Friday, 20 February 2009

Fashion for Africa

I was drawn to reading an article from the BBC about the throwaway fashion culture we have in the UK and how it ends up dumped in landfill sites in Africa. This particular article was about Uganda but, extrapolating from my experience in Zambia, I suspect it is a continent-wide phenomenon.

There was a great second-hand clothes market in Lusaka. There high street names were available as good quality clothes for as little as a pound: better value than many charity shops here. This was an excellent way to clothe young children - still at an age where they wear through clothes at a rapid rate, yet not of an age where the fashion label matters.

For the wealthy ex-pat it was one thing: for the local, another. For them it was western fashion at affordable prices. The market was always busy, buzzing, full of clothes brought from overseas.

There was no affordable market for locally made clothes. Indeed, there was virtually no clothing industry in the country. Clothes were brought in from South Africa and material from India. There were several small companies, predominantly trading for the tourist or ex-pat market, such as Tribal Textiles or Cobbled Creations (go on - have a look - there is some beautiful stuff!) I only knew of one remaining textiles factory, and that appeared lifeless every time we drove past. It was reliant on overseas funding and there was perpetually talk of it shutting down. 

Yet Zambia grows cotton. On our travels we would pass the factory, the roads white with fluffy balls of harvested cotton that had escaped from the sacks during transport. There are many people willing to work, people willing to take on some of the most menial tasks to our western eyes. Whilst there would be a great initial investment in machinery, surely there would be payback with the low wages and cheap, local supply of raw material?

I was told the clothing industry died because of the charitable West. Our clothes, worn just a few times and then discarded, are given to charities who collate them together then ship them out to countries such as Zambia. Generously we give clothes we don't want to people who need them. It makes us feel good, justifies our extravagance and our desire for fashion. And surely this is great, as the starving poor cannot afford clothes and anything we give is better than nothing?

Maybe. But the harsh truth is that Zambians who had a thriving textile industry suddenly found that the local market weren't buying the locally made clothes: they could get them for free from international charities. The textile industry went into terminal decline, thousands of people losing their jobs and their family's welfare. As a result, more people wanted - needed - to get their clothes for free. And the charities happily ship in more of our unwanted goods. 

So is it worth it? Locals lose their livelihoods. The Developing World becomes more dependent upon the West for handouts. Nations stop being self-reliant. And, from the article I read, we are simply dumping our toxic waste in Africa rather than our own backyard. 

I believe we should think twice before buying clothes (do we really need them?) and aim to make-do, recycle and update our existing wardrobe before giving it away. Perhaps we would be better giving our clothing budget directly to charities working with people in the developing world, encouraging entrepreneurial businesses and micro-loans? Whatever we choose (and I do believe we should be wearing clothes!) we should remember that a little goes a long way.

PS: It appears that the Cobbled Creations site isn't working at present, but you can see a photo of some bedding in Kanyemba Lodge here and it was used in a televised Grand Designs house in France and even on our bed. (Not the same bedding you understand: we bought our own!)

photo copyright Gareth Bentley

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