african dressmaker
african dressmaker

Africa has an opportunity to emerge as the world’s sustainable manufacturing hub

Luxury today has as much to do with environmental and social sustainability as it does with aesthetics and quality of materials. Kutay Saritosun, Eco-innovator and Director of Fashion Brands for Swiss-based bluesign®, a system that provides safer and more sustainable environments for people to work and live in, has an interesting view on the potential for Africa within the fashion industry.

Saritosun was one of over 100 thought leaders addressing the recent Rotary Africa Centennial event which had, among its focus areas, the issue of better sustainability in the textile industry, which he says has always been renowned for having a massive environmental footprint.  

A Rotarian himself, Saritosun hosted a panel discussion on sustainable textile development, which is particularly relevant as the organisation introduces its seventh area of focus: to support the environment.

Rotary has set up an Environmental Sustainability Rotarian Action Group and Saritosun has been appointed as his club’s environmental chairperson to coordinate and manage environmental projects on its behalf.

Speaking on the Centennial panel, Skander Negasi, CEO of Trade and Fairs Consulting, highlighted that African designers have always been sustainable. “They are sustainable by necessity because they have had to work with a lack of resources that Western designers and companies have not experienced – it leads to innovation, creativity and sustainability.”

For this reason, Africa has a unique opportunity to position itself as the world’s new, sustainable manufacturing hub, added Saritosun. However, he cautioned that the continent should learn lessons from other manufacturing centres across the world to ensure it does not fall into the trap of mass production for mainstream fashion, which is the opposite of luxury and sustainability.

“Now that production is moving into Africa, factories need to be set up in a sustainable way so that sustainability remains in our DNA, and that sustainability is the rising star in production and sourcing in modern African fashion,” said Saritosun.

Although Africa might not be the first place that pops to mind when one thinks about high-end fashion, Saritosun maintained that the continent already boasts exceptional elements of luxury due to its tradition of “everything being touched by hand”, from hand-stitched leather and hand embroidery to weaving.    

He was quick to point out that just because a garment or item comes from Africa, it should not be seen as less luxurious than luxury brands from elsewhere in the world. Negasi agreed, saying even if designers produced the best designs and quality, the image of Africa is still not where it needs to be.

Saritosun highlighted the richness of Africa’s diverse cultures and how this affects fashion, saying: “It affects textiles, the designs, and of course, you have locals producing local products. So, there is local artisanship, quality craftmanship and embellishment, which is what is in demand from a luxury perspective. What African designers are already doing is what luxury wants and what it needs.”

In addition to the wealth of artisanal talent in Africa, in the continent’s favour, adds Saritosun, is its rich material resources. “You’ve got local men and women doing all of this wonderful handcrafting, hand weaving and embroidery, and you’ve got the materials, the designs, this richness.”

To achieve the status of the world’s sustainable manufacturing hub and produce the most beautiful handmade luxury items sustainably, Africa needs to balance three pillars: economic development, positive environmental impact and positive social impact.  

Saritosun said this means going beyond environmental sustainability. It also requires a strong focus on socio-economic development and benefits for staff across the textile and clothing manufacturing value chain, which some in other manufacturing centres, have overlooked in the past.

Some ambitious African brands are already working hard to achieve this and are creating brands that capture these characteristics effectively.

One such designer is South African Sindiso Khumalo, a designer and fashion guru who is an excellent example of someone who has created a brand that leverages local skills and a local workforce in her business while still doing good for the environment. She is strongly influenced by African storytelling in her work, designing everything by hand with handmade textiles. 

Similarly, using such resources such as pineapple fibres instead of leather, and plants and herbs for dyes, textile companies, for example Studio One Eighty Nine in Ghana and in the United States, are producing goods that positively impact the environment and communities.  

Their goal is to promote African and African-inspired fashion, and they believe that increasing the market share of the fashion industry and encouraging traditional techniques will lead to social change.

Meanwhile, Anyango Mpinga, a sustainable textile expert in Kenya, has dedicated her life as a designer and activist to producing sustainable textiles and unique fashion that visually voices the African culture.

Products like those produced by Mpinga are viewed positively by international industry players and reflect the growth opportunities of which Saritosun speaks.

Mpinga takes it a step further by donating all profits from her organisation, “Free as a Human”, to young female survivors of human trafficking.

These brands deliver a fierce message of doing good for the environment and the people. 

“Sustainability is no longer going to be a nice to have for brands in the future,” said Saritosun.  “Businesses today are building their brands around sustainability, sustainable materials and working with sustainable manufacturers.”

According to Saritosun, the key to seizing this growth opportunity for Africa is to “capture the positive social and environmental impact by becoming a new, sustainable, luxury manufacturing hub”.

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