Durban – In the bustling manufacturing hub of Mobeni, south Durban, Herman Pillay’s clothing company painstakingly ensures the clothing you wear does not cost the earth.
But when this former son of Phoenix says “cost the earth”, he literally means just that, as he charges forth in transforming the textiles industry into a greener, more environmentally friendly one.
His company, Trade Call Investments (TCI), is one of the largest textiles companies in the country with a staff complement of about 3 500.
He’s come a long way from his humble beginnings with parents who worked in a clothing factory.
Today, his list of clients is as extensive as the yards of fabric in the warehouse – from Woolworths, Truworths, the Edcon Group, international brands such as Top Shop, River Island, Urban Outfitters, to uniforms for SAPS, SANDF, Transnet, Toyota and national unions.
Pillay is a business force to be reckoned with.
But, it’s the “green” principles he punts as one of the keys to success, aligning itself to a generation of “conscious, activist consumers”.
Pillay said it took 2 700 litres of water to produce a single T-shirt, and 10 800 litres to produce a pair of jeans.
“However, 2 700 litres of water equates to drinking water for one individual for 900 days. As business we need to look at how we can change our processes to ensure we don’t have a negative impact on Earth.
“More recently, Cape Town had a drought, and as business we had to ask ourselves: how do we operate with water restrictions?”
Changing business and production practices also meant that business kept ahead of the millennial conscious consumer that needed to know about sustainable business practices.
His company recently launched the continent’s first green design centre in Cape Town, and his Durban premises are in for an overhaul soon.
At the centre, solar panels, a 100m-deep borehole, LED lighting, vegetable gardens and greenery make the building eco-friendly.
Internal processes at the company include using new technologies to dye knit fabric that previously required a high heat consumption.
“The sewing machines we use used to take a lot of energy to operate as well, but after the electricity issues, we pushed for more energy-efficient motors to be designed. It runs at a fraction of the energy now,” he said.
Food waste from the canteen is recycled in the garden, and Pillay said meals were provided to staff prepared from ingredients grown in the factory gardens.
“Our Ladysmith branch is a great example. Here we grow carrots, broccoli, tomatoes and spinach that are made into soup. Food waste is redirected back into the garden,” he said.
However, how the environment affects fashion is more than just changing business practice.
Quite literally, said Pillay, it affected what made it into the stores and at what times.
“The latest trends see international designers moving away from the formal, seasonal-based collections towards more generalised collections. This is because the weather patterns are not predictable due to climate change.
“Winter clothes cannot appear in a store, nor would they sell easily, if the hot weather persisted,” he said, adding that even big brands such as H&M were pushing greener practices such as the recycling of clothes.
With 3 652 staff employed, the majority of whom are women, spread between KZN and Cape Town, Pillay said businesses needed to work harder to ensure they were viable and retained jobs.
“Unemployment is a plague in the country, and we want to contribute to stabilising this and employing more people.
“When you make a conscious decision to buy South African you are supporting a family. At our facilities we employ mostly females, and they say when you empower a female you empower not just a family, but a nation as well. I believe in this and it’s our aim to ensure our employees are taken care of,” he said.
When asked how he bucked the trend in an industry known to battle the flood of imports from China, Pillay said simply he chose not to complain.
“We can sit at the table and partake in conversations complaining about how bad things are, or we can remove ourselves from that mindset and get on with work and business. That’s what I did, and strategised what would give me the competitive edge and make us stand out,” he said.
Supporting local designers was also an aim of the company’s, together with support for buying local.
“In 2013 we started the Wear SA movement to promote local designers and local manufacturing, it goes back to the fact that if you buy local you support a job, which in turns supports a family,” he said.
At 41, Pillay said he’d been in business for just over 20 years, and had seen the changing nature of business.
“My parents worked in a clothing company and they did not earn much, but when I grew older I learnt the ins and outs of the clothing industry.
“I have an immense amount of respect for the people who work in factories, so many children were educated on the money earned by their mothers, who worked in a clothing factory. I made it my life’s ambition to create a company that looked after its staff and their development,” he said.
The Independent on Saturday