Monday, July 2, 2018

Can Kenya break the global fashion industry's low-wage model?

Catherine Makie, 27, sews bow ties for European and US markets in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Photograph: Anna Dubuis

The textile industry is the second largest employer in developing countries, but most artisans are trapped in domestic markets with no links to international trade.

At a tailors’ workshop in Kibera, Nairobi’s sprawling slum, business has gone global for a group of women.
After years spent sewing clothes for the local market, the 10 tailors have started on international orders for bow ties.
Their client is Wakuu, a two-year-old business employing Nairobi artisans to create suits and other garments using local fabric, kitenge, which they then sell in Europe and the US.
The women have been hired to create accessories and Wakuu says it will reinvest a portion of its profits into further training, as well as providing support to their families, for instance through improved childcare facilities.
“Fashion can be a major growth driver for African nations,” says Daan Vreeburg, co-founder of Wakuu. “I saw we could build a business and employ people, give them a fair wage and break the poverty chain.”
The Kenyan garments sector remains relatively small, with just 40,000 workers according to a report (pdf) commissioned by development organisation Hivos.
But if the African Development Bank gets its way, this is set to change. In 2015 it launched the Fashionomics initiative, an online business platform designed to boost small businesses in the fashion and textile industry. The bank believes the sector could generate 400,000 jobs in sub-Saharan Africa by 2025.
For these jobs to be sustainable, the region will need to break away from the model the fashion industry has pursued elsewhere in the world and which has already done damage in Kenya, according to Nicola Round, campaigns manager at UK-based Labour Behind the Label.
“In Kenya, like many other African countries, the domestic textile industry has suffered because of the ‘race to the bottom’ by global brands seeking out low-cost labour,” says Round.
Reaching global markets at all is also a challenge. The textile industry is the second largest employer in developing countries, after agriculture, but the majority of artisans are trapped in domestic markets without links to international trade.
Wakuu is part of the steady flow of socially conscious fashion brands trying to challenge this norm by sourcing artisans from marginalised communities to produce their fashion lines.
Others include Artisan.Fashion, which connects Kenyan artisans to luxury brands such as Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney in a bid to pull high fashion houses away from mass production factories.
The company involves 22 community groups, recruited from existing networks like self-help and women’s groups, and is able to produce 100,000 units a year, mostly bags and accessories.
Not all such enterprises succeed in scaling up and having a lasting impact, however.
New York brand SUNO, worn by the likes of Michelle Obama and Beyoncé, trained Kenyan tailors as part of efforts to build a sustainable fashion business. But last year it announced it would close after failing to attract sufficient investment to take it to the next stage.
Clare Lissaman, an ethical fashion consultant and co-founder of menswear brand Arthur & Henry, warns that good intentions do not always translate into sustainable businesses, and a robust business model is essential.
Being able to demonstrate the product’s worth is vital, she adds: “Just because it is made in the slums does not mean it is automatically good. You need to show you are doing what you say you are doing.”

The search for profits

Vreeburg, who also works for the Netherlands-African Business Council, and his business partner Nick Searra, are conscious of the potential pitfalls as they attempt to scale up Wakuu.
Although the suits and bow ties have been a hit, Vreeburg says the business could not survive solely on the handmade products created by their small-scale artisans.
Shunning the cheap option of outsourcing production to Asia, however, they have launched a T-shirt line made in a local Kenyan factory to boost profits and in turn support the artisans.
Their website will detail where each product was made and by whom, and they are formalising a partnership with the Kibera workshop to ensure the women have a guaranteed income.
Jewellery brand The Good is Good is planning to take a slightly different tack, enlisting established western designers with an existing client base to come up with designs for traditional artisans in Kenya to produce. The hope is this will ensure a sustainable market.
“We are changing traditional designs a little bit but if we are to create opportunities in the western market it is important to create a product that we can sell,” says Jeff Parry, who is launching the brand this year with wife Anna.
From their home in Sweden it is difficult to monitor working conditions so they have partnered with an existing Fairtrade-certified project employing women in the Maasai Mara.
“For us it is obvious that they should be made fairly and ethically,” says Parry. “It’s really good for us to know the processes are right and that they get paid properly.”

Thursday, June 28, 2018

'It's about our dignity': Secondhand clothing ban in Rwanda

In Haiti, my home town, pèpè may refer to secondhand clothes that are commonly worn by its population. These clothes are usually sent from the United States. The Haitian textile industry has suffered due to the widespread popularity of pèpè. There have even been discussions about banning the import of pèpè and until now, nothing.

The import of pèpè began in the 1960's, during the Kennedy administration, leading to the moniker "Kennedy clothes".Since the 1980's, hundreds of tons of pèpè has been imported, usually packaged in huge bales. The clothes are so affordable, that a used boy's t-shirt from the United States could be sold for as little as thirteen to fifty cents in Haiti.

I really like what Rwanda is doing by banning "pèpè" secondhand clothes from their country. I know it will be hard and not easy but I think it is the right thing to do and so wish the Haitian government will do the same. Growing up in Haiti in the 70's we used to have seamstresses, tailors to make our clothes,lots of fabric stores and sewing supplies all that are almost gone, because of the amount of secondhand clothes shipping to the country. As I stated during my documentary interview  for The True Cost, secondhand clothes, a disease for third world countries.

Secondhand garments are stifling the country’s fashion industry, officials say, but the ban has dismayed local traders – and reportedly imperils 40,000 US jobs
A busy  street in Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

In a dim corner of Biryogo market in Kigali, Rutayisire Ibrahim watches as two traders slap playing cards on to a wooden stool outside his tiny shop, which is crowded with neatly folded stacks of trousers and bunches of colourful ties. The garments are hand-me-downs from men living thousands of miles away. 
In the absence of customers, the game has attracted an audience of stallholders.

“You see all of these guys,” Ibrahim says, nodding to the crowd. “They have nothing else to do. The customers have stopped coming.” 
Several of the stalls in the market have been permanently padlocked, he says, and one section of Biryogo lies abandoned. It’s been nearly 24 hours since Ibrahim’s last sale – a pair of trousers for the equivalent of $2 (£1.50). 
Last year, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi announced their intention to phase out imports of secondhand clothing and shoes from western countries by 2019.
But the decision in Rwanda has divided people and left the tiny landlocked country in a trade dispute with the US.
 Rutayisire Ibrahim, a trader at Biryogo market in Kigali, sells secondhand men’s trousers, suits and ties. Photograph: Lauren Gambino for the Guardian
Across Africa, daily shipments of recycled clothing, sent largely from the US, UK and Canada, fuel a multimillion-dollar informal industry that employs thousands of local retailers who turn a profit reselling the items.
Sub-Saharan Africa imports the largest share of used clothing donations. And last year the East African Community (EAC) imported secondhand clothing worth $151m (£115m), according to UN data.
Rwanda has made huge economic progress in the past 25 years. But officials argue that the ubiquity of recycled apparel – known as chagua – has stifled the growth of its nascent textile industry and has dented national pride.
“The objective is to see many more companies produce clothes here in Rwanda,” says Telesphore Mugwiza, an official at Rwanda’s ministry of trade and industry.
“It is also about protecting our people in terms of hygiene. If Rwanda produces its own clothes, our people won’t have to wear T-shirts or jeans used by someone else. People need to shift to [this] kind of mindset.”
Rwanda has moved aggressively to eliminate secondhand clothing, raising the import tariffs on used garments to more than 20 times the previous ratein an attempt to choke the supply and encourage traders to sell local products.
“People will shift from secondhand to new clothes. What will change is just the type of product but not the business,” says Mugwiza.
But traders whose livelihood depends on the castoffs say the higher taxes have already devastated their businesses and new garments are unaffordable.

“To do business in new clothes is very expensive – too expensive for me,” says Ibrahim, whose income provides for a family of six. “But I don’t make enough money selling used clothes any more. It’s complicated now. I don’t know what I will do.”

‘If this ban stays it could set a precedent’

Earlier this year, the Office of the US Trade Representative threatened to withdraw Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda’s membership of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), a programme designed to promote economic and political development in sub-Saharan Africa. Under the agreement, countries that meet certain human rights and labour standards are offered duty-free access to US markets on thousands of exports including oil, produce and apparel.The US has also expressed its dismay.
Eliminating barriers to US trade and investment is one of the conditions for membership to Agoa. The White House, which under Trump has championed an American First trade policy, has the authority to repeal a country’s eligibility status if the relationship is no longer favourable to the US.
 The Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, was bullish in his response to the threat. “As far as I am concerned, making the choice is simple,” he told reporters in June. “We might suffer consequences. Even when confronted with difficult choices there is always a way.”
Officials in the region who support the secondhand clothing ban have accused the US of wielding the trade deal as a cudgel.
“Politically, the [East African Community] and the United States have had a long and fruitful trading relationship. Compared with this, secondhand clothing imports is a very insignificant issue,” says Daniel Owoko, the chief of staff to the secretary general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
“It is wrong to jeopardise good relations between EAC and the US over it.
“Morally, EAC consumers shouldn’t be punished for their changing tastes and growing middle class.”
But the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (Smart), a US-based trade organization that represents dozens of used clothing exporters, said the ban “imposed significant hardship” on the US used clothing industry in violation of Agoa eligibility rules.
The association lobbied for the US to review the countries’ eligibility, arguingthat the ban imperils 40,000 US jobs.
“We are very concerned if this ban stays that could set a precedent for some of these other countries to say, ‘OK, they’ve banned secondhand clothes – maybe we should ban [them] too,’” says Jackie King, the executive director of Smart.
“It’s not bullying,” she adds. “It’s just getting them to abide by the terms of the agreement.”
Under pressure from the US, Kenya dropped its support for the ban. The country has a high dependency on Agoa – in 2015 east Africa’s biggest economy exported clothing worth $380m (£280m), the vast majority of which went to the US.
A decision on whether the countries will be removed from the trade agreement is expected in the coming weeks.

Struggling to compete

Until the 1980s, east Africa’s garment industries prospered, producing clothing and shoes for both domestic and foreign markets. But trade liberalisation policies, spearheaded by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, opened African economies to cheap new imports, especially from Asian countries. Local factories struggled to compete, and over time, many closed.
The used clothes ban is the latest attempt to revive a flagging industry. But experts and industry leaders say the policy alone is not enough to grow domestic business and increase local demand.
“The biggest problem is that we don’t have the buying capacity,” says Ritesh Patel, the finance manager of Utexrwa, Rwanda’s only major textile manufacturing company. “People don’t have enough money to purchase the new things.”
Without also controlling the influx of new clothing from countries like China, Patel says, there is little incentive to buy local textiles or apparel. And while foreign garments are still expensive, they are markedly less so than “Made in Rwanda” clothes.
On a weekday afternoon, fashion designer Sonia Mugabo tidies her bright atelier, in a middle-class neighbourhood of Kigali. The showroom is curated from the latest collection of her eponymous Rwandan label, a mix of feminine shapes and bold patterns.
At 27, Sonia Mugabo is a pioneer of Rwanda’s fashion industry and among the young Rwandans eager to create a new, more optimistic narrative for their country. 
“It’s not just about wearing nice clothes and fashion,” says Mugabo, who supports the ban on secondhand clothing. “It’s about our dignity. We should be proud to say, ‘Look, I’m not wearing anything from abroad.’”

Mugabo believes ridding the markets of used garments will help change people’s mindset that locally made garments are of poorer quality than new and used foreign imports.
The government has launched a national “Made in Rwanda” campaign to mobilise support for local entrepreneurs, artists and craftsmen as well as encourage companies to improve production quality and standards. TV and radio advertisements urge Rwandans to shop locally and last year Kigali hosted an inaugural Made in Rwanda expo.
Mugabo is encouraged by the campaign but concedes that Rwandan demand is not high enough to sustain her business. To produce her line, she travels to Dubai and India in search of materials and relies on a handful of skilled tailors to make the clothing. Her designs are expensive to create, and Mugabo admits, unaffordable for many Rwandans.
“I’d love to satisfy the Rwandan market but I’d only satisfy 2% because my costs are quite high,” she said. “Right now I need to find places where people can afford my clothes.”
Since the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has grown its economy with remarkable speed, transforming the densely populated nation with few natural resources into a frontier for business. The country has initiated a series of reforms to attract foreign investors, offering a friendly business environment and significant tax incentives. Officials boast that it takes just 24 hours to start a company in Rwanda.
This approach helped lure Chinese manufacturer C&H Garments, which has opened a sprawling, blue glass-panelled factory in the outskirts of Kigali.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Shop less, mend more: making more sustainable fashion choices

The fashion industry is one of the world’s most polluting.

Every day, most of us dress ourselves in items churned out by what is arguably the world’s second-most polluting industry.
Reportedly topped only by oil, the fashion industry is contributing to major environmental destruction – mainly because consumers insist on buying so many clothes at such cheap prices.
Water is a significant part of the problem. Textile manufacturing uses huge amounts of water, much of which gets flushed into waterways laden with contaminants such as bleaches, acids, inks and dyes. Horrifyingly, farmers in parts of China and India are reportedly predicting fashion’s next biggest hues by the colour of rivers tainted by textile industry runoff. (Look out for the 2016 documentary River Blue.) Fast fashion has terrible impacts on people, too, with workers in developing nations often paid a pittance to labour in unsafe conditions.
Alternatives do exist. The solution lies in buying less and choosing better quality items that are made as ethically as possible. But how to tell good brands from bad? Our guide to ethical fashion navigates the conundrum.

Buy clothes made locally by ethical labels

Step one is choosing brands that consider the planet and their workers. The desire to wear cheap new looks daily has led to offshore manufacturing in often deplorable circumstances – buying local, well-made pieces can sidestep all that.

Avoid fabrics made using petroleum and chemicals

Think beyond where or how clothing is made, to exactly what each piece is made from. Where possible, skip petroleum-based synthetics such as polyester and nylon, which are actually plastics that take forever to break down once tossed. Each time such fabrics are washed, they shed thousands of microfibres that end up polluting rivers and oceans. 
Natural fabrics must also be selected with care. About half the world’s clothes and textiles are made from cotton, usually grown with pesticides and requiring mammoth water inputs. Bamboo has been touted as a more ethical option, but while the plant is farmed sustainably, toxic chemicals are often used to turn bamboo into fabric.
Organic cotton and bamboo linen are better, as is hemp, linen, silk and wool. Lyocell, made from natural cellulose found in wood pulp (harvested from sustainably farmed forest plantations), also rates fairly well. Some brands are even recycling waste into fabric.
“Choosing better fabrics is essential to us transforming this industry for the better,” says Clara Vuletich, a Sydney-based sustainability strategist who works with Australian fashion brands. “If you consciously decide to purchase a garment made using a recycled material or an exciting new fibre, such as cruelty-free leather made in a lab, you are supporting start-up companies creating new markets, and avoiding the toxic impacts associated with conventional textiles.”

Extend your wardrobe’s lifespan by mending

Once clothing becomes tired and hole-ridden, don’t rush straight to the bin: try mending instead. Call a local clothing repairer or, better yet, join the #visiblemending movement, which encourages entirely obvious and colourful hand-sewn repairs.“Most clothing problems are easily mendable: missing buttons and loose stitching, for example. But mending is also an opportunity to make your clothes better than new. Visible mending allows you to be creative and celebrate the life of your clothes,” says Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald, who runs a Visible Mending Project in Melbourne. “One creatively mended garment might not save the planet, but it might inspire three other people to start mending and become more aware.” 
Those with more time and skills can join the slow clothing movement and sew garments from scratch. Look out for Sydney’s Sewing With Kate and In The Folds for tips and inspiration, or look at Jane Milburn’s Sew It Again 365-day eco-clothing project.
Reduce your consumption by hitting the op shops
A guaranteed way to reduce the fashion industry’s impact is to avoid buying new stuff in the first place. Secondhand stores are the ultimate clothing recyclers – and thrift shop fashion definitely doesn’t have to be daggy. Hannah Klose is proof; the Brisbane founder of Never Ever Pay Retail has amassed a huge Instagram following through daily style posts featuring entirely op-shopped clothes.
“I’ve found so many amazing pieces, some brand new with the tags still attached, for sometimes less than 5% of the retail value – like a Gucci bag for $6, a Carla Zampatti top for $4.50, which would have retailed for over $400, and a Karen Walker skirt for $5,” Klose says. “Collectively, thrifters are helping to divert 300,000 tonnes of textiles from landfill each year. It’s a step in the right direction.”
Those new to op shopping, or who just want to be led to the best local bargain hunting spots, can jump on a guided tour. Check out You, Us and a Bus in Adelaide and Op Shop ’Til You Get Enough in Melbourne, or team up with eco fashion stylist Alex van Os via her Sydney Op Shop to Runwaytours. In Ballarat, go full-blown sustainable and do it all on foot, with The Wardrobe Green’s tours.

Thursday, March 8, 2018


By Chere Di Boscio
It seems the oceans have become a new textile hunting ground for many top brands including Adidas, G-Star Raw, Patagonia and others. These companies have been creating clothing from plastics collected from the oceans, which is then recycled into fibres. Adidas, for example, has combined Ocean Plastics with a zero waste 3D-printing technique to manufacture a stylish athletic shoe as part of their partnership with Parley for the Oceans, an initiative that encourages repurposing ocean waste and raising awareness of our increasingly dire plastics problems.
Adidas_3D-printed-midsole_ocean-plastic_dezeen_1568_0 Adidas_3D-printed-midsole_ocean-plastic_dezeen_936_1
Owner of Bionic Yarn, a textile company that bases its production on reclaimed ocean plastics, Pharrell Williams has launched his third collection with G-Star RAW, which features urban streetwear made from this innovative fabric.  The line includes perfectly cut jeans,  jackets, T-shirts and hoodies – none of which you would imagine ever existed in plastic form at one point.
c900113efd90177624b66fdcd5864323 Pharrell-Williams-for-G-Star-RAW-AW-2015_dezeen_468_8
Yet another eco-minded fashion label using recycled plastics is Outerknown, launched by surfer legend Kelly Slater, who designed a line of 100% recyclable clothing made from reclaimed fishing nets. His motivation is noble “Single-use plastics all through the ocean, degrading, turning into little bits that are all eaten by the sea life, and they’re dying because their stomachs are full of stuff,” Slater said in an interview with CNN. But little did he know that the very clothing he was creating with the aim of ending such pollution may well be exacerbating it.
Kelly-Slater-Mr-Porter-2015-Photo-Shoot-001 outerknown-kelly-slater

Teeny Particles

Researchers have found that these well intended brands may be doing more harm than good by introducing recycled plastic clothing into the wash cycle. Apparently, microfibers — tiny synthetic threads less than 1 mm in size — may actually be the biggest source of plastic in the ocean. And many of them may come from simply washing synthetic clothing.
Earth Island reports that Dr. Mark Browne, an ecologist and postdoctoral fellow at the National Center of Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California, states that every time a synthetic garment — that is, anything made from non-organic fibres – goes through the spin and rinse cycle in a washing machine, it sheds a large number of plastic fibers. Most washing machines don’t have filters to trap these miniscule microfibers, and neither do sewage plants that are responsible for removing contaminants. So every time the water drains from a washing machine, plastic filaments are swept through the sewers and eventually end up in the ocean.
In 2011, Browne published a paper in Environmental Science & Technology stating that one single synthetic garment can produce more than 1,900 microfibres per wash, with fleeces being the worst offenders – but even smooth synthetics like nylon shed significantly. Compound billions of people washing billions of garments billions of times in a year, and the effects are clearly effects are devastating.
But the news is worse. We all know plastic is toxic in itself, but studies show it can actually absorb other toxins, like pesticides or organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls. When microplastics enter the ocean, they work their way up the food chain, being eaten by bottom feeders swallowed by bigger fish…and eventually, they end up back on our plate. We mentioned this issue in the past, but as related to the toxic effects that microbeads in beauty products were having on the ocean. Now it turns out that fashion is having the same effect.
One of the main campaigners against microbeads – Five Gyres –  is now also turning their efforts to all microfibres in the oceans. The results of one of their most recent studies concludes that there are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean, collectively weighing more than 250,000 tons. With a global population of 7.2 billion people, that means there are about 700 plastic pieces in the ocean for every person on Earth.  With an ever growing and wealthier population, Five Gyres predicts that another 33 billion tons of plastic will be added to the environment by 2050.
Despite much evidence pointing to the dangers of producing clothing from synthetics, the head researcher of the study, Dr Mark Browne says he’s had a hard time getting textile companies to listen. He launched a project called Benign by Design, a research project aiming to determine and remove features of textiles that have negative impacts on humans and the environment, but when he asked for support for this worthy cause by the fashion industry, he was stonewalled by all but one – the truly superlative eco-luxury brand Eileen Fisher. Other brands including Patagonia, Polartec, and Nike rejected , and even the ostensibly eco-friendly Patagonia told Browne his extensive research was still ” too preliminary” to justify company funding. But watching this video below may well change their minds! 

Better Solutions

While pressuring brands to support Browne’s initiative is certainly a step in the right direction, given the fact that most clothing is actually made from synthetics, there have been calls to solve the microfibre problem by introducing screens to washing machines that would filter the plastic particles out, but these would have to be fitted to new machines, and by the time these became widespread, the problem will have become even graver.
Another measure we can take is to recycle ocean plastic into items that needn’t be washed frequently, like furniture. One design house who is doing this to perfection is Studio Swine. Featured recently in an exhibition at London’s Selfridges department store, these innovators are gaining a strong reputation for clever recycling of trash into objects for the home.
chair2 v3
What truly matters is that the clothing industry is willing to take the findings of environmental scientific research seriously and apply it to textile sourcing. This is true not only for the ‘eco’ brands based on recycled plastics, but also for any clothing manufacturer that uses acrylic, polyester and other textiles that shed toxic microfibres. And ultimately, it’s up to us to make well informed decisions about our fashion purchases, and to think twice every time we buy something that may end up as ocean plastic in the first place.


Can Kenya break the global fashion industry's low-wage model?

Catherine Makie, 27, sews bow ties for European and US markets in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Photograph: Anna Dubuis The textile industry i...