Linking Economic Transformation to Circular Economy Goals
The case of Africa’s garment industry
An Integrated Approach to Sustainable Development
Never before has the question of development been as complex as it is today. During most of the 20th century, “development” was just another term for unleashing economic growth and productivity in non-industrialized countries. However, there is now a mounting consensus that development must extend beyond mere growth and also address environmental and social inclusion considerations. This is most prominently reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which encompass economic, social, and environmental aspirations for 2030.
To achieve sustainable development, it is critical to look beyond individual SDGs and identify how a subset of these goals could be simultaneously achieved. As not all of these goals align perfectly, adopting an integrated approach can help identify and address potential trade-offs while reinforcing synergies. This article analyzes how sustainable and inclusive industrialization objectives (SDG 9) can be achieved in the context of the garment industry in Africa while at the same time addressing sustainable consumption and production objectives (SDG 12).
To achieve sustainable development, it is critical to look beyond individual SDGs and identify how a subset of these goals could be simultaneously achieved.
Achieving economic transformation in the manufacturing industry is also a key objective of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and will be critical to unleash growth across the African continent. Shifting from a linear production model to a circular model is necessary to stay within planetary boundaries and reduce local pollution resulting from unsustainable production practices. This shift will become increasingly important as the European Union (EU), Africa’s main export market for garments, plans to adopt the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation. This regulation will impose strict eco-design and performance requirements on garments sold in EU markets, as well as mandate the inclusion of a digital product passport.
The Urgency of Transitioning Toward a Circular Garment Industry
Garment sales have almost doubled over the last 15 years, reflecting a growing global middle class, the “fast fashion” phenomenon, and the rapid increase in the production of synthetic fibres. The current system of textile and apparel production is predominantly linear: non-renewable resources such as oil, fertilizers, and chemicals are extracted and processed to manufacture garments, which are then discarded, incinerated, or end up in landfills. This process puts great pressure on natural resources. The fashion industry is the second-largest water consumer and contributes up to 10% of global carbon emissions—exceeding the combined emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping.
A transition toward a circular garment industry could greatly ease the environmental burden caused by the industry. It can encourage a shift in consumer behaviour away from fast fashion and toward more durable clothing or reduced consumption. Additionally, it can decrease the industry’s environmental footprint by using renewable resources in the production process, cutting water and electricity consumption, and minimizing the use of virgin materials through recycling, upcycling, and reuse.
Opportunities for Africa
Considering not only the reduced environmental impact but also economic and developmental benefits, Africa stands to gain much from pursuing a circular textile and apparel industry. Three opportunities stand out:
Promote the Production of Sustainable Inputs
Africa produces almost 6% of the world’s cotton—most of which is exported in raw form. Cotton, however, is also one of the most resource-intensive cash crops, requiring 20,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton, in addition to large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers. To address this, cotton-producing countries in Africa are working to produce more sustainable and less resource-intensive cotton. In 2022, 900,000 African farmers were using the Cotton Made in Africa standard. With demand growing for sustainably produced clothing, regeneratively produced cotton is in high demand, creating new opportunities for African cotton growers to invest in sustainable agriculture.
At the same time, African states can develop cotton substitutes, such as hemp, which is being piloted by countries including Malawi, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. African businesses can also explore developing potential cotton substitutes from plants already grown in the region, such as pineapple, bamboo, and coconut. For example, pineapple is being used to develop a fibre called Piñatex, businesses are turning agricultural waste into a cotton-like fibre called Agraloop, and Uganda-based Texfad is producing high-quality banana fibre textiles and handicrafts.
African governments could explore investing in sustainable cotton production or developing cotton substitutes to promote vertical integration of the garment industry.
Commercializing these new fibres could generate more value-added for Africa’s exports and encourage vertical integration in its garment sector. Around 90% of the continent’s raw cotton is exported to Asia, where it is transformed into yarn or fabric that is then shipped back to Africa. African governments could explore investing in sustainable cotton production or developing cotton substitutes to promote vertical integration of the garment industry.
To become commercially viable, sizable investments are needed to bring development costs down and make these new fibres available on a larger scale. This means that while current experimentation with new fibres is promising, the benefits of using them as cotton substitutes will likely materialize in the long term.
Green Africa’s Garment Production Process
African countries are mainly engaged in apparel manufacturing, which is both the most labour-intensive phase and the lowest in value-added, involving sewing, cutting, and finishing activities. This presents an opportunity to explore how “greening” garment manufacturing could generate value addition for Africa. Indeed, greening the manufacturing process would not only enhance the sustainability of Africa’s garment industry but would give African countries a competitive advantage in a rapidly changing industry—especially given that apparel-supplying countries in Asia have not yet fully embraced circular production.
African countries can green the production process by using renewable inputs (clean energy), sourcing textiles from sustainable raw materials (regenerative organic cotton), using less water for production and fewer harmful chemicals, and employing innovative recycling technologies. Adopting these technologies can offer a competitive advantage by lowering costs over the long run while simultaneously addressing the garment industry’s environmental impact.
Some African countries are already investing in sustainable environmental practices in the textile and apparel industry. Much of the growth in Ghana’s garment exports has been driven by the adoption of more environmentally friendly practices, enabled by the installation of wastewater facilities, improvements in air quality, and the use of more sustainable practices in fabric creation. Ghana is also promoting eco-labels through public procurement.
Ethiopia’s Hawassa Industrial Park is Africa’s first zero-emissions textile park. It has green facilities that use renewable energy (including zero-liquid-discharge facilities to treat water waste) and has implemented effective waste management practices. While this could be a model for the rest of the continent, it is crucial to ensure that the costs of these investments can be recovered by applying the polluter-pays principle and pricing wastewater at a sufficiently high tariff. While this would increase the cost of production for multinational garment companies operating in Ethiopia, it would also facilitate compliance with the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation, which, once adopted, will be necessary to access the EU market.
Repurpose Textile and Apparel Waste
Africa is the world’s biggest market for used clothes, accounting for just over 30% of imports. These garments are mostly destined for local reuse, with the remainder ending up in landfills and informal waste streams. Concerns about the impact of second-hand clothing on Africa’s textile industry have led some African countries to consider banning imports of such garments to protect the local industry.
While the influx of low-quality second-hand clothing has generated considerable pushback, it also presents an untapped opportunity for the continent to develop new industries and create employment. African countries could, for example, add value to second-hand clothing by repurposing it into other products such as backpacks and purses. This would not only advance circular economy objectives but could also create jobs and help transform the continent’s economy. While these activities are mostly informal and carried out by small businesses or individuals, investing in collection and sorting centres and recycling facilities for repurposing second-hand clothing could have a transformative impact.
Another way to leverage the influx of used clothing is by recycling waste into fibres that can be used, together with virgin fibres, to produce yarns. Some small firms in Africa are already doing this. For instance, Egypt’s Sharabati Denim uses post-consumer garments as recycled feedstock to produce new jeans, and South Africa’s Rewoven is in the early stages of diverting textile waste produced by clothing manufacturers from landfills and establishing recycling facilities. These examples suggest there is a skill base—albeit small—that could be tapped into, as well as dormant skills that could help African economies become frontrunners in the production of recycled textile products, catering both to the internal and export markets. However, these skills and businesses must be significantly scaled up to have a transformative impact on second-hand apparel imports into Africa.
To ensure that turning used clothing into new products or yarn creates economic value for Africa, it is important to invest not only in sorting facilities but also in developing, accessing, and/or transferring the required recycling technology. African countries could collaborate to develop regional green hubs or production facilities, leveraging the market access opportunities created by the African Continental Free Trade Area. They can do so by cutting tariffs and non-tariff barriers on second-hand clothing, or recycled yarns and stimulating the development of larger markets. Moreover, the agreement’s Investment Protocol could stimulate intra-African investment, including in facilities important to developing a circular textiles and apparel industry, while the protocols on intellectual property and e-commerce could facilitate the uptake of relevant digital technologies.
In sum, while it is a possibility that African countries should explore, transforming Africa’s second-hand clothing challenge into an economic opportunity will not be easy.
The Importance of Adopting a Proactive Approach
Ultimately, the opportunities identified in this paper can only materialize if African countries adopt a proactive approach to linking circular economy principles with their economic transformation objectives in the garment sector—something that is largely missing today. This could be done as part of a circular economy roadmap for the garment industry or an industrial policy plan that integrates circular economy principles, focusing investment in areas of synergies while addressing trade-offs.
Failure to adopt a proactive approach not only risks slow implementation of the circular textile and apparel transition—crucial for SDG 12—but also represents a missed opportunity for economic transformation and industrial upgrading from an economic perspective.
Colette van der Ven is the founder and director of Geneva-based TULIP Consulting, which advises developing countries and international organizations on how to leverage legal and policy frameworks to promote sustainable development.
This article builds upon ideas that were originally developed in a white paper presented in a workshop on trade and the circular economy, organized by the Remaking the Global Trading System for a Sustainable Future Project (Sicily, May 2023).
You might also be interested in
Integrating Sustainability Standards in South–South Trade Policies Can Improve Producers' Livelihoods in Developing Countries, New Report Shows
Trade between developing countries and regions—known as "South–South trade"—is growing rapidly. In the past couple of decades, its value has grown almost tenfold, from USD 600 billion in 1995 to USD 5.3 trillion in 2021. A new report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development explores how governments in developing countries are using voluntary sustainability standards in their trade policies to ensure this growth benefits small-scale producers, communities, and the environment.
Integrating Standards in South–South Trade Policies Can Improve Producers' Livelihoods, New Report Shows
New report explores how governments in developing countries are using sustainability standards in trade policy to ensure that growth in South–South trade benefits farmers and the environment.
Sustainability Initiatives Falling Short for Sugar Cane Farmers in Developing Countries
Sugar cane is considered one of the most valuable agricultural commodities in the world and provides livelihoods for more than 100 million people in 120 countries. But many sugar cane farmers in developing countries live in poverty—and initiatives aimed at supporting them are falling short of their potential. A new report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development explores recent market trends in the sugar cane sector, what these trends mean for producers in developing countries, and what voluntary sustainability standards, governments, and private sector actors can do to improve farmers' incomes.
South-South Trade and Voluntary Sustainability Standards
This report explores how voluntary sustainability standards are being used in trade policy to increase the trade of more sustainable products between developing countries.