South Africans’ recent celebration of Freedom Day signalled 27 years of democracy. Through democracy, our Constitution further brought us rights and obligations to guide our rainbow nation, including freedom of expression and environmental rights to protect our environment, health and well-being while focusing on the sustainability of our environment. Although clothing serves a function and a need, for many, luxury clothing is the gold standard of self-expression and success. A growing “luxury” trend is sustainable clothing.

In our last article, we spoke about net zero emissions and a decarbonised economy, which has focused investors fighting climate change to identify companies which voluntarily adopt Environmental, Social and Governance (“ESG”) business models. With further celebrations and anniversaries such as Earth Day, the tragic Rana Plaza collapse and Fashion Revolution Week, a possible new trend presents itself. Workers Day, which is an internationally celebrated event, adds to the focus of sustainability. South African clothing, apparel, textiles and footwear industry

The clothing, textile, apparel and footwear industry (fashion industry) has long since been identified by the South African Government as a source of employment and investment opportunity. Before trade sanctions were lifted after 1994, the industry supported itself, but no modernisation from a manufacturing perspective or protection of workers was established. When trading borders were opened, the market was flooded and taken hold by imports from China and India. In the past two decades, the industry has seen more than 200 000 job losses. Government has since established various initiatives to revive the industry and workers are now protected far better than before. Unfortunately, with fast fashion to compete with, it seems that the local industry is still struggling.

Climate change and environmental impacts

As consumers become more aware of the true impacts of the fashion industry and start influencing the value chain, a shift to sustainable and local products is evident. Pressure is mounting against the global fashion industry, particularly fast fashion. While large global corporations respond to consumer demands by investing in and creating new technology, lobbying governments and putting pressure on its value chain (which is vast and complex), smaller and newer companies can implement ESG business models and commit to net zero emissions more easily. A return to slow fashion by smaller and newer companies may present the enticement required by investors

Slow or sustainable fashion focuses on less production of hand-made clothing. Textiles are, therefore, sourced in smaller amounts with an emphasis on sustainable, natural fibres and dyes or digital prints. This also allows for greater transparency in the value chain relating to agriculture and manufacturing of textiles. Transport is likely to require carbon offsets, although an increase in online shopping may streamline logistics and the need for storage in numerous facilities. Technological advances have resulted in packaging which uses natural and biodegradable materials. The rise in second-hand and vintage enterprises is also encouraging which, arguably, is the most sustainable clothing of all. Holes in sustainable clothing labels are evident but many companies in South Africa have started the scrutinised journey.

Environmental laws which regulate industry Depending on the particular link of the value chain, environmental laws are numerous and will provide investors with added confidence. For example:

  • From an agricultural perspective, water and soil impacts are regulated by, amongst others, the National Water Act, 1998;
  • The textile and leather industry is identified for purposes of the National Greenhouse Gas Emission Reporting Regulations (Government Gazette 40762, Notice No.275 of 3 April 2017, as amended) and therefore carbon tax; and
  • The Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme for Paper, Packaging and some Single Use Products (Government Gazette 43882, Notice No.1187 of 5 November 2020, as amended) requires management and recycling of packaging by the industry as opposed to consumers.

Acceptance of climate change and the drive to slow emissions present new business opportunities. This may be the white flag the South African fashion industry needs to slowly but surely increase investment. Behaviour is changing and drives to support local, conscious and sustainable clothing to tread more gently on the earth are growing in popularity as the pressure on fast fashion heats up.