The Better Cotton Initiative is piloting for the first time in Egypt

The Better Cotton Initiative is piloting for the first time in Egypt

African manufacturers are trying to integrate sustainability into their textile and fashion supply chains as retailers demand compliance with increasingly high standards. But to do so, they require assistance from international organisations to implement change.

"Sustainability is the future, and we're aware of that," explains Nadia Rhaouti, head of the Textile, Clothing and Leather Department at the Moroccan Investment and Trade Agency (AMDIE).

The Moroccan government is providing incentives for companies to be sustainably certified following an announcement this year by Spain's Inditex that it would implement sustainability targets by 2025

As Moroccan manufacturers are key suppliers to this brand, "we need to follow," says Rhaouti, speaking on the sidelines of the Destination Africa exhibition earlier this month in Cairo, Egypt, "but companies need help as certification is expensive." 

It is not the first such initiative. In June last year 94 fashion brands, accounting for 12.5% of the global market, including Lacoste, Tommy Hilfger, Adidas and Esprit, signed a Circular Fashion System Commitment to improve recyclability, improve collection of used garments, and to use pre- and post-consumer recycled textiles.

The Geneva-based International Trade Centre (ITC), through its Global Textiles and Clothing (GTEX) programme, has been seeking to help outsourcing countries improve their export competitiveness as a result, notably in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Madagascar, where it is working with manufacturers to improve sustainability.

Global brands have implemented environmental priority standards for North Africa's largest garment producers, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, notes Matthias Knappe, programme manager for the fibres, textiles and clothing sector at the ITC. "If companies do not comply, they are not a supplier anymore," he explains.

Brand requirements

In Tunisia and Morocco, Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) has set a 2020 target to use 100% sustainably sourced cotton, and by 2030, 100% recycled or sustainably sourced materials. In Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, Hugo Boss, Gap, PVH and Levi's have set a Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) target by 1 January 2020. PVH is to also use 100% more sustainably sourced cotton through the Better Cotton Initiative by 2020. And Gap requires all cotton to be sustainably sourced by 2021, according to Knappe.

In Egypt, Hugo Boss products must use 50% sustainable cotton by 2020, and 80% by 2025, and all Gap cotton will be sustainably sourced by 2021 in Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan. The VF Corporation (owner of the Lee and Wrangler brands) has a longer timeframe, to 2025, for all cotton not from Australia or the US to be grown under a sustainability scheme; for outdoor apparel to be 100% PFC-free, and 50% of its nylon and polyester to come from recycled materials, according to the International Trade Centre.

Incremental changes in resource efficient and cleaner production are already taking place in various African sourcing countries. In Madagascar, clothing and textile manufacturers have switched from using wood burners to generate heat to steel gas boilers, while one company is pressing all cardboard into bricks for staff and locals to use for cooking, instead of them using firewood and contributing to deforestation, says Knappe. In Tunisia and Morocco, factories are recycling sludge and improving waste management.

In Egypt, the ITC is to work with companies to improve sustainability. Some 65 have applied over the past two months, but there is funding for only 35 companies, to be announced later this year, Knappe adds. 

Gradual shift

The longer timeframes set by retailers for environmental change are welcomed by the industry. "Puma is not saying do so now, but gradually and giving suggestions," says Mo Zakir, chairman and CEO of Three Stars Fashion Group, the eleventh largest garment exporter in Egypt, producing 35,000 to 45,000 synthetic garments a day for brands such as Puma and Quiksilver. 

"We are asked about sustainability – recycled polyester and paper hangers. The buyer of Walmart wants recycled fabric and others are asking. We have changed all the lights at the factory; but to change the whole infrastructure, we cannot afford that alone. Egypt is not fully ready for take-off of sustainability, yet but we will soon."

Egyptian garment exports were worth US$1.6bn last year, according to the Textiles, Apparel and Home Textiles Export Council (TEC) of Egypt, the majority heading to the US and Europe. 

There is a heightened sense of needing to comply with brands' sustainability commitments to remain suppliers. "If we don't upgrade the industry, we won't have a future. We need to use to the max the help being offered by the UN, ITC and others," says Magdy Tolba, the chairman of the TEC.

Developing the cotton sector

In Egypt, the United Nations Industry Development Organisation (UNIDO) is working to develop the cotton sector as a way of bolstering sustainability and have a significant portion of the country's cotton output certified by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI).

Egypt has GMO-free high quality cotton production and a vertically integrated industry from raw material to finished product. And Piera Francesca Solinas, a partnership and private sector expert at UNIDO, says such certification could enable Egyptian cotton exporters to better target retailers that are selling luxury items like high-quality Egyptian cotton to younger consumers. 

These buyers are increasingly important, with under 38-year-olds accounting for 33% of luxury clothing purchases globally in 2018, according to Solinas. 

It is a lesson that can be applied to other African cotton producers, such as Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad and Mali. "Twenty retailers are intending to come and be part of projects; we are moving in the right direction, as finished cotton has a lot of value added," Tolba says.

UNIDO is working with the cotton industry and the private sector, including Germany's Hugo Boss and the UK's John Lewis, to develop a traceable and transparent supply chain that could run into Africa.

Its two-year training programmes have partnered with T&C Garments, a major Egyptian denim jeans manufacturer and exporter, and Italian-Egyptian companies Filmar Network and the Albini Group, says Solinas, to improve the sustainability of their production.

The UN agency is also running a 'Re.jeaneration' project to "try and steer the sector to circularity and create synergies," says Sara Berlese, programme officer at the UNIDO regional office in Cairo. "Large brands are already in Egypt, so why not turn denim scraps into high quality fibre? Egypt has vertical production, so recycling can be used in the whole chain."

The industry itself has noticed demand for organic cotton. Samir Riad, general director of clothing manufacturer Riad Group, in Cairo, says his company got the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the Organic Content Standard 100, and WRAP certification this year. "Some buyers only want organic," he says, adding such production only adds about 3% to 5% more per item to costs than conventional cotton.

Other firms are planning to produce recycled fabrics at their primary factories in Asia and then ship to African producers, such as Sri Lanka's Hela Clothing, from Colombo to its factory in Kenya. "Buyers are driven by sustainability more than technology," says Nalin Thilakarathne, Hela Clothing group deputy general manager for sourcing and supply chains.

A further challenge for certain African manufacturers to be sustainable is that low cost labour enables them to be competitive for sourcing, yet local production of fabrics and textiles is often lacking, or are costly compared to importing from China. 

"It is a choice between sustainability or reducing poverty. Unfortunately, we have to import raw materials from China," says Maryse Mbonumutwa Gallagher, director of Belgium-based clothing company Pink Mango, which has a padded jacket factory in Rwanda.

Also discussed at the Destination Africa event was the challenge of better integrating the African garment and textile supply chain within the continent: African garment makers seek supply chain synergies.