The local wool industry offers avenues for investments in manufacturing because of its increasing export demand. Imported clothing has made it difficult to assess the conditions under which the garments were produced and the materials were sourced.
Trendy fast fashion has resulted in frequent discarding of clothing, filling landfills with unnatural waste, and controversial competition between producing factories to supply the cheapest labour.
The demand for ethical supply chains is spreading with the rise of conscious consumerism, forcing designers to find moral selling points that appeal to the changing market.
South Africa’s rural farming population provides a reputable solution that aligns with sustainable living.
South Africa is the world’s largest mohair producer, and fifth largest producer of wool. This direct access to raw materials, combined with growing African design talent, can create a “Made in South Africa” brand that is synonymous with uplifting communities toward independence. African designers are known for incorporating meaning, inclusive of material significance, into their designs.
Renowned South African designer Laduma Ngxolo has an instinct for designing knitwear inspired by his Xhosa culture. His winter collections comprise solely locally sourced pure-bred merino wool and mohair. Laduma’s brand MaXhosa demonstrates an inspiring case for developing local clothing manufacturing.
BKB, an agricultural authority in South Africa, reported that South Africa contributed only 1percent to global wool production in the 2016/17 season. Of this, 92percent of locally sourced wool was exported and only 6percent was sold locally for manufacturing.
South Africa is missing out on accruing benefits from a crucial link in the clothing value chain. The exported wool is being transformed into knitwear with greater economic value in countries such as Scotland, where luxury brand Chanel sources their artisanal skilled labour. This recognition of wool manufacturers goes as far as the 13th century, when wool guilds in Florence - where masters taught their apprentices manufacturing skills - evolved into the wealthiest people in society.
Developing local specialised skills for knitwear production can generate substantially more returns through value-added exports. During the 2017/18 season, almost 50million kilograms of wool was sold at a value of almost R5billion in South Africa. Yet, the market is capable of more than double that. It is estimated that South Africa has 15 million merino sheep, with as many as 9000 commercial producers and 50000 small-scale farmers. Wool, a sustainable textile for high-quality clothing, opens up the opportunity for local farmers and manufacturers who are capable to satisfy the demand.
Cape Wool reports that Hewu, a semi-rural town in the Eastern Cape, is rebuilding a culture of wool farming.
Through partnerships between the Zulukama Trust, local government and key participants in the wool industry more young people and women are being absorbed.
The traditional transference of knowledge, between elders and the youth, are recreated within these collaborative efforts. Adding to this is the labour-intensiveness of the industry. Investing in clothing and textile manufacturing hubs creates employment within each province, and reduces the number of young people migrating to cities to find work. The provision of opportunities for the youth, in their home town, empowers them and their families directly.
Ivili Loboya, a wool manufacturing factory located in Butterworth, positioned themselves to harvest from more than 3million communal sheep farmers, the majority of whom are women in the Eastern Cape.
Ivili Loboya also sources mohair, silk and cotton from local farmers and is the first manufacturer of wool in the country who works with farming co-operatives. Their factory consists of a group of women who hand spin yarns for high-end customers, and another group of women who produce machine-knitted garments and other fashion and homeware items.
These specialised skills are outsourced to local and international fashion and interior designers.
South Africa could provide the solution to fast fashion, with designers selling individuality and garments that are inclusive of storytelling and culture. The fashion industry’s circular economy emphasises: redesigning to reduce pollution and improve durability; recycling materials for re-use; and the use of renewable resources in production.
African Fashion International (AFI) recently partnered with Fashion 4 Development in New York enabling six African designers to collaborate with international luxury brands, using only sustainable fabrics in their garments. Many of the designers chose to incorporate wool. While growing international demand for wool impacts the lives of farming communities, investment in manufacturing offers impact on a national scale.
Artisan training and incubation programmes such as AFI’s Fastrack can produce skills that boost related industries as a catalyst for processing local raw materials like wool. South Africa’s unemployment rate largely affects black women and the youth, who are not in school. Ethical and luxury clothing manufacturing can provide living wages that break the cycle of poverty and inequality for notable social transformation.
Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe is the founder and chief executive of African Fashion International.
The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.