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The natural dye trainings were developed as a simple model for sustainable entrepreneurship. The workshops are rooted in inclusive education, dignity, craftsmanship, and the skills and culture of the communities. Expanded use of local natural resources is particularly impactful for economic development in Guinea, where there is a long tradition of coloring fabrics with indigo and a rich supply of natural color binding mordants such as kola nuts. The project centered on knowledge transfer with indigenous communities, and included the identification of local plants and vegetable seeds and skins that are suitable for dyeing textiles.

Textile dyeing and finishing is responsible for 20% of global water pollution. In China, 90% of groundwater and 70% of rivers are polluted from textile waste water, and 72 toxic chemicals in the water supply are from textile dyeing alone. With increasing regulations in China, waves of companies from the East and West are setting up factories and seeking cheap labor in formerly colonized nations, particularly in Africa. These facts, when combined with the prevalent, prejudiced notion that textiles from developing nations should be cheaper, make it increasingly difficult for skilled artisans to receive a fair trade value for their wares. This economic pressure in some of the most impoverished regions in the world pushes many artisans to work with synthetic dyes. Without chemical training or pollution control, synthetic dyes contaminate water supplies with highly toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in regions where water scarcity is already a pressing issue. Around the world, women and girls spend 200 million hours a day collecting water—valuable time that could be spent on education that is critical to human and environmental health and economic development. Climate change, as well as waste colonialism, exacerbate this issue, and disproportionately affect indigenous communities, people of color, the elderly, women, and children.

The goal of this project was to create accessible, sustainable pathways that empower African artisans—particularly women—to invest in themselves, also fueling global prosperity through education and global partnerships. A rich tradition of natural dyes and textile art, which has offered diverse expressions of wealth, knowledge, and cultural values across West Africa since the 9th century, is currently an endangered species. As such, the workshops, fair trade value for contributions, and partnerships offer a viable means of preserving cultural heritage in the post-colonial era and restoring the place of the skilled artisan in society.

The project also provides an opportunity for FIT students to engage in conscious design with connections to global challenges and an international community. The resulting zero-waste collection and its documentation provide an example of how fashion can offer a vehicle for inclusive sustainable development. The question “Who made my clothes?” is transparent at every stage of this model, which centers on connecting a community of women and artisans in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire to FIT students and emerging designers, New York-based brands and, ultimately, to a global marketplace.