Fashion is inherently time conscious, with many trendy styles fondly recollected by the period where such styles were in the limelight; two examples are the Boyfriend Blazers of the 2009s and the Spring Neo Neon trend of the 2012s. Globally, the fashion industry prevalently runs in four seasons a year: fall, winter, spring and summer. Designers/creators worked months ahead, planning each fashion season and making risky predictions on what the consumers desired to see/wear, until the mid-20th century. This process essentially ‘centralised power’ to the designers, leaving consumers robotic, ‘swallowing’ whatever the designers put out for a particular season. During this era, fashion was elitist and inaccessible, and had stringent rules that were mandatorily followed.
Investopedia defines Fast Fashion (FF) as “a term used to describe clothing designs that move quickly from the catwalk runway to stores to take advantage of trends. The collections are often based on styles presented at Fashion Week runway shows or worn by celebrities…” FF designs do not necessarily have to come from the runway; they could be expressions of different designers’ sketches or already constructed wears. FF makes for faster, cheaper manufacturing and low cost fast shipping.
The global market for the Fast Fashion Industry (FFI) is projected to reach US$39.84 billion by 2027 from US$25.09 in 2020 at a CAGR of 7%. Major players in the international FF market include Zara, H&M Group, Shein, Primark and Forever 21. These companies are manufacturers, producers and distributors, but often outsource the actual production process.
In Nigeria, the structure for the FFI is peculiar, because the industry in the strict interpretation of its function is still foundational; albeit there is a whole business structure that mirrors it, producing fashion items swiftly, based on trends and ‘notable’ events that occur within the public space.
Surprisingly, there is a somewhat organised business structure skilled in production and manufacturing, situated in the South Eastern part of Nigeria. It mirrors the FFI but skips the design stage, making copies of their other designers’ creations. This makes it a breeding ground for designs and trademark infringement.
This article examines the sustainability of the FFI, against the life span of the traditional fashion industry. It considers also its economic implications from the perspectives of taxation, intellectual property regulation and its potentialities as an asset for the growth of the Nigerian economy. This article will discuss FFI’s environmental footprint and concerns, whilst making necessary recommendations on how to make its own mark as a segment of a booming Nigerian fashion industry.
Fast Fashion: Nature and Business Proposition
Nigeria’s economic challenges is forcing her to pay more attention to non-oil exports, encouraging Nigerian products that can serve regional needs and ultimately, compete on the global stage. The NFI is distinctive, because most of the designs are heavily influenced by styles that are unique to Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage. Traditional fashion pieces like the ‘gele’, ‘agbada’ and ‘akwuocha’ reflects this heritage. The Sub Saharan fashion market is worth US$31 billion with Nigeria, largely represented by effervescent small and medium scale enterprises, accounting for about 15% or US$4.7 billion.. Nigeria is currently at the heart of Africa’s fashion, heavily influencing many African countries’ fashion trends.
So far, the NFI has been growing in size, aesthetics and sophistication. This rise is attributed to increased demand from Nigerian consumers’ greater interest in for Nigerian brands. Events like the Lagos Fashion Week, the African Fashion Week and the GTCO Fashion Weekend have spearheaded this movement through their consistent annual runway shows, exemplifying commitment to growing Nigerian fashion brands.
Nigerian designers are honing their craft, making distinctive creations while Nigerian fashion brands are showcased at reputable events all over the world; gaining international acclaim, with a myriad of awards acknowledging their hard work. The players have, independently, through their zeal and drive, built a successful industry that have manifested as a global fashion force. Designers like Deola Sagoe of House of Deola, Mai Atafo of Atafo and Folake Folarin Coker of Tiffany Amber are prominent names in the success story of Nigerian fashion.
Whilst clothing is a necessity, many consumers would rather be in trendy clothes; thus, FF allows the consumer to purchase new, cheap and fashionable clothes attending to the consumer’s rising needs for trendy clothes. The nature of the FF commodities are clothes/ accessories that are worn only a few times, discarded and replaced with the more recent trends. FF is a phenomenon that was inspired by fast foods, reflective of how brands and retailers use all means possible to target more profit.Considering the per capita income of Nigerians, FF seems like a really good idea because it creates an avenue to be fashionable on a budget.
On the other hand, the NFI remains elitist, contrasting the basic functions of availability and affordability that FF creates. Notably, Nigeria’s large population could potentially provide profitability springboard to FF. The tradesmen at Ariaria International Market in Aba, Abia State exemplify this possibility: they manufacture clothing and accessories from scratch, and have been making decent profit therefrom. Thus, the production process of Ariaria Market mimics the existing nature of the global FFI. These clothes are produced swiftly, cheaper than mainstream fashion pieces, and based on the current trends in design and function. Being therefore more ‘disposable’, they are seen as inferior and transient, commonly referred to as “Aba-made” products.
This market is imperfect, but “perfect”, as a foundational step in creating a FFI for Nigeria. A FFI can be born out of leveraging the already vibrant Ariaria market. This market (which thrives without governmental support and funding) is one with a lot of promise. Many of the traders run their business as sole proprietors and are cumulatively significant employers of labour. The market presently holds a capacity of over 32,000 stores where the owners of these businesses engage labour under the elaborate Igbo Apprenticeship System famous in South East Nigeria.
Care should be taken because if it is made to continue as it is now on a large scale, Nigeria may not reap the full benefits of the industry (discussed in more detail below). The industry presently has the strength to cater only to an exclusively Nigerian market. It has done wonderfully in this aspect with stable distribution of its products among markets across Nigeria.
Intellectual Property (IP) Regulatory Dimensions
IP has a vital function in encouraging innovation. Manufacturers and innovators will be inspired to develop new inventions when they know they get compensation for their inventions and can grant licenses on commercial terms to those wishing to use and disseminate their creations. Without protection for their works, creators will not reap the full benefits of their products and will do less research and development.
Fashion Design is a product of an individual’s creativity and intellect and as such is deserving of protection by way of IP rights. It takes special skills to muse, sketch and craft designs out of mere fabrics which will have the approval of the general public. Fashion in the sense of the word refers and is not limited to clothing and accessories. It is a coveted skill that deserves compensation and exclusion because it invokes the basic economic principle of buying and selling either on a small or large scale that if left porous will be at the mercy of free riders and imitators. This non regulation could drastically affect the number of innovations that leads to creation of designs and commodities.
In trademark law, a personal name can only be protected as a trademark if the public has come to see that person’s name as the source of the fashion products on which it is branded. This level of recognition does not happen quickly, typically only after extensive advertising and promotion as a brand name.
Here is another narrative: “On 14th February 2013, Tiffany & Co. brought a lawsuit against Costco for trademark infringement, dilution, counterfeiting, unfair competition, false and deceptive business practices relating to the use of the Tiffany name in connection to non-Tiffany engagement rings. Costco was ordered to pay US$25 million for this infringement in a summary judgment. The Second Circuit vacated the judgment, holding that the District Court’s determination was inappropriate at the summary judgment stage.”
An unregistered mark prevents a design from instituting an action in court for the infringement of his trademark, but could successfully bring an action in passing off. The registration of trademarks prevents trademark theft while increasing international recognition of a designer’s brand.
Under the Patents and Designs Act (PDA), an industrial design is defined as any combination of lines or colours or both, and any three-dimensional form whether or not associated with colours, is an industrial design, if it is intended by the creator to be used as a model or pattern to be multiplied by industrial process and is not intended solely to obtain a technical result. Like trademarks, design ownership is not automatic, the holder has to have the design registered subject to certain conditions. The PDA sets out conditions by which an industrial design will be deemed registrable which is novelty and its contradiction to public order/morality.
Upon registration, the proprietary rights conferred on a designer protects unique, conceptual designs and their over lapping interests. In BlackBerry v. Typo Products, Blackberry Limited brought an action against Typo LLC over the design infringement of their QWERTY keyboard. The subject matter of the case alleged by BlackBerry is based on the design of a keyboard that can be snap-fitted on to an iPhone, so as to make it look like the BlackBerry keyboard.
There have been plethora of scenarios where upcoming designers have called out established FF brands for copying and profiting from their designs without permission. A designer, Aazhia accused Fashion Nova and the music artiste Meghan Thee Stallion for allegedly stealing the design of her TLZ L’Femme dress with their “Chase the Bag” shoulder pad mini dress in a collaborative collection with Meghan.
Kim Kardashian had famously brought more attention to this topic when she reprimanded Fashion Nova for allegedly making knock off copies from designer clothes that she (Kim Kardashian) posted on her Instagram. She accused the brand of giving off impressions of a relationship with her, potentially ruining the relationship she had with high end fashion designers. The brand issued an apology to Kardashian, confirming that she had no relationship with the brand, directing the issue of responsibility for the IP theft to their different vendors globally, and not Fashion Nova directly.
Therefore, trademarks provide minimal protection against FF copying. All things being equal, brand names give the most security against fakes, particularly in luxury fashion, where infringers exploit brand awareness.
For every vendor who sells original brands that profits the maker, there are a lot others who prefer to sell knock offs for quick and uncontrolled profit. In 2018, Nigeria’s Super Eagles captured fashion spotlight at the World Cup in Russia for their attractive kit. The aesthetically pleasing jersey retailed for US$85 but there was a counterfeit market that sold the jersey for as low as
N2,000 (US$5)! Anecdotally, more people ‘rocked’ the counterfeited jersey more than the original.
For an authentic FFI in Nigeria, the problem of counterfeiting and freeloading the IP rights of others needs to be addressed. FF as a potential industry needs to employ creativity and innovative designs to cure this intellectual property theft problem. Participants of the business may need to have Distribution Agreements (DA) with designers. With a DA, a designer grants a distributor an exclusive or a non-exclusive right to buy, sell or promote its products in a defined geographic area. Presently, this agreement is not commonly used in Nigeria for fashion related transactions.
FF clothes and accessories may be trendy and easily accessible but have numerous underlying ethical and environmental concerns. The availability of these cloth pieces has created a trope, one that suggests that they are easily disposable.
Many have expressed concerns on the dire long term effect of unregulated FF activities on the planet. This has inspired some people in the fashion space to clamour for “slow fashion”. Slow fashion is intentional and is essentially comprised of opposing features to FF. It creates an awareness of the processes that go into garment production, to dismantle the fickle desirability that FF creates. Slow fashion suggests creating timeless outfits, sourced from high quality materials, over trendy clothes. However, choosing slow fashion is not the only way to curb the pressure that FF potentially puts on the environment, because that would mean shutting down an economically viable market.
There are ways to tweak the form of FF so it does not so negatively affect the environment. For instance, there are Fast Fashion B Corporations that are revising their business models to changing the narrative of fashion from disposable to timeless. Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. These institutions go through extremely rigorous certification drills to assure the consumer who transacts with them that their money is being utilised to sustain a system that does well.
Glam Corner is an Australian B Corporation fashion tech company that commits to reducing textile landfill waste, by changing how swiftly Australian women consume garments. In addition to employing fair labour, it makes use of recycled materials. Outland Denim is another socially responsible company that makes environment friendly denims and gives support to vulnerable women. They rehabilitate women from exploitative working conditions in countries like Cambodia, particularly providing them with training and employment.
Reselling or thrifting is another means to curb the wastage of FF garments especially in scenarios where other alternatives other than completely replacing FF with slow fashion is undesirable. It is possible for these brands to knit partnerships with thrift sellers who would be actively recycling the garments to new users. These brands can use incentives or brilliant PR activities to encourage consumers to participate in the cycle of ownership for these clothing pieces. This alternative creates a new different market that could have its own distinct effect on the economies of the country where it is run, a space for more cash flow, sustainability and waste prevention. In October 2018, the world’s largest online thrift store, ThredUP, announced a new program to partner with well-known apparel companies in creating a “cycle economy” where clothes would transmit from one consumer to the other, instead of consignment to landfills or burning them.
In October 2021, the Nigerian Senate passed the Climate Change Bill affirming commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement acceded to by Nigeria in September 2016, and ratified in March 2017. However, the habits of individuals and businesses directly as regards to the environment is also an important concern. Although provisions of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) (1999 Constitution) and other legislation allude to care for the environment and climate change, they are system centred and will likely not create a sensitivity in citizens who are the ultimate consumers of FF brands. Potential FF start-ups should take climate issues customer sensitisation, particularly the roles customers can play in safeguarding Planet Earth, as key corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Taxation is an integral component of the Nigerian commercial space; they are incidence of citizens (individuals and corporates) earning taxable income or engaging in taxable transactions. Incidentally, Nigeria has tax incentives also applicable to the fashion industry, principally the Pioneer Status tax holiday under the Industrial Development (Income Tax Relief) Act which grants industries and their products relief for an initial period of three years and renewable for a maximum two years, of one year each. Manufacturing textiles for different types of clothing and accessories (leather shoes and bags) occupies the 21st to 25th items on the ‘Pioneer List’ of eligible businesses. Fashion thrives on the creation of stylish clothing and accessories from different types of textiles and therefore qualifies for this tax holiday.
The quasi FFI that production in places like Ariaria market creates is also a breeding ground for tax fraud especially because there is a lack of trust for tax systems because the market participants do not believe in the application of the funds, there is no push to commit to these payments. There is also the problem of identification to these tax systems because a lot of those who participate in the market. It makes it hard for tax officials to identify and enforce tax responsibilities from those in the market. The newly passed Finance Act 2020 compels anyone who intends to operate a business account to provide a tax identification number as precedent to setting up that account. The number is also obligatory for individuals and organisations. This would empower the FIRS and its officials to track eligible tax payers who for whatever reason do not want to remit tax payments.
The journey to sustainable FF is a two way street. On one lane is requiring fashion brands to imbibe ethical and environmentally friendly practices. On the other hand is raising environmentally conscious consumers, because they are the most direct channel to demand accountability from fashion brands into changing their production habits. It would be unrealistic to expect a full overhaul of the industry in a short frame of time.
The major step in developing sustainability is total transparency in the industry. Being honest on the production process and the impact of products that companies use in creation builds a trust between the brands and the consumers and helping them make informed decisions.
Asides the main function of transparency, the following are ways that FF companies can ensure sustainability:
- Utilising eco-friendly and biodegradable materials in making their garments and employ the best manufacturing practices that uses less material (such as water and cotton) to make garments. They could swap the non-biodegradable materials for sustainably grown or recycled cotton or linen that is decomposable. They should adopt compostable packaging over the plastic types to ensure full environmental awareness;
- Curbing waste disposal through CSR focused on consumer education/sensitisation on why sustainable fashion is important, change of clothing habits and perception of garments as timeless rather than as disposable;
- Engaging in fair labour practices regarding employment, staff obligations, and remuneration and welfare incentives;
- FF brands should be open to collaborate with thrift brands creating a longer span of desirability for their clothing and adding a stage to the recycling processes;
- Creating policies centred on caring for the environment and climate change. These policies should include legislations to prevent land, water and air pollution as well as fostering proper waste disposal;
- Curbing IP theft that is so rampant in the industry. FF companies should hire, train and pay fashion designers who would create unique designs at a pace fast enough for the length of their production; and
- Ensuring optimal regulatory compliance in FFI operations.
The FFI has been established as a potential non-oil viable business venture that the NFI can explore to ensure mass appeal and global visibility of authentic African products. The industry has a solid chance at sustainability and longevity if the concerns that have been discussed above can be addresses to avoiding the cons that plague the already existent global FF markets.
The business scene today is getting swiftly populated in innovation; with participants constantly thinking of practical ways of ensuring seamless and memorable consumer experience. This is why technology is at the centre of various sectors suggesting and developing practical solutions to industry shortcomings from Edtech to Fintech, Insurtech and Healthtech.
Start-ups that envisage breaking into the FF scene should consider the infusion of technology in fashion spaces to ensure optimal consumption of their products. These start-ups could leverage on the imperfect but functional textile manufacturing markets in the heart of the South Eastern part of Nigeria tweaking the typical design and their incidental issues especially that of intellectual property theft.
These industries should, in addition, strive to be certified as B Corporations who are dedicated to eradicating the negative environmental behaviours of production mechanics that contribute to climate change. Asides adding such to their production values, it is important to reiterate that these companies should actively collaborate with thrift companies to create diverse options to solving the problem of the disposable nature of FF products. Although there are small scale businesses taking advantage of the virtual market social media provides, there should be participants that should enthusiastically delve into the thrift business large scale to accommodate the enormous amounts of garments that will be part of the cycle. This partnership is extremely vital to FF being as close to sustainable as possible.
The government is encouraged to create reasonable policies and establish regulators for the FFI and the entire textile manufacturing industry at large. This will ensure compliance in these industries in the long haul especially as regards taxation, climate change, data protection and intellectual property protection.
Variety, they say, is the spice of life. Clothing which begets fashion is one of the basic needs for a human’s existence. Innovations and efforts to create a broader spectrum for the FFI in Nigeria should be encouraged.