of fast fashion and the hunger for newness has touched all corners of the globe. To make a change to this wasteful system, the money needs to start talking, and the mindset of a consumerist culture needs to change to one that values lasting quality over convenience.
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2020 has been a memorable year for the fashion industry, from sustainable clothing to Covid-19. It’s a year when we’ve seen several consumer trends really gain momentum.
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