Shifting towards more sustainable production in the fashion and leather value chains is not only essential to protect the environment – it has become paramount for East African manufacturers to be internationally competitive.
The Fashion and Leather sectors are among the most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sustainability has become more important as pressure on the industry has increased. That was the overwhelming message that came out of the webinar hosted by SITA, which took place last Tuesday. The virtual event was organized in partnership with the India’s Council for Leather Exports (CLE) and Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM). The webinar was attended by 230 industry players from India, East Africa, and across the world.
The webinar got off to a positive start, with opening remarks from Mr Aqeel Ahmed Panaruna, Chairman of the Council for Leather Exports (CLE) and Leather Sector Skills Council India, who stressed the importance of accepting new ways of working. Mr Panaruna highlighted the positive initiatives that have already come out of the pandemic – particularly in making the industry cleaner.
Ms. Phyllis Wakiaga, CEO, Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) – explained that Textile, Clothing, Leather and Footwear (TCLF) are priority sectors for Kenya and the region, since they drive the sustainability agenda in manufacturing, but unfortunately both sectors have taken a big hit due to COVID-19.
The panel explained how sustainability is an essential ingredient in market competiveness. In the words of Mr. Irshad Ahmed Mecca, Managing Director, Farida Group, “sustainability is not a choice, it’s an entry point to today’s market.”
The speakers then went on to map out East Africa’s road to sustainability. Five clear priorities emerged:
Mr B Lakshmi Narayana, former Chairman of SIMA-CDRA, pointed to good government policy as essential to making an industry ‘tick’. Echoing this, Mr Cen Williams, Africa Hub Leader, PVH Group, highlighted the role of national legislation in promoting sustainability initiatives. Mr Williams also remarked on the importance of government understanding. East African governments have a real grasp of the sustainability concept, he said. This is to their credit: development aspirations can only be fulfilled if governments understand sustainability as key to incentivizing – and indeed motivating – foreign direct investment.
Mr Williams simultaneously conveyed PVH’s commitment to global environmental standards. This is representative of a wider trend: private standards initiatives are emerging as an important mode of market governance in the sector. This was communicated by Mr Klaas Nuttbohm, Implementation Senior Manager, Roadmap to Zero (ZDHC). ZDHC is a private standard initiative (to which PVH are a member); they are a group of apparel and footwear brands and retailers working together to lead the industry towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020. The success of such initiatives represents a major opportunity to streamline the sector’s route to sustainability.
The heart and soul of sustainability is in the solutions themselves. Participants shared a number of good examples of innovation. Mr B Lakshmi Narayana, former Chairman of SIMA-CDRA, said that the push for sustainability begins at the very beginning of the supply chain, mentioning that a good quality seed is worth ten times the value by the time it reaches product level.
Sustainable solutions come in different shapes and sizes. In the case of Green Nettle Textiles, it is a whole business model. Ms Jackline Wambui, COO, explained the company’s back-story: it is hard to grow crops in the Kenyan highlands, which arrests economic growth in the region; green stinging nettles, however, grow in abundance! The founders learnt to extract fibre from the nettles for use in the textile industry.
Technology and green chemistry are at the heart of sustainable solutions such as Green Nettle Textiles. Ms Dorothy Tembo, Executive Director a.i., ITC, mentioned the marked improvements seen in the leather production industry in this respect: cleaner practices, fewer hazardous chemicals and reduced water wastage. Now mainstreamed, these environmentally-friendly tanning methods have become cheaper for producers. This was also highlighted by Dr K J Sreeram, Director, Central Leather Research Institute, who sketched out how sustainable chemistry can reduce processing steps. He also conveyed the value of working with known chemistries in the search for sustainable solutions (particularly in these challenging and high pressure times).
This quest for innovation is what drives Fashion for Good, as explained by Ms. Priyanka Khanna, Manager, International Expansion, Fashion for Good. Fashion for Good source winning innovations and finance schemes for new technology to showcase to its partners. This raises awareness and advocates for them to be adopted far and wide. It also serves the business interests of partners, who seek to be more competitive.
Upskilling is another key component for sustainability. Over time, it boosts and sustains morale, innovation and productivity. For the benefit of East African participants, Mr. Panaruna presented what he deems as a ‘recipe’ for success for skills development: firstly, strong institutions – which are given full government support in India. According to the CLE Chairman, the second ingredient is to engender real commitment from employers. Thirdly, he emphasized the importance of educating the workforce through training programmes, recognising the importance of India’s Skills Council.
Governments have a central role in orchestrating all three, which brings us full circle to the overarching theme: partnership.
Ms. Tembo pointed out right at the start of the webinar that identifying areas of cooperation and partnerships is essential. With the themes that emerged, it’s plain to see how cooperation is the catalyst for realizing all four themes and recommendations.
. In fact, the webinar was itself a case-in-point of the value of coming together. Only a collaborative and connected sector can knowledge be transferred and consensus built for sustainability.