multi colored umbrella on street during daytime

Factory closures can be stopped by strong unions and new generations of eco-conscious designers

The long-standing Cape Town garment industry was badly damaged by the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO’s) free market policies. This opened South Africa’s economy up to an influx from Asia and allowed for competition from Asia.

Mass factory closures were the result. According to Statistics South Africa, the number of garment industry jobs dropped from 220,000 in 2002 down to 100,000 in 2011. Salt River, Cape Town is now littered with abandoned garment factories that have been converted into call centers for foreign companies or left empty.

The race to save the industry is now on. Cape Town is emerging as a design capital, manufacturing hub, and design capital with a refreshing distinction – it has safe workplaces, and is eager to share the stories and experiences of its garment workers.

The “South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union” (SACTWU) is a key driver of change. SACTWU’s buy local policy was created to stop retailers from shipping clothing millions of tonnes halfway around the globe. The union has shops that sell “Made in South Africa” clothing. It is also known for its “Spring Queen Pageant”, where garment workers show off the clothes they made.

multi colored umbrella on street during daytime

South Africa’s garment workers are mainly women. They are often single mothers or the family’s sole breadwinner. SACTWU reports that between 70 and 80% of garment workers are union members. This puts the union in a strong position for negotiating good conditions.

Etienne Vlok is the director of SACTWU’s research unit. He doesn’t pretend that factories are perfect, but he describes them as safe and secure workplaces. Vlok states, “Buy a garment that has a Made In South Africa label to ensure you have peace of mind that it was made in good conditions.” This is our competitive advantage.

This is also the case at the top end of the industry. The Cape Town Fashion Council represents approximately 300 designers nationwide, and CEO Bryan Ramkilawan emphasises Cape Town’s production quality: “We produce in an ethical way, we are not producing in a sweatshop environment.”

This could be the key to ending factory closings. Ramkilawan points to the fact that many of the designers who are exhibiting at Cape Town Fashion Week had relatives who worked in these factories. Because they are so deeply embedded in the community, their goal is to create “something that isn’t directly competing with cheap Chinese exports but which is locally produced for empowerment people and which includes elements of South African traditional design and culture.”

people in a building with red roof

But it’s not an easy task. Ramkilawan has to face the problem that South Africa does not have multi-brand stores that stock the collections of his clients. This means they will need to look for markets in other countries, such as New York and London.

There is an additional force that drives change and environmental sustainability, along with the Cape Town Fashion Council and the garment workers’ union. The World Design Capital 2014 award for Cape Town and the City’s Design Indabas program, inspired by Cape Town, the young design community of Cape Town is dedicated to sustainability, design and putting South Africa on fashion’s map.

Zaid Philander is one such designer, and founder of the sustainable accessories brand I Scream & Red. He is from a family that was made up of garment workers. Many of them lost their jobs in late 1990s, a time he describes being horrible.

Philander learned to sew when he was a small boy. His feet were too far away from the machine’s peddle so his sister devised a device that he could use his elbow to sew using a crutch or a hosepipe. Twenty years later, the majority of I Scream& have learned that you don’t necessarily need to be tall or have two arms or two legs to use a sewing machine. Red employs people with disabilities who use adapted sewing machines. Zama Sonjika is one of the employees. He had both his legs amputated in an accident and now owns his own sewing company.

The well-constructed I Scream & Red bags are made of sample books, tents and PVC billboard banners. Bag straps made from recycled seatbelts from the Cape Town carpound.

Philander refutes the notion that “recycled potato sacks and people wearing scratchy beige fabric are examples of planet-friendly fashion”. He argues instead that you can have cutting-edge fashion without any cost to the planet and still do so responsibly – the people of society need it.”

This means that Philander and Cape Town will reject the global fashion model that prioritizes cheap materials, low wages, and expanded distribution. He says, “I believe that it’s the worker who comes first. Then your product is made, and then everything falls into place.”

Ramkilawan, back at Cape Town Fashion Council, reiterates the importance fair production. “You can track the garments and who made them, you can even go to the person who made them. While you can steal an idea, the story is not yours.”