Africa has become a hub for designers unafraid to create fashion statements embellished in colors as bold as the continent’s sunsets and in prints as culturally rich as its people. Their designs are cat-walking across runways both at home and around the world from New York to London to Tokyo. Despite its budding international fame, the African fashion industry has long ways to walk before “made in Lagos” rings the same as “made in Paris.” For the meantime, the paucity of internal and external investment is a barrier frustrating attempts to move forward.

In recent times, African fashion has not just dipped its toes but fully plunged into the world’s fashion scene. Anisa Mpungew, Tanzanian designer and creator of Loin Cloth & Ashes, says “[Africa] is not afraid of patterns and colors, that’s the one thing we do in our sleep, so we use it to be louder amongst our foreign friends.” Indeed, African designers are making bold fashion statements through the complex patterns and colors they dare to work with.

African fashion tells a story — patches of identity are interwoven into the fabrics used and the designs created. According to Bethlehem Alemu, owner of an Ethiopian shoe company soleRebels, “The global consumer today is hyper-aware. They want authentic and innovative ideas delivered from the authors of those ideas.” These consumers want the designs to be creations of the African mind and hands and not replicas produced by Western clothing chains. High profiled brands in the likes of J. Crew, Burberry and Michael Kors oftentimes look to Africa for inspiration and ideas. Nevertheless, the masks, zebra stripes and leopard spots feed into Western stereotypes of Africa, not Africa’s authentic story.

With designers and clothes in high demand, the African fashion industry is ripe to reach its full potential. However, a lack of internal patronage stands in the way. Lexy Moyo-Eyes, founder of Nigerian Fashion Week, acknowledges that “the fashion industry can become a big business in Africa … even more with government support.” For example, according to the African Development Bank, the Rwandan government established a “foundation to establish garment factories and boost the textile and fashion industries.” As governments across the continent follow Rwanda’s steps and begin to esteem the fashion industry, they need to invest in the skills and qualifications of their people. Fashion programs such as LISOF School of Fashion in South Africa and Vogue Style School of Fashion and Design in Ghana need to be in abundant supply, not scarce, across Africa.

Furthermore, governments across the African continent should set quotas on the import of second hand clothing from the West. The goal would be to stop relying on the West and boost local manufacturing and development instead. The East African Community (EAC), composed of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda, has gone as far as to propose a ban by 2019. For the meantime, African designers, seamstresses, tailors and retailers are competing with Western clothes ranging from printed shirts to blouses to leather jackets to sport jerseys. Sylvia Owori, a designer based in Uganda, says that “[about] 90 percent of the clothing people are buying in the whole country are second-hand clothes — so as a small fish, how are you going to start to compete with that?” These clothes have appeal because they are priced cheaply and allow Africans to emerge themselves in Western culture by dressing the part. A pair of jeans could be sold for as little as $1.50. At first glance, bundles of our worn clothes might seem like benevolent gifts from the West, but they are actually hindering the progress of the African fashion industry and economy. Andrew Brooks, professor of Geography at King’s College London, explains that “[Western] t-shirts may be quite cheap for someone to buy, but it would be better if that person could buy a locally manufactured t-shirt, so the money stays within the [country]” instead of circulating overseas. As the proverb goes, “charity begins at home.” Africans need to put on the clothes made by their fellow citizens as a showcase of support and home pride. Not only will they be contributing to the success of homegrown designers but to their respective economy as a whole.

According to Ventures Africa, “If there is any time to invest in the [African fashion] industry, it is now.” Those who invest first will likely be the biggest beneficiaries of them all. According to Euromonitor Internations, “the combined apparel and footwear market in sub-Saharan Africa [alone] is estimated to be worth US$ 31 billion.” Deola Sagoe, a Nigerian designer in the industry for the past 25 years says that this is only a small fraction of what the fashion industry is capable of. It is time to turn this visionary potential into tangible prospects. Omoyemi Akerele, founder of Lagos Fashion and Design Week, realizes that investing in Africa does not come without its risks; you only need to to read, watch or listen to the news to be reminded of that. But he urges people to take a leap of faith and look beyond the rhetoric of corruption and images of war. He emphasizes that “he who observes the wind and waits for all conditions to be favorable will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.”

Beyond the glamour of clothes and runways, the fashion industry is a business that has the potential to play its part in efforts to create jobs especially among young people. Compared to its counterparts, the African continent is home to the world’s youngest population. According to the International Labor office, “youth make up as much as 36 percent of the total working-age population and three in five of Africa’s unemployed are youths.” Furthermore, UNICEF projects that by 2050, African children will make up close to 40 percent of children worldwide. The fashion industry has the potential to create secured jobs for the African youths of today and tomorrow. NGOs and fashion organizations like the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, AFI’s Fastrack and Next Gen, and the LFDW Fashion Focus are already adding jobs across the continent. Africa’s youthful population is more of an asset than it is a risk. Alemu says that the emerging African youths will bring “immense amount of energy and talent” to the fashion industry.

Africa has always been home to the creative hands and minds but it is just recently that the world began to knock at its door. African fashion allows for the opportunity to make fashion statements that dispel stereotypes and myths about the continent. It is a medium through which to spread African culture, from its authentic source, to the rest of the world as well as create jobs for the upcoming youth back at home. The industry needs both internal and external investment to reach its full potential. The time is now.

H&M Montreal

While the world’s eager eyes are incessantly tuned to every twist and turn of the tech realm, one industry has stealthily and swiftly taken a giant position amongst consumers, shaping their choices before consumers are fully aware of the advancing phenomenon. The transition of a large portion of the fashion industry to mass production and rapid circulation, a process commonly termed as “McDonaldization,” has solidified the presence of fast fashion. This new trend within the fashion industry focuses solely on the expedited manufacturing of clothes. Fast fashion promotes unsustainable production and exploitation of cheap labor across global scales of society.  The industry claims that drive for change rests on the shoulders of consumers and their responsibilities of “conscious consumerism.” Yet the economic gains from fast fashion, and the fashion industry’s overall relative disassociation with the idea of sustainability, create an undeniably difficult environment for the consumer to be cognizant of the negative ramifications of purchases. Instead, it is the designers and the fashion corporations on the supply side of the industry that should be pioneering the deceleration of this culture.

According to a report from retail leasing company JLL Shanghai, fast fashion brands have already expanded by the hundreds across China. H&M currently has approximately 250 stores in China and is looking to install 80 more this year. Fellow fast fashion brand Zara plans on 60 new stores, and Uniqlo 100, in addition to the 100 already opened last year. This rapid growth is still far from dwindling elsewhere, such as the United States, where these brands have already established an extensive hold. This September, Dublin-based fast fashion brand Primark opened its first U.S. store, a massive 77,000 square feet presence that is a harbinger of many more to come.

The seemingly endless popularity surrounding fast fashion is derived from the undeniable direct economic benefits for both the suppliers and consumers.  Although the retail prices of these products are far lower than those of their counterparts of higher quality, the high elasticity of demand lead to larger purchases in clothing quantity and generate higher profit margins. In this year’s August earnings report, the retailer Gap Inc. recorded a drop in company-wide quarterly sales by two percent, yet its low-priced fast fashion unit Old Navy recorded a 3.3 percent year-over-year growth.  According to market intelligence firm Euromonitor International, U.S. in-store fast fashion sales increased by eight percent over the past seven years.  Consumers, likewise, benefit both economically and culturally. Fast fashion brands make available to the public fresh, stylish items every week in tune with the latest trends at affordable prices. In a field already heavily dominated by concepts of being “in-style” and “out of style,” the availability of “cheap chic,” inexpensive fashion, is widely welcomed by consumers.

This culture of “cheap chic,” however, simultaneously endorses a more detrimental aspect – a culture of disposability.  Both consumers and fast fashion companies gain from each other through fast cycles of production. According to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, the average American will buy 70 garments this year. With new, cheap, trends churned out every week, the industry triggers a fast-response system that encourages quick purchasing, and thus quick disposability.

This disposability, however, is inflicting extremely detrimental effects on the environment behind its gilded glamour.  According to the Council for Textile Recycling (CTR), only 15 percent of Americans’ used clothes are recycled each year, leaving 21billion pounds of textiles to flood landfills. This amount of post-consumer waste has only been escalating over recent years, and CTR projects its growth to continue to a staggering 35.4 billion pounds by the year 2019.

Fast fashion emits waste not only in physical form, but also in substantial contributions to atmospheric pollution. Cotton is one of the most toxic crops in the world in terms of production. As reported by the Organic Consumers Association, producing cotton employs twenty five percent of all the insecticides in the world and 12 percent of all pesticides, although it is grown on only three percent of the world’s farmland. Admittedly, Textile Exchange, the non-profit, reported in 2013 that Swedish fast fashion giant H&M is the highest user of organic cotton, yet the company’s 2014 sustainability report shows that only a mere 13.7 percent of its entire cotton usage is organic. Organic cotton is grown using techniques and materials that have a very low impact on the environment. Considering that H&M also stated in a press release that it manufactures approximately 600 million articles of clothing annually, H&M’s 13.7 percent use of organic cotton is a more troubling statistic than congratulatory.  It also signifies that the remaining hordes of fast fashion houses employ even less – indicating colossal ongoing environmental damages.

Unfortunately, the commonly suggested solution to this problem is to belittle the public into being “conscious consumers”. Sustainability, however, is not a concept readily associated with fashion. A Sanford Bernstein analysis shows that Primark prices its merchandise twenty percent below Forever21, thirty percent below Old Navy, and forty percent below H&M. The main targets of fast fashion, young consumers, are avid followers of this industry because of the quick gratifications involved through discounted pricing.

Within the fashion industry, sustainability does not easily come to the forefront of consumer’s minds. Therefore, it is less tactical to expect the consumers to take the active initiative, when research has just begun to highlight the economic and environmental consequences of fast fashion. To expect change, intervention must focus on the corporations currently reaping the prime benefits of the “fast fashion” industry.