The ‘fast’ fashion industry is responsible for abominable levels of water consumption, pollution, and waste. Enterprising entrepreneurs in South Africa are looking to natural materials and upcycling to make every-day clothing more sustainable.
What are you wearing? Examine your outfit as you read this. Maybe a T-shirt or a trendy new dress. Denims, perhaps? Or more likely a stretchy pair of sweatpants and socks now that we’re all mostly working from home.
‘Fast’ fashion makes clothes-shopping more affordable but at an increasingly environmental cost. According to a 2018 United Nations report, “the global fashion industry produces 20 percent of global wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping”. Then there’s textile dyeing, pegged as the second-largest polluter of water globally. Did you know it takes around 7,570 liters of water to create a pair of jeans?
Step one in sustainability: Reduce. Then reuse and recycle. One antidote to fast fashion is to shift away from seasons. Pre-pandemic, big-name brands would launch collections between four and six times year, with fashion houses like Zara reportedly introducing more than 20 different collections a year.
Cristina Rovere is the founder of environment-friendly swimwear and wetsuit brand, Atlas Label. “We do not make any seasonal collections… and we encourage everyone who owns an Atlas Label product to consider repairs as a first option. We believe in making better choices and in taking responsibility for what you purchase. Use it, love it, care for it. Repeat.”
A love for surfing (and thus the ocean) led Rovere to create wetsuits that are better for the planet. “As surfers, we see the amount of rubbish first-hand on the beach. It’s a push to start making better choices,” she tells FORBES AFRICA. Typically, wetsuits are made from a kind of rubber called neoprene, a synthetic polymer derived from petroleum, but her Japanese-inspired suits use limestone neoprene (rubber derived from crushed limestone) instead. “It has incredible technical properties and can be repaired many times over.”
Generally speaking, natural materials are better for the environment, but it’s not a straightforward argument. Cotton, for example, is not a prominent pollutant but has downsides in terms of labor and land. Lorè Botha co-founded HempLove in April 2019. “Based on our research, hemp requires ten times less the amount of water and half the amount of land than cotton. Our slow collection entails that all the garments and textiles are dyed using plant waste sourced from farmers and restaurants in South Africa.”
Such natural materials are not new on the fashion scene, but they are increasingly being used from head to toe. Launched in 2014 by a family of milliners, Simon and Mary hats are made from 100% wool felt and hemp. (They are also part of a tree-planting project with South African reforestation organization, Greenpop and use rainwater to save roughly 30,000 liters per month).
Laduma Ngxokolo has also been using local mohair, and merino wool since 2012 for luxury knitwear brand, Maxhosa Africa, and Davie Hutchison founded bamboo-blended Sexy Socks in 2014. “Sexy Socks was, I think, one of the first social enterprise brands in the South African market, and we have always been eco-conscious.” The colorful socks are not only made from sustainable and biodegradable materials but also have social impact. For every pair of Sexy Socks bought, one goes to a child in need.
When natural materials aren’t used, clothing clogs the system. According to American Vogue, “an estimated 50 million tonnes of clothing is discarded every year, and most of it will not biodegrade in a landfill”.
Makhosazane Rosa Sekgwama, has come up with an innovative way to combat such fashion waste. “We use recycled materials from the local clothing industry that would otherwise be discarded. Local factory offcuts become the yarn that we use to crochet all our products,” Sekgwama tells FORBES AFRICA.
Her brand, ROSA Handmade in SA, made The V&A Waterfront’s ‘100 Beautiful Things’ list and consists of woven rugs, lovingly-made baby baskets and handbags. However, being green comes with its challenges.
“We rely on yarn wholesalers who directly source from the clothing factories making upscaling impossible as there is a limit of each color we get from them. We also avoid dyeing materials ourselves, which would enable us to make more products of the same color range but pose an environmental hazard.”
Back in Cape Town, growing interest in Atlas Label wetsuits led Rovere to investigate a more affordable offering for ocean-lovers. “Our swimwear is made of Econyl, regenerated Italian nylon made from post-consumer waste, including ghost fishing nets removed from our oceans. Econyl is a certified product, and we have a signed communications agreement with them, which keeps us in constant contact and sets us apart from many other businesses.”
Nombuso Nomzamo Khanyile from Afrikan Passions Designs tells FORBES AFRICA that footwear also springs from waste. “We upcycle discarded car tyres and use them as sandal soles, reducing car tyres as environmental pollutants. The majority of our customers are attracted to us mainly because we upcycle.”
Indeed, this kind of thinking is no longer niche. Sekgwama says: “The competition is high. Both new and existing retailers are changing to be more eco-friendly, attract discerning consumer attention and gain preference. The scourge of Covid-19 [also] opened more eyes to the need to support local businesses and authentic products manufactured locally.”
Rovere agrees and says “South Africa is still catching up, but with the internet being such an open asset to everyone, the global movement for consumerism has definitely shifted towards more conscious purchases. We even see changes in the companies that used to create fast fashion, so overall knowledge around sustainability is increasing”.
South African Fashion Week (SAFW) has 600 local designers on the database, according to the event’s founder and director Lucilla Booyzen. “There are a lot of grey areas around sustainability for our SA Fashion Designers. None of them, as far as I know, are fully sustainable, as it is very difficult for any company to be fully sustainable.”
Zippers, underwires, buttons and packaging can all hamper sustainability efforts, but has there been a rise in eco-conscious clothing on the runways? “Yes, definitely,” Booyzen says. “This season, all the designers at SAFW are showing what we call slow fashion collections based on up-cycling, recycling and no waste”.
Likewise, the winter collections of more accessible household brands prove traditional retailers are catching on too. Both K-Way and Woolworths revamped their fashionable puffer jackets, filling them with recycled plastic fibers instead of duck down. Buyers at K-Way note, however, that the adoption rate to sustainable wear in South Africa is generally lower than the rest of the world and recycled synthetic has had a slow start.
Conscious fashion has become increasingly important in South African retail, and waste reduction on a large scale would help to close the loop and create a better circular economy. If local fashion can become more sustainable and effectively reduce the load on South African landfills, all the better. Especially given that the City of Johannesburg’s Environmental, Infrastructure and Services estimate the city has three years before landfill sites reach full capacity.
“Once you dip into sustainability, it becomes a part of your life,” says Rovere, likening the movement to a continuous journey. “It’s about making better choices. One item of sustainable clothing might just lead to better choices at the supermarket. It leaves a lasting impact on your purchasing decisions going forward.”
By Melanie van Zyl