In the fashion industry, the conversation on sustainability is an ever-evolving one. The principles and concepts that decide what products are ethical or sustainable are ever shifting and expanding. So I read what I could and for my own benefit, I surmised that a fashion brand is ethical and sustainable fashion if the brand “…treats its workers fairly while ensuring that it does no harm to the environment”.
Now the applicability of this definition might seem relatively reasonable to you but so far, it has continued to elude the world of fashion. Most mass market brands would rather die than pay ethical wages and lots of artisanal brands out there are too expensive to be taken seriously by average persons like you and I. Oh. And let’s not forget those other brands whose fabrics release plastic into our oceans.
To tackle most of these problems, technological advancements have unsurprisingly been looked upon as the solution. Blockchain is expected to enable consumers trace the origin of their clothes; AI will be used to combat waste in clothing manufacturing and so on. I agree that all these can help, but I also believe that if technology holds the key to sustainability, then humankind must be the door. This belief was further strengthened after my recent visit to Akwete, on assignment.
Akwete is a small town in Abia State, Eastern Nigeria. This town is renowned for and actually named after their traditional weaving methods because they produce “Mkpuru Akwete” which directly translates as “Akwete fabric”.
The Akwete fabric is almost always playful with colors and the traditional Igbo weaving demonstrated in its making processes sisal-hemp, raffia and spun cotton into finished product on a wide vertical loom. The coarse raffia materials were used by masquerades and in the past as head gear for warriors and the more comfortable and colorful spun cotton is used to weave cloth for everyday wearing.
As far as its origin goes, Da Nwakata is highly acclaimed as the pioneer of the incredibly intricate weft patterns on Akwete cloth. I learnt that she unravelled and studied threads from an open woven cotton cloth locally known as Acham, brought to the area through trade with the Potoki (Portuguese) sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries. Then, she applied what she learnt and proceeded to secretly weave the new style of design that will later come to be known as Akwete.
At the time she lived, women in her community were proscribed from engaging in certain potentially economic ventures and so the style of her weave structures were revealed only after her death by her deaf and dumb friend; who was the only person she permitted in her company when she wove her cloths.
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Akwete cloth became popular when Abia State became a center of palm oil and kernel trade. The people of Igboland began trading Akwete cloth for all sorts of products with people of other regions and ethnicities, and the cloth’s fame spread. The women who make Akwete cloth usually start doing so at a very young age.
While the drive for a more sustainable fashion industry might just be picking up in the rest of the world, it has been the norm in Akwete for a very long time. I examined closely the various stages of their production of the Akwete fabric and I could find no downside; every principle of ethical and sustainable fashion was upheld.
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For instance, according to the tradition of the Akwete people, only women may weave the Mkpuru Akwete. This is to afford the women a source of empowerment that can never be taken away by society, no matter how patriarchal it gets. This rule is taken so seriously that there are rumors of actual curses to be met by any man who intervenes in the weaving process. The weaving in the community is managed on a bigger scale by a co-operative society, set up and run by the women. This co-operative society sets agenda on issues such as the fabric quality, and Copyright (yep, you read that right) while each woman produces what she wants on her own. Almost all families have looms on their balconies for the women to weave and not only are these women empowered, their voices are well protected with regards to the progress of their trade.
Originally, the Mkpuru Akwete was woven from hemp and raffia but in keeping with the times, most of these women now use durable embroidery thread, produced and imported into the country from China. This is the only aspect of the value chain I found not managed by the community; even their looms were made from wood, sourced locally from the raffia palm and built by their men (who are permitted to build but forbidden to weave).
Akwete has also managed to acquire mass market status. It is true that certain complex designs are made only on order, but the Akwete fabric can be found in various markets all over Nigeria, as well as in other African markets across the continent. Akwete has existed for millennia. It has been marketed all over the world and been worn at different times by prominent people, one of whom was the former British Prime Minister.
If you needed any more proof here is it; ethical and sustainable fashion is clearly achievable on a global scale. The people directly involved in the production process, and not just the brand, must see the work they do as more than just another product. The “Mkpuru Akwete” for instance is not just any fabric to these women, but their heritage and a way of life. It represents their survival form the oppressions of an unbending patriarchal system, their subsequent empowerment and the resultant creativity. Therefore, producing these fabrics in any way less than ethical is simply not acceptable. That’s why their products are well-sought after and the reason their fabrics will always be bought.
The Akwete women aren’t alone in this. For instance, the people of Kano, in Northern Nigeria have been dying fabric for centuries with nothing but organic dyes made from plants. They extract the dyes themselves and the finished cloth are so finely done that they popularly give the factory-dyed ones a run for their money. These are concepts and practices that modern fashion is only beginning to grasp and accept. And while we hold seminars and discuss Blockchain, these women keep churning out the most ethical and sustainable fabrics ever made.
Humankind has been wearing clothes for a very long time; and not until recently did we learn that our desire to cover our nakedness was a threat to the environment. A viable path to sustainability then, lies in stepping back to simply consider how we had manage to wear clothing all those years without destroying our planet. I am not a historian but even I have understood that we can build a sustainable future in fashion, if we prudently examine the past, and then make improvements where necessary.
At the end of my trip, I came away with profound sense of pride and honor. I was proud that before the Westerners came to our shores, and long before fast fashion, my people were the forerunners of sustainable fashion.
And I was proud that this continues, in these remote places, to date.
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All images photographed and supplied by author.