The Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) is a flagship programme of the International Trade Centre (ITC), a joint agency of the United Nations and World Trade Organization, founded by Simone Cipriani. This programme is actively involved in and encourages the shift from conventional practices in the fashion industry to more ethical and morally responsible practices.
The Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF) defines ethical fashion as “an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing which maximises benefits to people and communities while minimising impact on the environment”.
In my opinion, fashion brands in Africa generally tend to be sustainable and ethical. This has a lot to do with the value system in most parts of Africa, a value system that abhors waste and places primacy on the need to cater to the welfare of many. Seeing that a lot of the fashion companies are started by creatives who harbour a deep love for the African continent, her people and values, it is no surprise then that traces of these values manifest in their work.
Although there is no real pressure on African fashion brands to be ethical or to show evidence of ethicality, the names on this list come from a combination of research into other publications, my interaction with the designers and my personal observation.
Here are the ethical fashion labels in no particular order.
I don’t know whether Kinabuti qualifies as an African fashion brand (since it was started by two Italians; Caterina Bortolussi and Francesca Rosset), but I do know of their ethical practices. I actually discovered this business because of the women empowerment schemes they run before I realized it was a fashion brand.
According to their website, “Kinabuti is an ethically driven fashion label that celebrate talent and diversity by empowering women and the youth of Nigeria. Its iconic afro-urban designs bring cultures together.” And I have found that this couldn’t be closer to reality.
Kinabuti utilizes African fabrics to create Italian designs and by buying Kinabuti pieces, one devolves ten percent of the actual sale price to Kinabuti Fashion Initiative (KFI), the brand’s empowerment programs trains women and youths from underprivileged communities in fashion related skills. The brand supports the work of the rising generation of African fashion talent and fosters ethical collaborations with artisans from the continent, sharing a common goal to build a responsible fashion industry that measures its impacts.
2. Wanger Ayu
Wanger Ayu is a womenswear fashion brand for the contemporary African woman. Founded by a lawyer named Wanger Ayu, all the brand’s pieces are made in Nigeria by artisans, most of whom are in turn trained by the brand. The garments maintain much of Ayu’s signature play with structure and feminity while going bolder with statement pieces that push the fashion edge.
With a distinctive shimmer in each piece, Wangerayu’s recent AW 2017 collection ‘Brave’ lives up to its name and fearlessly celebrates the complex yet unmistakable power of today’s woman, highlighting her strengths, ambitions, intelligence and sensuality.
This brand is owned by another lawyer, Lisa Folawiyo; famous for being one of the first African designers to take the African Ankara prints (fabric with distinct vibrant patterns associated with African culture) mainstream. She utilizes traditional locally-sourced West African fabrics and textiles for world class designs. Lisa Folawiyo was selected by the Ethical Fashion Initiative as one of the African designers it would work with and support in strengthening their ethical ethos.
Trebene is a responsible fashion brand that designs, prints and hand-weaves luxury cashmere scarves in Kashmir. Launched in 2015 by South Africa-based socially conscious entrepreneur Bushera Bashir, the label combines the rich heritage of the luxurious textile with modern and contemporary designs. The luxury scarves are made from authentic cashmere from Kashmir and are hand-woven and printed by Kashmiri weavers through a delicate process that has been perfected over generations.
As a consious brand, the label ensures that every stage of the production process involves fair wages and safe working conditions for employees. Trebene also ensures that the weaver’s children have access to quality education by contributing a portion of their profits towards their schooling.
5. Kiki Kamanu
This eponymous label is founded by Kiki Kamanu from Nigeria, often called the Vivienne Westwood of African Fashion. She is known for being outspoken about Fair Trade and sustainable fashion. Kamanu resigned from corporate America and moved to Lagos from where she creates and manufactures all her clothes. Kiki Kamanu runs a training program teaching Nigerian youths the inner workings of the fashion industry, from making clothes to selling them to financing their fashion businesses.
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Founded by the renowned designer Craig Jacobs, this brand is a Johannesburg-based eco-friendly fashion line that is designed to reflect the environmental and social stance of all who wear it. The company makes all of its pieces in Africa, using locally sourced cashmere and natural fabrics made from bamboo, soy, corn and organic cotton to mention a few.
The label also supports the sustainability of its employees and indigenous talents in South Africa by collaborating with local crafters to highlight their artisanal skills.
Mayamiko is a womenswear brand that offers clothing made of unique locally sourced African fabrics. The fabrics are made of certified organic cotton grown in Uganda. Buyers have a choice of selecting from fabrics such as batiks and organza. Garments are made in Malawi, which is in East Africa. Like other ethical fashion brands already cited, Mayamiko too trains and employs disadvantaged members of the communities, teaching them about clothing manufacturing and in so doing, empowering them as well.
Mayamiko is a member of the Iprefer30 campaign and has also partnered with One Tree Planted. Customers have the opportunity to plant a tree each time they place an order and Mayamiko will pay One Tree Planted to plant the tree in honour of the customer.
This is a Cape Town brand that specializes in making bags from recycled seat belts, reused upholstery and upcycled materials, and sometimes weaves organic cotton in its products. The eco-friendly fashion accessories company was founded by Zaid Philander who from the outset committed to sourcing materials in Cape Town, within the vicinity of their production site, to reduce carbon emissions of travelling and imports.
I Scream & Red also trains and employs locals and people from disadvantaged backgrounds showing them how to create the designs and make these bags while catering for their financial needs at the same time.
Twin sisters Nelly and Nelsa Guambe are the brains behind Mozambique’s very first up-cycling clothing brand. This fashion line repurposes and renews vintage clothes from Mozambique local markets and turns them into fresh fashionable and unique pieces.
Unwanted clothes from most European countries are either disposed in landfills or sold off to African merchants who stock them in various markets across the continent. These sisters recycle these garments, creating new pieces from existing fabrics to produce eco-friendly clothing that has minimal impact on the environment. They select these out-of-season clothes from the market and completely redesign them into modern dresses before putting them up for sale online.
This list is by no means exhaustive. There are many more ethical fashion brands in Africa. Please feel free to comment and add some others that you know or may have come across.
Title image from Wanger Ayu AW 2017 ‘Brave’ collection. Photo credit: Obinna Obioma