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8Sep

Ethical Fashion Is How Things Should Be

Jacqueline Shaw is the founder of Africa Fashion Guide. As she gets ready to launch her first book, Fashion Africa, I asked her what ethical fashion was about and the African fashion industry needs to embrace it.

Belinda: You are described as an eco-entrepreneur with a big heart for Africa, fashion and international development, and your aim is to push and promote the African fashion industry to the wider global industry, what has the journey been liken since you started African Fashion Guide?

Jacqueline: I tend to see the potential in most things and people. I have also been reading to find out more about what is happening outside the fashion world and noticed that there is a move towards Africa. The fashion industry has equally noticed and is beginning to ’embrace’ the continent too. I believe that there is a new Africa, arising and waking up from slumber and the global fashion and textiles industry can have a positive impact in the continent if handled ethically and with wisdom. This industry is a strong avenue to build up trade between countries on the continent Africa and of course, international trade too. I started Africa Fashion Guide as part of my two year part time MA degree project. Since I started, the support and interest, and contacts gained in the industry, professionals, designers, bloggers and press have all been positive and I am overwhelmed by it all. I have had a lot of encouragement, I know from this I am filling a well needed niche in the industry and the desire to make an impact is what keeps me going.

Belinda: This may sound cliché but what is Ethical fashion? (For those of us who don’t know much about this)

Jacqueline: Many people would argue that Ethical fashion and African fashion are two terms that sit together in the traditional viewpoint of African fashion been very crafty, artisanal and appreciative of the recycled and the use of local found objects to make crafts. In my opinion ethical fashion is how things should be. I could go as far as to say its how things used to be…using crafts, doing things by hand, slow fashion, consideration of the earth and your impact on the planet and its natural resources etc.  Sustainability within the fashion and textile industry focuses on people, planet and profit and this SHOULD be how the fashion industry works.  There are charitable projects such as the work of One Mango Tree and Mayamiko that have educational projects attached to them. They use fashion as a means to provide an income, in most instances, women in the communities, where they work, which includesUgandaandMalawi. Then you have projects such as Global Mamas that work with local women in Cape Coast (and soon to be Pram Pram) in Ghana on batik projects and on tailoring garments for the export market to the US, and the local market too. This is adding value to those women who have a skill or can learn that skill and it adds to their own business. Ethical fashion is about adding value to those who work in the industry.

Belinda: How would you describe the current state of ethical fashion within the African fashion industry?

Jacqueline: Ethical Fashion has various angles to it. A lot of designers are seeking new innovative ways to do things in textiles hence this genuine movement to the crafts market. When it comes to Africa, there still is this ideology of AID ‘helping’Africa and so some designers/companies focus on working with African craftspeople/artisans as it is part of helping and supporting a community. This is a way of being ‘ethical’ as it relates to development work.

Belinda: In recent years, we have seen a rebirth taking place where African fashion is concerned. How does ethical fashion fit into that frame of things and are people very aware of its existence or is it something that is gaining ground and growing in strength?

Jacqueline: I don’t feel that this directly relates to ethical fashion for those who are wearing unless it is in regards to the local textile industry. I believe that African Fashion is rising up and especially young Africans are becoming more proud of their background and the culture. As a Jamaican, who grew up in a diverse community, I have always been interested in various cultures and in particular, fabrics. My African friends would shy away from wearing their ‘traditional’ attire/fabrics but over the years especially the young women have started to rework Ankara, Kente, Aso-oke, Khanga into contemporary styles and loving it! It is definitely growing in strength.

Belinda: We hear a lot about the fashion strand of the industry but not as much where the textile industry is concerned, can you expand on the current state of the African textile industry?

Jacqueline: This has been the core area of my research over the two years of my Masters degree. Africa’s textile industry does exist. It doesn’t compare or compete on the same scale of that in Asia, but it definitely has a presence with European and American retailers and fashion companies sourcing production needs.  From my research I found a large number of large scale textile factories whose skills range from cut and sew, knits and woven, as well as printing and embroidery facilities and more. I also researched into the various textiles available and the small scale factories and workshops too. The availability and variety of general fabrics in Africa (if I’m generalising and not being country specific) is a problem as countries tend to import fabrics from Asia (India and China specifically) and so a lot of the value in the African textile industry is lost due to this. For example we can look at the cotton industry on average 95 percent of the cotton grown in African producing countries like Mali, Uganda and Zambia to name a few, leaves the continent to be processed (spun/knitted/woven into fabric, dyed, washed etc) outside the continent. Then often the fabric is imported back to Africa! Imagine if 50 percent of the cotton grown in Africa was processed in Africa (and subsidies paid by these cotton farmers taken away) the African textile industry would reap much more benefits that Africa deserves.

Belinda: Who are some of the biggest proponents of ethical fashion on the continent and in the diaspora and why is the work they are doing vital to the sustenance of the industry and its growth?

Jacqueline: There are a variety of people doing great things at present. But in regards to factories, there is GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard – relates to use of organic cotton /textiles used). I would mention on small scale the SOKO workshop inUganda andKenya who are known for producing the ASOS Africa collection famously worn by Michelle Obama. Larger scale factories would be Mantisworld inTanzania, who use organic cotton in their line and Impahla inSouth Africa. These factories employ and provide work for local staff and have international business. I would still encourage more business for them but they are champions in this field. Alongside them among many others I have researched are cotton organisations like Cotton Made inAfrica. They work with farmers inAfrica and retailers too such as Puma and Otto to produce garments using African cotton another program is Helvetas.

Belinda: You book launch for Africa Fashion Guide and the accompanying website is just around the corner, what is your book about and what compelled you to write it?

Jacqueline: My book ‘Fashion Africa’ has truly been a labour of love. I am a fashion designer by trade and a huge lover of books, especially the ones on the arts and design, which is my original background. When I was working as a student during my A-levels and first degree at my local library, I found it difficult to find books on African fashion which wasn’t very traditional or (a word I do hate to use) ‘ethnic’ and found them quote prehistoric. At the beginning of my research in 2009, I decided on a glossy coffee table book. I began to contact designers in September 2010 and worked to bring my vision to fruition. I thought it would be a good idea to put all the designers I had researched into a modern contemporary book. The book therefore brings together 48 designers from Africa and the diaspora, fashion and textile factories and businesses along with interviews, images, photos, illustrations and analysis such as where the companies produce/source in Africa and their ethical credentials.

Belinda: Your organisation is a not-for-profit social enterprise promoting the African fashion and textile industry. Elaborate on what the process entails?

Jacqueline: Africa Fashion Guide can be seen as an awareness campaign. I started it because I have a huge network of people in the industry and often I would be asked where can I get this and do that in Africa. They recognised and respected my growing knowledge and interest in the African fashion textile industry, so I recognised this need and this niche area for an organisation that presented this industry in a positive and contemporary light. So I developed a team that is still growing. I am also developing a consultancy of industry professionals for this very reason at the moment. AFG is an enterprise with a social aim to highlight and promote the African fashion and textiles industry to the global industry. To connect companies in and outside of Africaand to present well needed information.

Belinda: In what ways do you offer help to other designers or textile companies and business leaders in the industry who want to network/connect with each other?

Jacqueline: We have various exciting platforms, events, tools and opportunities coming up especially for early 2012 that we will reveal soon. We plan to create a platform that enables a discussion and highlights the issues faced and get those in the industry to connect and network with each other. Our consultancy will be a place for designers to speak with and take part in events, undertaking workshops at fashion events in Africa andEuropeand many more.

Belinda: Since you set out to bring more visibility to the African fashion industry and raise the issue of ethical fashion within that landscape, what has the response been like?

Jacqueline: It has been overwhelming! Some people may wonder what I’m doing or who I am as I am but I have been in it for 10 years and believe the industry background has given me the clout that I need to do such a huge challenging yet exciting task. I am so passionate about AFG and the book ‘Fashion Africa’. I am equally determined to delve deeper into the industry and present new ways to work in Africa for industry leaders. But the response has been so fantastic. The launch event attendee says it all. With companies such as ASOS, WGSN, Textile exchange, Cotton Made in Africa, Ethical Fashion Forum, FAB magazine and more all supporting, highlights the significance of what I am doing and the growing industry. I aim to impact from the supply chain and not just from the end product which often is the case. All parts should work together to make a difference by telling the story and the launch seems to be doing that.

Belinda: What are your hopes for the book and website moving forward?

Jacqueline: For them to create forums for having a discourse, create connections and above all, awareness, and to impact Africa’s fashion and textiles industry and see positive change.  I live by Ghandi’s famous statement to ‘be the change you want to see’ and believe that by bringing something different to the industry, change will come from more people knowing about it and embracing it, then acting on it.  It surely is not easy but the adrenalin rush keeps me going.

 

For more information, go to: Africa Fashion Guide

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