The basic needs of every human revolve around food, clothing, and shelter. Since clothing is deemed a basic need, it is trite that the fashion industry is indispensable. With the current human population as of January 2019 estimated to be about 7.8 billion, the fashion industry has indeed experienced considerable growth and success over the last two decades, while facing challenges from global textile and fashion supply chains which require global solutions. This has raised discussions related to the economic, environmental, and social aspects of the industry.
This write-up aims to highlight some of the challenges in balancing commercial interest and sustainability in the African Fashion Industry, with respect to the protection of natural resources, human resources, physical and financial capital, and making reference to the fast-emerging Nigerian Fashion Industry.
SUSTAINABILITY IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY
The concept of sustainability continues to be a grey area for most fashion executives and businesses. For most, the concept remains abstract and theoretical. Though the concept itself can be viewed from different aspects;
- Sustainability in relation to Climate and natural resources;
- Sustainability in relation to Economical and Labour value.
For every business, protecting its capital base remains its prerogative, yet organizations do not generally recognize the possibility of extending this notion to the world’s natural and human resources. If sustainable development is to achieve its potential, it must be integrated into the planning and measurement systems of business enterprises, and for that to happen, the concept must be articulated in terms that are familiar to business leaders.
‘’For the business enterprise, sustainable development means adopting business strategies and activities that meet the needs of the enterprise and its stakeholders today while protecting, sustaining, and enhancing the human and natural resources that will be needed in the future.’’
 https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/, accessed on 13th August, 2021 https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
 Pui-Yan Ho H, Choi T (2012) A Five-R analysis for sustainable fashion supply chain management in Hong Kong: a case analysis. J Fash Mark Manag Int J 16(2):161–175. doi:10.1108/13612021211222815
Business Strategy for Sustainable Development: Leadership and Accountability for the 90s (1992), by the International Institute for Sustainable Development in conjunction with Deloitte & Touche and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
The above quote highlights businesses’ dependence on human and natural resources, in addition to physical and financial capital. It emphasizes that economic activity must not irreparably degrade these natural and human resources.
Consequently, it is clear that there arguably exists a discordance between managing a commercial business and ensuring the sustainability of human and natural resources. Commercial’ is defined in business terms as ‘making or intended to make a profit, from this definition, its primary aim is to generate profit. The definition of sustainability could appear to erode profit, from commercial dealings unless sustainability becomes a priority to corporations.
Furthermore, sustainability should feed into all business decisions and be seen as an explicit component of every Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda. CSR suggests that firms have a responsibility to be ethical, social, and environmental stewards, as well as considering economic impacts and that having a positive impact on society and the planet, as a whole, is as important as making a profit.
PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS AND CONSTRAINTS
While the fashion industry traditionally seeks precision and practicality as the basis for its planning efforts, sustainable development is a concept that is not amenable to a simple and universal definition. It is fluid, and changes over time in response to trends, increased information, and society’s evolving priorities.
The principal objective in the fashion industry is to maximize sales and profitability, although it arguably has a broader social role. In Africa and the world at large, there is no consensus amongst top fashion brands as to the best balance between narrow self-interest and actions taken for the good of society. The fashion industry continually faces the need to trade off what they would ‘like’ to do and what they ‘must’ do in pursuit of financial survival.
Fashion business operations also face trade-offs when dealing with a transition to sustainable practices. For example, a clothing textile company whose plant has excessive effluent discharge might decide to replace it with a more effective treatment facility. But should the company close the existing plant during the Two or Three-year construction period and risk losing market share? Or should it continue to operate the polluting plant despite the cost of fines and adverse public relations? Which is the better course of action in terms of economy, social wellbeing, and the environment?
Moreover, many areas of sustainable development remain technically ambiguous, making it difficult to plan an effective course of action. For example, the fashion industry has had difficulty defining what constitutes sustainable fashion management. In view of dwindling resources, especially through resource-intensive natural fibers like cotton and the environmental impact of petroleum-based fibers like acrylic, polyester, nylon, and spandex, some critics believe that the textile and apparel industry should look for sustainable alternatives which would prevent pollution of the environment. Clearly, more research will be needed to resolve such technical issues.
For a new business without a large capital base, these permits can be really expensive and will affect the price of the final product since the business must remain profitable. The need to enter the market with a low price in order to gain market share may not always be achieved.
- Wages of employees in the society.
Supporters of better pay for the low-income earners have argued that employers who pay their employees below minimum wage are in effect benefiting from their employees who are indeed taxpayers. For example, the general complaint by textile manufacturers is that increasing the minimum wage of employees could lead to job losses due to the financial burden, which will require them to cut jobs in a bid to maintain overheads. Another example of the above reality is the COVID-19 pandemic which has affected the fashion industry tremendously. Some companies have trimmed social and environmental programs due to a decrease in consumers spending. As appalling as this may be for industries affected by the global pandemic lockdown, the fashion industry should not shelve its sustainability investments, but instead protect the human capital and relationships in their supply chains, maintaining key social and environmental programs during this period.
The main challenge is, how do these businesses solve all of these problems in a sustainable manner, so as to generate continuing development? Despite ambiguities about definitions, there is widespread support for sustainable development principles within the business community. However, for that support to grow, it will be important to recognize and reward initiatives that are being taken to turn the concept into reality.
CONSIDERING THE VALUE CHAIN IN THE NIGERIAN FASHION INDUSTRY AND ITS EFFECTS IN EMPLOYING SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES ON PROFITABILITY.
- FABRIC SOURCING
- Textile industry
It is reported that the Nigerian textile industry played a huge role in the development of the Nigerian economy between the 70s and the 90s. The textile industry became the third-largest in West Africa in the 70s and 80s. “A report by the United Nations University (UNU) of the industry in 1987, stated that there were 37 textile firms in the country, operating 716,000 spindles and 17,541 looms”. “Between 1985 and 1991, the industry recorded an annual growth of 67 percent and as of 1991, it employed about 25 percent of the workers in the manufacturing sector.” Unfortunately, the once-celebrated industry has since crumbled, rendering skilled workers in the textiles industry jobless.
 Business Strategy for Sustainable Development: Leadership and Accountability for the 90s (1992), by the International Institute for Sustainable Development in conjunction with Deloitte & Touche and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
 https://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2018/11/07/revitalising-nigerias-ailing-textiles-industry/ accessed on 13th August, 2021
The Multi-Fiber Arrangement (MFA) regulated the quota in the number of exports of finished textile materials from developing countries to developed countries. It was eventually replaced by the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC) in 1995. Under this agreement, the restriction on the number of exports from developing countries to developed countries was removed. In an interview with THISDAY, Iyabo Folawiyo, an esteemed textile merchant, affirmed that the decline in the Nigerian textile industry was due to the fast accession of Nigeria to the WTO in 1995. She maintained that Nigeria had to remove any protection of the local textile industry in line with the WTO rules which ultimately affected the growth of the industry and actively led to its current shattered state.
The consequence of the current state of the textiles industry is a reduction in the revenue generated from the industry, loss of jobs for skilled workers, increase in the unemployment rate, heavy reliance on the importation of textiles, and ultimately, a reduction in the growth of the textiles industry. Depletion in the textiles industry is parallel to a decline in the country’s gross domestic product.
Regardless of the current state of the textile industry, production operations are still being carried out on a lesser scale with damaging effects on the environment. Many textile industries have failed to protect the environment from pollution resulting from the conduct of manufacturing operations with the only objective being to maximize profit at the expense of the environment.
In a study conducted by Oketola and Osibanjo, the textile industry was ranked the second-highest polluting industry in Lagos State, Nigeria, first being chemical and pharmaceutical industries with respect to the release of toxic chemicals into the environment. During the process of production of textiles, a high flow of wastewater is recovered and these effluents are usually disposed into nearby water bodies. This is a huge concern as an estimated 80% of the industries release their processed wastewater without any form of pre-treatment and the toxins can potentially and adversely affect aquatic life, freshwater supply, the environment, and ultimately, public health.
Indeed, the textiles industry has seen better days of high productivity and positive effects on society, however, it would seem that the government and the relevant authorities are not paying close attention to the industry and the pollution resulting from manufacturing operations. Hence, the continual disruption and pollution of environmental constituents. Interestingly, the concept of sustainability particularly the prevention of environmental pollution is not unfamiliar to players in the industry. The quest for increased profit and the cost of effectuating the processes of sustainable development has prevented the observance of due process in carrying out manufacturing operations.
Unfortunately, the decline in the industry and low production level have resulted in a high rate of importation from other countries. Wholesale and retail stores situated in mega markets such as Yaba, Aba, Kano, and Lagos Island have now become a medium for the purchase of textiles for retailers and consumers which said fabrics are predominantly imported with no form of checking their production processes and their effects on the economy. The effect of heavy reliance on importation into a country in relation to its exports is the distortion of the country’s balance of trade and the devaluation of its currency.
Although the government has tried to reduce the level of imports by enforcing the payment of heavy taxes, this has only made matters worse by resulting in a huge overhead cost on fashion entrepreneurs, thereby reducing the ability of employers to pay members of their staff proportionately, failure to ensure the good health and wellbeing of members of staff and failure to promote other sustainable goals such as gender equality, decent work and lifestyle, reduced inequality and building a sustainable community as a whole.
Oketola, A. A. & Osibanjo, O. (2009). Estimating sectoral pollution load in Lagos by industrial pollution projection system (IPPS): Employment versus output. Toxicological and Environmental Chemistry, 91(5), 799–818. doi:10.1080/02772240802614499 [Taylor & Francis Online], [Google Scholar]
- Design Process
There is no doubt that Nigerian designers are talented and are relevantly making good designs. The likes of Tope FnR, Ena Gancio, Amaka Osakwe, to name a few, have caught the attention of both domestic and foreign celebrities such as Beyonce and Michelle Obama who have worn their beautiful designs.
The approach some Nigerian brands have adopted in imbibing sustainable goals into their design process is noteworthy. For example, Omo Aduke, a culture-centric fashion brand prides itself in leveraging on the creativity of the local marginalized hand weavers in remote villages thereby reducing the level of poverty and improving the lives of people through the engagement of local weavers, local tailors, and partnering with over 20 (Twenty) communities. The brand ethically conducts its manufacturing processes by producing its fabrics through a hand-weaving process thereby preventing the release of carbon dioxide into the environment. The brand also produces only fabrics that are ready for consumption in order to prevent the wastage of materials.
However, a closer look at the fashion industry has shown the overlap and duplication of functions among small-scale designers which have led to inefficiency and a high failure rate in the quality of production output. One designer could be involved in the whole process of cutting, sewing, and marketing thereby resulting in bad quality final products which indicates that the outfits can only be used a few times and disposed of very quickly which contravenes sustainable development goals. Creating employment opportunities by procuring the services of skilled persons to participate in every stage of the design process is a sustainable method with the advantage of increased output in production processes and ultimately, an increase in the growth of the economy.
The procedure of designing an outfit has several layers such as pattern drafting, cutting, sewing, and packaging. Wastes are derived during this process and require proper disposal to prevent environmental pollution. Very few Nigerian designers have standardized their waste disposal procedure, others fail to properly dispose of waste materials. A good example of a brand minimizing waste and making good use of left-over materials is K. Aspen, a footwear brand with a focus on craftsmanship that designs and manufactures quality footwear in Nigeria, prides itself in imbibing sustainability in its design process by ensuring all materials are locally sourced from Aba. The brand also controls the level of waste derived from the design process by making wrist bands obtained from waste materials and donating these wrist bands to members of the public on charitable causes.
A visit to a typical Nigerian designer’s store would reveal the extent of waste derived from the design process. Pieces of clothes popularly called ‘pieces’ lie on the ground in a disorganized form. Worse still, these pieces are usually disposed of together with general household waste. Very few Nigerian designers have recognized the need to gather these pieces of clothing materials for re-use and re-purposing. Hence, sustainability processes are not followed. Following sustainable processes would mean expending additional costs which would, in turn, lead to a decrease in profit.
Notably, Omafume Niemogha and a host of others have begun to imbibe the principle of sustainable development in their businesses. Omafume Niemogha, the Creative Director of Pepper Row believes in sustainability. The brand plants trees in rural areas, all in a bid to support and preserve the environment. These brands and many others are making a great impact in the industry and are continually progressing in their businesses. Indeed, the essence of a business enterprise is to make a profit, but adoption of sustainable goals to the fashion industry is important regardless of the cost of ensuring its applicability.
It could be said that very few Nigerians are able to afford fashion items produced in line with sustainable processes. Consumers tend to purchase value brands that are made from cheap materials and are not durable. After going through the rigors of producing and designing an outfit, people would prefer to go for cheap, low-quality, copy-cat designs than identify with a product that has been ethically produced and be willing to pay for the value of these materials. Thus, there is the emergence of fast fashion designers within the industry who are desirous of optimizing profit by producing low-quality fashion items which are constantly in demand. This idea is detrimental to the fashion industry with respect to sustainability and the ability to maximize profit.
WAYS TO BALANCE COMMERCIAL INTEREST AND SUSTAINABILITY IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY.
There are various ways that have been attempted to create a balance between sustainability and commercial interest. These includes:
- Enactment and Enforcement of Laws
Despite the existence of various laws on the prevention of environmental pollution, Nigeria is still struggling with the effect of manufacturing operations in textile industries being one of the major players in the pollution of the environment.
To enjoy the benefits of a sustainable society, the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), which is the agency charged with the prevention of environmental pollution, must insist on 100% compliance of all industries with all effluent quality standards. The economic benefit should never be placed above environmental concerns as asserted by Adedeji and Ako, because, in the end, both are inter-connected and directly correlated.
- Wider government involvement
The need for government to intervene in providing loans and incentives to reduce the financial burden of players in the industry is crucial to further aid their active participation and observance of the principle of sustainability.
Until the government intervenes, the industry will continue to decline, environmental pollution will continue and the objective of instilling sustainable development in the fashion industry will be a mere subject of discussion as fashion players would rather continue to adopt ways to maximize profit, rather than adopt sustainable initiatives.
- Abiding by laws while promoting good working conditions:
There are environmental, social, and economic requirements of the law to put into consideration when venturing into the fashion industry. For example, as a minimum, a fashion company would be expected to source from suppliers while adhering to the laws of the country on production, as well as encouraging the achievement of minimum internally agreed labor standards as set out by the International Labour Organisation. It is imperative to note that ignoring the dictates of law can result in costly fines. 
Generally, the remuneration and working conditions of most workers in the fashion industry are questionable. The European Parliament has used the term “slave labor” to describe the current working conditions of garment workers in Asia.
The need to increase the standard of living of workers in the fashion industry has become necessary following the rot in the labor conditions of workers in the industry. Better pay, good working conditions, and incentives will ultimately encourage dedication, diligence, and growth in employees, thereby improving the level of growth in the fashion industry and the economy.
Also, sustainable fashion brands are champions of employees’ working conditions. The Nigerian Fashion industry can join the movement by defending workers’ rights and working only with ethical suppliers. This is the social aspect of their production process. They can require their suppliers to comply with national laws and regulations, paying special regard to:
- Choice of employment;
- Minimum employment age;
- Zero discrimination and harsh treatment;
- Good terms of employment, including pay rates, working hours, safety and health, positive work environment;
- Freedom of association;
- They can also establish a healthy and positive work environment for their employees.
- Using technology to enhance sustainable development in the fashion industry:
Few players in the industry have started imbibing sustainability in their businesses. The use of technology to enhance sustainability in the fashion industry is a means of changing the condition of the industry. In developed countries, a common online index has been developed to measure the environmental performance of clothing products. The index measures the sustainability performance of a given company or product. If a company scores high, the company is rewarded with higher visibility in its search engine. Using technology will aid the growth of sustainable development in Nigeria and act as a check on the level of compliance among key players in the industry. This cannot be achieved alone without considerable government intervention.
- Corporate Social Responsibility:
It is the reality of the current business environment that we have to take serious account of sustainability and the broader issues such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) of which sustainability is just one part. Not doing so is a risk in itself which could result in damaged reputation, loss of market share, and so on. It is for the purchasing organization to select and develop the social, labor, and environmental standards they expect of their supply base. These are often above and beyond the minimum required standards agreed, in order to minimize potential risks and enhance their reputation.
Also, increasing external scrutiny, investor and consumer awareness, and pressure on organizations to behave in an ethical manner and adhere to the standard practice of employment. A powerful example of the long-term damage to reputation that ignores this aspect of the business is what happened to NIKE when it was revealed to consumers that, further down the supply chain, child workers in Asia making NIKE footballs were working in horrendous conditions. It resulted in mass marches and demonstrations outside NIKE stores in the US, resulting in a damaged reputation, a slump in sales, and a considerable loss of market share. Although this was initially an ethical sourcing issue, in the longer term, NIKE has had to question its sustainability of supply. Acting responsibly by taking full account of social, economic as well as environmental considerations is now paramount to its organization.
- Designing with sustainability in mind:
The right fashion accessory does more than fulfill its primary function. A dress, for instance, does more than just cover the human body. It’s a statement, reflecting one’s aesthetic style, one’s personal beliefs, and one’s moral and social standings.
Textile waste is generated yearly, a brand ought to send an environmentally conscious message through fashion. An African fashion brand like Studio One Eighty-Nine has made a name for itself by ensuring the safety of the environment for future generations without compromising on the quality of its products.
As sustainability continues to gain popularity and exploration of its concept deepens, innovative designers conceive new approaches. The new methods go beyond production, distribution and recycling. They are revolutionizing how we use clothes, extending the lifespan of each fashion item.
Educating designers about the advantages of ensuring sustainability in their production processes are just as important as educating consumers on the need to purchase sustainable outfits. The purchase of cheap materials has an effect on the working conditions designers and their employees encounter. Many employees receive meager salaries due to the low profit made from the production of cheap materials. As Lucy Siegle, a scholar and writer on sustainability in the fashion industry rightfully opined, “Fast fashion is not free. Someone somewhere is paying.”
Obviously, the result of purchasing cheap and unsustainable fashion items is a continual decline in the working conditions of employees producing these cheap materials.
- Participating in awareness-raising initiatives:
Consumer psychology plays a significant role in promoting sustainable development. If fashion brands understand consumption issues that are to blame for the sustainability challenges facing the industry, these challenges can be addressed by educating the consumers.
- Revitalization of the textile industry to provide employment opportunities:
The once glorified and successful industry has crumbled due to poor financial support and poor government involvement in the industry. It is pertinent that government revitalizes this promising sector to put an end to full reliance on the oil sector and in effect, better the lives of the populace by providing loans and other incentives to key players in the industry.
Efforts are being made to resuscitate the Nigerian textile industry. The Nigerian Textile Industry Resuscitation Bill 2020 was proposed and is currently on its passage to law. The passage of the Bill would have an effect on the industry ranging from the expansion of the production of cotton by granting loans to farmers and the provision of a 5 (Five) year tax holiday to foreign companies if they open production plants in Nigeria.
- Cost of Copying and encouraging quality:
Copying of fashion design is as old as the fashion industry itself and it is a growing trend in both African and Western countries. The fashion industry is built around the idea that trendy clothes should be available to consumers at accessible prices. Unfortunately, that means altering a trend to make it a little more wearable for the average consumer thus, affecting the creativity and general commercial interest of original designers whose works are being copied.
There is a belief that copycats actually add to the fast-fashion world because they speed up the trend cycle resulting to multiple productions which are sold at a cheaper rate to consumers. This was echoed by Christopher Sprigman, a law professor at New York University who once told the Business of Fashion that copycats help create and, subsequently, destroy fashion trends, which just keeps the fashion cycle in motion. He stated that copying is “the engine driving the fashion industry.” He calls this concept the “Piracy Paradox.”
It is submitted that in order to encourage the growth of sustainable fashion, fashion designers should innovate ways to shift consumers mindsets from quantity to quality by encouraging people to buy high quality items.
Indeed, Nigerian fashion companies and the African fashion industry at large need to increase the awareness and importance of adopting sustainable development. It could be said that the concept of sustainable development in the fashion industry has become an ongoing concept to some (novel and in its pre-developed state amidst middle level designers).
Following the collapse of the then thriving textiles industry in Nigeria, the ‘get rich syndrome’ in the minds of key players in the fashion industry, the unceasing pollution of the environment from manufacturing operations as well as the cost of diligently observing sustainable practices, very few renowned fashion specialists have imbibed the concept of sustainability with others struggling to make profit on all levels without recourse to sustainable development.
Nigerian Brands can lead the way to a socially, environmentally and economically better future in the fashion industry by creating sustainable designs, taking care of its workforce and raising awareness among fashion consumers, whilst still maximizing profit potential. We are hopeful for a huge turnaround in this field. Change is imperative!
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BASHIR O. RUFAI
Partner, Stalwart Legal
Fatima Oni (Mrs.)
Legal Practitioner & Fashion Enthusiast
Kaetochukwu M. Udeh
Senior Associate, Stalwart Legal
Noel J. Arthur
Associate, Stalwart Legal