Nipped in the waste: why sustainable fashion is a big ask for local designers

The global fashion industry is urgently talking about sustainability, transparency, living wages and a circular economy, but what does this Fashion Revolution mean for local designers?

21 April 2019 - 00:08 By Jackie May
MaXhosa by Laduma uses natural, home-grown mohair and merino wool in their designs.
MaXhosa by Laduma uses natural, home-grown mohair and merino wool in their designs.
Image: African Fashion International

The tone of global fashion chitchat has changed. Since last year's Fashion Revolution a real sense of urgency has developed. The search for disruptive solutions has amplified. Talk about transparency, sustainability, living wage and circular economy is happening in the boardrooms of luxury brands, design studios globally and in our homes.

Local brands Akina, Pichulik, Sitting Pretty and Lunar have been designing sustainably for a while, taking environmental and social issues into consideration. MaXhosa by Laduma and Lukhanyo Mdingi use natural, home-grown mohair and merino wool. New independent labels like Christa & Louella are producing sustainable and ethical collections. But SA Fashion Week has a database of 580 local designers and only a few are working sustainably.

April 22 is the start of Fashion Revolution's week-long annual #whomademyclothes campaign, commemorating the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed 1,138 people and injured many more on April 24 2013.

During this week brands and producers are encouraged to respond with the hashtag #imadeyourclothes and to demonstrate transparency in their supply chain. The international Fashion Revolution works to change the way clothes are sourced, produced and consumed, so that clothing is made in a safe, clean and fair way.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last year that we have 12 years — now 11 — to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. If we don't achieve this, they say climate change will be catastrophic. This matters to fashion because textile production is one of the most polluting industries in the world, emitting more greenhouse gases than international flights and maritime shipping.

Not only is it polluting, fashion is also wasteful. We're producing 80 billion items of clothing annually worldwide and less than 1% of material used to produce clothes across the industry is recycled into new products.

A growing population and larger middle class means that we'll be making more clothes, and potentially more waste will go to landfills.

Fashion has started to respond and the industry is finding creative ways to shift the linear model of take-make-waste to a circular and more ethical model. British designer Bethany Williams and French designer Kevin Germanier have both won awards for their inventive upcycled designs.

This month fast-fashion brand H&M launched its latest Conscious Collection. Headquartered in Ghana and the US, award-winning e-commerce site Studio One Eighty Nine works with artisanal communities specialising in traditional craftsmanship techniques. The studio focuses on empowerment, creating jobs and supporting education and skills training.

A year ago luxury brand Gucci launched an online platform designed to further its commitment to sustainability. On Earth Day (April 22), Italian designer Alberta Ferretti launches the "Love Me" collection to celebrate the planet and a declaration of how we must save it.

We're seeing chain stores, like H&M, introduce collection boxes for unused clothes, repair stations are popping up in these same stores and second-hand clothes are trending. You're hearing more and more about fabrics made from pineapple, grape, algae and recycled polyester.

ISSUES AROUND SUSTAINABILITY

What does this all mean for the South African fashion industry?

Globally it's estimated that every second the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. In SA our textile waste (now considered a valuable resource) to landfill is low.

Research by the University of Pretoria confirms what we know: SA consumers are willing to donate unwanted clothes because of the prevalence of charitable causes and needy communities in the local context.

Linda Godfrey, an expert in waste management at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, says: "There is a much greater culture of reuse of clothing in developing countries than in developed countries, driven more by need than by design."

Additional issues are a clothing and textile industry devastated by cheap imports and a huge unemployment rate. Over the past two decades two-thirds of the sector's jobs have been lost, adding to the unemployment of almost 30%.

While the clothing and textile industry employment statistics, the near-collapse of Edcon and the closing of the Greencross factory paint a grim image of the SA industry, there are some signs of hope in the independent luxury sector.

According to SA Fashion Week's latest annual report, the wholesale turnover at The Fashion Agent, an agency for independent designers, increased by 10% over the past 12 months.

In the Eastern Cape the first commercial cashmere production facility uses the fine hair of the indigenous iMbuzi goats, farmed by 500 small-scale farmers, many of them women. The owner of the Ivili Loboya, Vuyo Mahlati, told Farmers Weekly that she has seen strong interest in her cashmere. "Our research shows that Africa's growing middle class is discerning in its fabric choices, looking for natural fibres where possible."

The manufacturing of more and better local fabric is crucial. Nicole Luther, designer and co-owner of Lunar, says access to good fabric is a problem. "There are very few mills left in SA so we struggle to source locally produced, high-quality natural fabrics. We work with a few local wholesalers who we trust and who import linens, cottons and silks from either Turkey or India. This is not ideal as it's not in line with our local ethos."

Emma Longden from sustainable fashion brand Sitting Pretty loves using sustainable viscose but it is not often available from suppliers here. She is currently sourcing cotton bamboo blends from Europe, which will push her prices up. The new brand, Louella &Christa, is struggling to find affordable and reliable sustainable fabric suppliers.

Mdingi has been taking a slow and organic approach to design. He is working with merino and Angora kid mohair felted textile. Besides its soft, fine and strong qualities, mohair, says Mdingi, allows him to create solid pieces of the highest quality. "By working with Krafthaus Wools in Somerset West," he says, "I understand the true root of my textiles, which allows me to have an honest product."

Since 2012 Laduma Ngxokolo has been using local mohair and merino wool from the Eastern Cape for his luxury knitwear collections.

A hand-crafted design by Marianne Fassler.
A hand-crafted design by Marianne Fassler.
Image: African Fashion International

Amanda Laird Cherry is dedicated to ensuring that her Durban-based brand's fashion footprint is a responsible one. "We prioritise partnerships with nearby producers, helping to raise the skill level in the local industry, and we also work with crafters to elevate their work in a way that is wearable and contemporary."

The work of both Marianne Fassler and Nicholas Coutts draws attention to fine handcraft, the making process, and in turn to the makers and sewers creating their beautiful, detailed designs.

Desiree Smal, senior fashion design lecturer at the University of Johannesburg, says for many designers it's not easy to be sustainable. "If you don't have the tools to help you understand what can you do? Where do you find resources and how do you apply them? Unless we share what we do - be it research or new ideas to do things differently - the information will remain isolated."

Smal says that fashion design educators need to make a shift too. "We're either focused on creating star designers or encouraging our students to 'chase the money'. How often do we deal with the issues, such as the environment and social issues, ethical practices? In our department we refer to it as design with intent."

Sustainability must be at the core of fashion-design education, she says.

What does Smal suggest consumers do? "The best thing we can do is support local designers."

• Additional reporting by Luanne Slingerland.

• To attend Future of Fashion 2019 on April 24, an event hosted by Twyg, Fashion Revolution Cape Town and CPUT, e-mail info@twyg.co.za.


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