Sustainable African design in focus on Women's Day

08 March 2019

As ethical fashion rises it may balance the scales of a trillion-dollar industry where women are the main consumers and employees but don't have a seat at the table.

How to support a global fashion industry that does not harm the planet or the people who work in it – and developing labels to prove it – was the focus of a special discussion panel held at the United Nations in Geneva to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March.

UNCTAD’s “Dress Up For Sustainable Labels” event on the eve of International Women’s Day brought an African perspective to the debate on voluntary sustainability standards (VSS), women's empowerment and trade, and links to the creative industries and bio-trade.

“UNCTAD believes that sustainability label should not be just a marketing pitch for businesses but a tool for development, making sure that everyone gets a fair deal and that no one is left behind,” UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General Isabelle Durant explained at the event, held at the UN’s European home.

Shade Affogbolo

VSS assess whether a product is sourced, produced and processed in a sustainable manner. These standards matter when applying a gender lens.

Women make up 80% of the 300 million people employed in the global fashion industry yet women designers are still outnumbered by male counterparts.

A 2015 Business of Fashion survey of 50 major fashion brands revealed that just 14% were run by a woman.

Transparent labeling and VSS can help manage the social and ethical dimensions of such imbalances, according Ms. Durant.

The inclusion of gender issues in VSS is a recent phenomenon but has shown promising results.

Consumers are more conscious of the sustainability of fashion items. According to the 2018 Sustainable Fashion Blueprint report, almost 60% of consumers check to see if items carry a sustainability label.

This effect is happening not only in developed nations but also in developing countries such as Mexico, China and India.

“Gender standards need to be mainstreamed in VSS schemes so we can fully realize the potential of sustainability labels for gender inclusion,” said Ms. Durant, referencing Sustainable Development Goals 5, 12, 14 and 15 as crucial considerations.

Panelists Vincent Jacquemet, founder of an African trends market and label Afrodyssée, and Senegal-born, Paris-based designer Shade Affogbolo from Nash Studios, agreed.

Mission sustainability

Shade Affogbolo

Afrodyssée, a Geneva-based platform that features the most striking new African fashion, design, visual arts and crafts trends, is looking to establish one of the continent’s first fashion sustainability labels.

Mr. Jacquemet says his label will consider the gender dimension because of the large numbers of African women working in these creative industries.

But he also wants to change perceptions about design from the continent. “The richness of African design today is that under the same ‘Made in Africa’ label there is such diversity. Dakar is very different from Addis Ababa. Johannesburg is very different from Lagos.”

“It’s that diversity that we want to showcase,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ms. Affogbolo is delivering that diversity to Paris rails, while collaborating with a workshop owned by a local tailor in the Beninese capital Cotonou.

She founded Nash Prints with her mother, and their brand exclusively uses wax fabrics from Benin.

Ms. Affogbolo says her aim is to promote the continent’s fabrics as much as its designers. “It’s a question of not only mainstreaming African design but also African cloth.”

A label by any other name

“Obtaining a sustainable label does not solve all the problems,” said Ms. Durant. “While sustainable labels hold a great deal of potential, they also raise several challenges.”

The market size, gender dimension and environmental impact of the fashion industry warrants attention from labeling initiatives but can hurt micro and small producers and businesses, especially in developing countries.

“Sustainability means different things to different consumers and it is sometimes difficult for producers and exporters to keep up with their demands.”

Certification can be very costly too, she said. “A sustainability label means nothing unless it acquires consumer trust. This is why many sustainability labels require third-party certification.”

While labelling has challenges on the supply side, it also impacts the demand side and can be confusing for consumers, said Sergi Corbalán, executive director of the Fair Trade Advocacy Office.

Shade Affogbolo

“Consumers are confronted by too many labels, information and unsubstantiated (sustainability) claims to make decisions. We therefore need legislation to guarantee the minimum (standards),” Mr. Corbalán said.

“But standards alone are not enough. We need a good mixt of voluntary and binding measures to ensure supply chain is fair and sustainable.”

To this end, fair-trade enterprises are better at getting the gender balance right, he said.

Referencing the Women in Business Report 2017, he noted that globally only 12% of board positions are held by women, in fair-trade enterprises board positions are held equally by men and women, at 51%.

Only 9% of global chief executives are women, whereas in fair-trade enterprises it is 52%. A total of 24% of senior leadership positions in business are held by women and in fair-trade enterprises the figure is 54%.

Creative legacy

UNCTAD has also played a leading role in working on VVS policy matters, mainly in the bio-trade arena.

It has also worked on sustainable fashion matters through the UNCTAD Creative Economy Programme, which assists developing countries to promoting creative industries, including fashion, for sustainable socio-economic development.

The event closed with a showcase of Ms. Affogbolo’s Beninese wax print designs.