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Sustainable fashion sourcing in Africa

January 2018

In November 2016 at the UN Climate Conference in Bab Ighli, close to the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, an astonished international audience 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 rural 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 Cups.

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 four 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 fashionwear producers are already active in Africa today. Alongside the European and North American brands such as H&M, Inditex, PVH and VF Corp. the list also includes 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 in the year before last, 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. In this context, increasing wages and operating costs are cited as the drivers of this migration. And since the procurement officers polled for the said study represent purchasing volumes of around 70 billion US dollars themselves, it is not unreasonable to predict a dynamic picture of growth for the African textile market, despite the low percentage of the 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 word ‘cotton’ usually always follows soon after. After all, 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’, the market of non-conventional fibres that are nevertheless produced and traded with an added ecological or social value – which meanwhile amounts to approximately 47 percent of the entire cotton market. In the four countries of Cameroon, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali, the Fairtrade projects alone are securing the livelihood of several thousands of small farmers and produced around 15,000 megatonnes (mt) of cotton in 2015; but even this successful figure still seems relatively small when compared to the more than 320,000 mt of CmiA cotton produced in 2016 – which is equal to a third of the continent’s total cotton production.

Yet around 85 percent of the cotton produced in southern and eastern Africa today is exported to be further processed on other continents. There is a notion 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 32 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 fashionwear 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 fashionwear 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 last year, Messe Frankfurt announced that from 2017 they would be launching a partnership with Africa Sourcing & Fashion Week (ASFW) in Addis Ababa and bringing their pooled expertise in sourcing and the textile industry to the East African country with Texworld, Apparel Sourcing and Texprocess. The seventh Africa Sourcing & Fashion Week took place from 3-6 October 2017 and the Messe Frankurt’s platform trio was integrated for the first time. Approximately 200 international exhibitors from 27 countries were showcased at the ASFW in Addis Ababa, which is primarily aimed at multinational operating companies from Europe and North America.

For Messe Frankfurt, one of the world’s leading trade fair organisers, the growth story on the continent of Africa, clearly a trendsetting and therefore strategically important continent for the textile business, is by no means complete. The Texpertise Network, a round-up of all Messe Frankfurt’s events with a textile focus, already includes 50 events in 16 locations, at which more than 22,000 exhibitors attract over 520,000 professional visitors. And in the coming years, further events will be added: Messe Frankfurt recently announced that with Source Africa and ATF, their South African subsidiary had acquired two of Africa’s biggest textile, clothing and shoe fairs. And in the north-west of the continent – which is where we come full circle to the climate conference in Bab Ighli – Messe Frankfurt will be cooperating with the organiser of the two leading Moroccan fashion trade fairs, Maroc in Mode and Maroc Sourcing, the AMITH (Association Marocaine des Industries du Textile et de l’Habillement). Both trade fair platforms are attracting increasing attention due to their focus on the sectors of fast fashion, denim, underwear and knitwear.

Every chance of a green African success story

For Africa, the status quo of its positioning on the international textile sourcing market is clear: the continent is at the beginning of a story of economic growth and success. Now it is important that the right course is set so that not only transnational corporations benefit from it, but also the local populations and national economies, 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 fashionwear 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. And in March 2017, Textile Exchange organised a ten-day excursion to South Africa that focused 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 represents 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 fashionwear buyers and local producers to join forces in building up the relevant structures for an ecological transformation alongside Africa’s impending economic boom. But the continent definitely has the potential required.

Alex Vogt

Find out more:

Africa Sourcing & Fashion Week: Texworld, Apparel Sourcing and Texprocess are facing their premières in Addis Abeba (EN)

South Africa’s largest textile, footwear and apparel shows under new management (EN)

Messe Frankfurt intensifies its textile-related involvement in Africa (EN)