Sustainable fashion is a trending topic in the garments industry, but is it just for show and only for a season, or is it a clarion call for lasting change?

Trends are the life blood of the fashion industry. In the 1970s bell-bottoms were all the rage; in the late 1990s and early 2000s it was the baguette bag; and now it’s going green. ”Sustainable fashion” is on the lips of most fashionistas and major brands, but what exactly does the term mean?

Vogue India journalist Emily Chan sums it up simply and effectively: “It is an umbrella term for clothes created and consumed in a way that can, quite literally, be sustained while protecting both the environment and those producing garments.”

The entry of sustainable fashion into mainstream fashion’s lexicon was a reaction to the mass production of apparel and footwear in a manner that cannot be sustained. This is the main mode in which most fashion is produced globally. It is characterised by speed of production, quantity and under-utilised clothing once deemed fashionable but which now clogs up landfills. One could call this the inverse of sustainable fashion: fast fashion.

“It is a business model that relies on exploitation and extraction.”

The fashion industry, though, has not always operated like this. According to Stella Hertantyo, assistant editor of Twyg, an online sustainable fashion magazine, “This model has actually come so fast”. Her statement is echoed in a blog post by Pirkani Apparel, an online sustainable fashion store, explaining that the industry adopted the business model only between the 1990s and early 2000s. “Fast fashion drove the price of clothing down by outsourcing labour to developing countries and cutting costs in the supply chain,” it says.

According to Pirkani Apparel, the problem is that the cheaper and quicker option meant producing clothing in a way that harms the environment. This could occur through harmful dyes and chemicals that seep into water supplies; the deforestation necessary to produce plant-based fibres such as viscose; and the ever increasing carbon emission from clothing and footwear production, currently at 4% to 10% per year.

Growing public awareness of fast fashion’s effect on the environment has become difficult to ignore, yet it is difficult to say if the $1,5-trillion global industry has actually made an eco-conscious shift, specifically in South Africa. Is sustainability manifesting in the South African fashion industry, or could it be written off as another surface-level fad?

Where it all started

It is hard to isolate the exact moment when sustainability became one of the fashion industry’s primary foci. The real start of conversations around sustainable fashion could, however, be attributed to apparel company Patagonia. The United Nations bestowed on Patagonia the Champions of the Earth Award in 2019; an accolade celebrating the recipient’s efforts to positively affect the environment. Patagonia was honoured in recognition of its transformative work dating back to 1986, when ideas of sustainable fashion were not as prevalent. 

Dolled-up mannequins at Eastgate Shopping Centre’s Mr Price clothing store sport the season’s trendy fashion and accessories. Photo: Rufaro Chiswo

At the time, its eco-conscious effort took the form of 1% of sales being donated to help restore the environment. The 1% donation snowballed into a non-profit organisation, 1% For The Planet, created in 2002 by Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, and Craig Matthews (founder of the fishing gear company, Blue Ribbon Flies). Using this non-profit organisation and the R1 billion amassed through Patagonia’s 1% of sales donations, Chouinard and Matthews created a network of like-minded business people and environmental activists to spread messages of environmental awareness and help businesses develop eco-conscious models. 

Arguably the most pivotal moment in modern history that highlighted sustainability was the collapse of the Rana Plaza on April 24, 2013. The Bangladesh building was a structurally unsound property in which five garment factories operated. What is now called the “Rana Plaza disaster” resulted in the deaths of 1 132 garment workers. The tragedy drew attention to the poor treatment of workers in the industry and reinforced the idea that sustainable fashion is not only about saving the planet, but also protecting the people working in the industry.

Rather than a single moment, it could be considered a culmination of several moments in fashion history that led to the popularity of sustainability. Due to these moments, sustainable fashion is trending globally. On the popular social media platform, TikTok, hashtags relating to sustainability (#shopsustainably or #shopsustainable) have garnered a combined total of 50,4 million views.

Is sustainability actually happening?

While sustainability is a trending hashtag, this is not necessarily reflective of the current state of the industry or consumer habits. According to Statista, in 2021 the South African fashion industry’s revenue was more than R16 billion. How much of this revenue came from fast versus sustainable fashion is not cut and dry. Nevertheless, UK-based non-profit organisation Fashion Revolution’s South African office published a 2021 press release indicating that unsustainable practices are at the core of the big-earning industry.

Fashion Revolution said the South African fashion industry was propagating “over-consumption” and “waste” by adopting the annual quasi-holiday, Black Friday. Originating in the US, the November 25 “holiday” exists with the sole aim of selling off goods at very low prices.

In its fervent criticism of Black Friday, Fashion Revolution says of brands advertising massive price cuts: “Twenty-seven percent of major fashion brands say they are investing in circular solutions, such as textile-to-textile recycling.” This means the billions of rands made by the South African fashion industry are earned by a large majority of brands through dubious practices.

“It is a business model that relies on exploitation and extraction,” says Hertantyo, a view that is not unfounded. In a 2019 report on working conditions in the fashion industry, Hameda Deedat details the experiences of neglected employees who “develop hypertension, headaches and back and shoulder pains resulting from the stress” of working in gruelling environments. A non-governmental organisation, World Wide Fund for Nature Inc, has stated that Eastern Cape’s section of the Drakensburg is being overgrazed due to sheep farming for wool production. This, however, does not seem to be a concern of fast-fashion shoppers.

The trendier and cheaper, the better 

To say the South African fashion industry is growing would be an understatement. BusinessTech says the amount South Africans spend on clothing and footwear has risen at an annualised rate of 22.2%. A possible reason for the rise is the rather slow increase in clothing prices in South Africa between 1995 and 2014 which, according to global management consulting firm McKinsey Sustainability, rose only 33% over that period. When compared with the 187% price increase of other goods, it is understandable that adding a few more clothes to the wardrobe looks more attractive to the average South African.

The idea of affordability is something South African shoppers are drawn to, but it is coupled with consumers’ need to stay on trend. Wits Vuvuzela headed to Eastgate Shopping Centre in Johannesburg to get an idea of what informs some buyers’ choices. Namile Madimane (27) says that in deciding where to shop, “It’s in the money.” Her favourite stores are The FIX, Mr Price and Cotton On, because of their low prices. For Zinhle Qenebe (24), stores such as Cotton On and Factorie provide the perfect combination of trendiness and pricing. “They always have unique stuff,” she says, and they prioritise “[low] price for quality”.

Fashion Revolution’s South African office co-ordinator, Cyril Naiker, thinks the choices of customers such as Madimane and Qenebe are based on priorities. “We have to understand that we live in a socially disadvantaged economic climate,” he says. “We cannot fool ourselves, you know: sustainability is expensive. When you produce a garment through most of the correct processes and sustainably, the end result is that the garment is going to be much more costly for the end user, for the consumer.”

The other side is greener 

Despite the size of the fast fashion industry and its unrelenting growth, there are many facets of sustainability still present in South Africa. The online fashion magazine, Introducing SA, notes that there has been a “boom” in the second-hand or “pre-loved” fashion industry, which is expecting growth of 185% over the next decade.

saying the thrifting industry’s fame is due to Gen-Z’s relationship with social media. Online thrifting stores such as RealReal and Vestiaire Collective have received a lot of attention because Gen-Z fan favourites like “popular YouTuber Emma Chamberlain (10,2 million subscribers) and Claudia Sulewski (two million subscribers) have done brand deals with many of these sites”.

Likewise, the founder of the Junkie Charity Store in Melville, Michelle de Villiers, says: “Young kids now naturally love to buy second-hand clothes. It has become a trend that is not going away, it’s only going to grow.” On average, the relatively small store earns R60 000 to R70 000 a month, which goes to a variety of charity organisations De Villiers started the store to support. Her observation that thrifting is a fashionable practice among young people was illustrated by the demographics wandering around the store.

A biracial twenty-something couple bought items to decorate their shared apartment. They left with a Simba Chips box filled to the brim with their pre-loved decorative trinkets. De Villiers says customers such as this couple come to Junkie Charity Store because “it’s curated, not mass production” and she believes her customers “are going to keep using [these items] for many years”.

The longevity of an item’s life is something Hertantyo and Naiker believe is the bedrock of sustainability. “You do not have to spend money,” says Hertantyo. “The most sustainable wardrobe is the one you have.” Naiker similarly asserts that one should simply “edit your wardrobe”. To him this includes resisting the urge to buy duplicates of items you already own. In the end, “you kind of realise you may not actually need anything”.

The future of sustainability in South Africa

Even though sustainable fashion is present and growing in South Africa, it seems it might have to co-exist with fast fashion. The popularity among younger shoppers, coupled with external pressure on the industry due to the climate crisis, has spurred major apparel brands to action.

The sincerity of major apparel stores and their efforts are, however, a concern of people invested in sustainability. Hertantyo’s scepticism comes from “how brands are hopping onto it”. “Yes, they are not changing anything about their core business,” she says, ”but they know if they don’t even try to look like they’re doing something, they’re going to lose people’s interest”.

For the Mr Price Group, the appearance of “doing something” about sustainability has come through the introduction of reusable shopping bags at Miladys and Mr Price Clothing. In 2021 the group reported it had managed to remove 29 million single-use plastics from circulation and planned to continue removing them by 75% over the next four years. With regard to clothing, in the same year, according to the company website, “approximately 36 million product items incorporated sustainable materials”, but what those sustainable materials were was not specified. The company also made a point of addressing the human aspect of sustainability, stressing the importance of implementing ethical wages and treatment for workers in the group.

These efforts, among several others listed on the webpage, while worthy of scrutiny, indicate there is a future for sustainability in the fast fashion industry, however paradoxical it may be. “Even if it is not genuine, like systemic change, it is a reflection of the growth of the movement in the mainstream space,” says Hertantyo.

The answer to the big question, “is green the new black?”, must therefore be ”yes”. The phrase describes when something has become fashionable, and sustainable fashion is currently in vogue. As with all trends, there is a point when sustainability could fall into obscurity and become something the fashion industry was once invested in but has since forgotten. Then again, companies such as Mr Price Group and the average Gen-Z consumer’s engagement with a social media hashtag could be what cements sustainable fashion’s place in the industry and ultimately helps it reduce its negative impact on the planet.

FEATURED IMAGE: The quirky and colourful Junkie Charity Store in Melville, Johannesburg provides good browsing for gen-z and millennial shoppers in search of ‘new’ wardrobe additions. Photo: Rufaro Chiswo