This article is part of a series presented by the C&A Foundation, celebrating the women who shake the status quo and contribute to a better fashion industry.
No longer a niche notion relegated to environmentalist crowds, sustainable fashion has gained popularity among mainstream audiences. With a 130 percent increase in Google searches on sustainable fashion in the last year, it’s clear that interest among both brands and consumers has surged — but sometimes it can take time for public understanding to catch up with shifts in the market.
“The industry at the moment is looking at new locations, new places to source from,” said Jacqueline Shaw, founding director of Africa Fashion Guide, a social enterprise dedicated to sustainable textile sourcing. “You’ve got the typical places like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam and China — where everyone’s been going to. Now they are becoming more and more expensive, and their capacity is getting full.” As a result, retailers and designers are opening up their supply chains to newer markets, like Africa.
Shaw founded AFG as a direct result of a trip to Africa to explore and connect with her own heritage. “That’s when I saw the textile industry. I saw the opportunities there. It was vibrant. It was exciting.” After obtaining a master’s degree in ethical fashion, Shaw saw the opportunity to combine her two greatest interests, and AFG was born. It now plays a crucial role in educating brands on those new opportunities while advocating for fair conditions.
“The industry in Africa is growing and growing,” Shaw said. “We are placed well because we bring people together, connecting them with the industry and showing them the opportunities that Africa’s fashion and textile landscape provide. We help people to source.”
Since AFG’s inception in 2011, Shaw has worked tirelessly to spread the message of sustainable fashion, specifically through the lens of African culture. “I see myself as a catalyst for change within ethical fashion and African fashion because I create platforms that help bring people together and raising awareness,” said Shaw. “People may have come [to my events] with preconceived ideas. Then they all hear the talks and they come out enlightened.”
In particular, Shaw feels that there is a lack of representation when it comes to the countries responsible for apparel production. “I’ve found that even when I go to an event where they’re talking about sustainable fashion, about where it’s produced — and it’s mostly produced in countries with people of color, whether it’s Asia or Africa or South America — and they have speakers, they’re not from these places. They don’t have representatives.”
As AFG strives to link African designers with UK and EU fashion brands and consumer markets, the enterprise hopes to bring an element of diversity and understanding to the mission of sustainable fashion. “We need to hear from those on the ground as well,” said Shaw. “Those people that you’re talking about, let it not be ‘us’ and ‘them’ — but instead, bring them into the whole story.”
Africa Fashion Guide is fortunately far from the only positive changemaker on the scene. There are also brands leading the charge. Relative newcomers like For Days and ThredUp have made sustainability a core part of their respective missions and business practices, while mainstay giants like J. Crew have taken serious steps to join the conversation. “I need to celebrate so many brands that are spreading the sustainable fashion message,” said Shaw. “Like People Tree, Patagonia and Stella McCartney.”
As for brands that have yet to embrace the movement — they’re missing out on more than they might realize. A recent survey from Element Three showed that 87 percent of U.S. millennial internet users would be willing to pay more for sustainable fashion, putting younger shoppers at the forefront of the demand for sustainably-produced clothing.
“I believe that these days, people are looking for more, at the end result,” said Shaw. “They’re looking for stories. They’re looking to purchase products which have been made in responsible ways.”
For brands that are willing to take action — and reap the benefits in a multitude of ways — the initial plunge into the sustainable fashion scene can seem daunting. But when even fast fashion brands like H&M can demonstrate a commendable effort toward sustainability, there’s no such thing as too small of a step in the right direction.
“One of the number one things that I think businesses today should really stop doing is trying to get the cheapest price on everything, especially when it comes to fashion sourcing,” said Shaw. “We know making a T-shirt for one dollar is not realistic. It is done, but it means that somebody is going to be suffering somewhere.”
Instead, Shaw encourages brands to open up their sourcing landscapes, and think critically about the production of their garments. “If you’re showing somebody your product that is made in the best way and has a story behind it, that is engaging. It will make them feel good because they are a part of changing somebody’s life or a community’s life. Then they will appreciate that more than just the fact of getting something for really, really cheap — and then throwing it away tomorrow because it’s going to fall apart anyway.”
In order for brands to best spread the idea of sustainable fashion, Shaw emphasized the idea of sharing knowledge, specifically through blogging, writing and teaching. “Offline platforms such as conferences like Textile Exchange, Copenhagen Fashion Summit and WEAR conference (by Fashion Takes Action), as well as my event Fashion Africa Conference, are great events to attend to learn what is happening next,” she said.
As for the number one most important first step that brands can take toward a sustainable mission? “Transparency,” said Shaw. “Revealing your supply chain is a big one being undertaken by brands today.”
Through open communication and visible business practices, brands can start down the road to a sustainable fashion solution that lasts. “It’s a rollercoaster of an industry that needs an overhaul,” Shaw said. “Slow fashion, mindset change and responsibility at all levels is key.”