Sustainable, Sartorial, South Africa
“I must be one of the only business owners who makes and markets a product, but hopes that no one buys it,” laughs Allistair Barnes of fashion house Ballo. His focus on zero waste has made him keenly aware of the cost the earth pays for our clothing whims. This is why Ballo’s own range is produced in small runs from natural fibres like hemp and linen and is manufactured locally.
The range came about after Barnes’ search for a pair of shorts took him to the V&A Waterfront. Finding nothing that ticked his boxes, he decided to produce his own – and, when the compliments came in, he made more.
The clothing slotted neatly into his Ballo label, a range of locally-produced, durable sunglasses, with the added plus of being able to fit prescription lenses, made from sustainable materials like hemp.
Barnes says that his Cape Town base gives him a definite edge as a purveyor of sustainable fashion: the international tourist market is not only more educated about this niche, but also has more income to spend on it. “The need for education aside, the local market is very price-sensitive,” he comments. That’s why he’s looking to take the label to markets like Europe and the United States; although he’s more interested in “growing strong” than growing big.
Up in the erre
Silhouettes that don’t date and locally produced, sustainable natural fibres are central to the ethos of Carina Louw and Natasha Jaume, the brains behind Erre. But it’s their business philosophy that truly stands out.
“If your product doesn’t aim to grow the local economy, you’re fighting a losing battle,” says Louw. “To be truly sustainable, you need to have a multifaceted approach: your business must be financially sustainable, paying fair wages and supporting the community, growing local economies (like our support of the South African mohair manufacturing industry), and you need to focus on skills development and cultural preservation.”
South African designers face their fair share of challenges in meeting these criteria, ranging from the dearth of local textiles to the perceived value of garments among local consumers.
“Unfortunately, natural fibres are expensive,” says Louw. “In a world of cheap, fast fashion it takes some time to convince the local market that the price tag is worth it.”
That said, Louw notes that the industry has taken several strides in recent years. Fashion Week director Lucilla Booysen has established a strategy to make the event more sustainable within five years. There’s also been the introduction of the Twyg magazine sustainability awards, which will influence both designer and consumer mindsets, and the commitment of Mohair South Africa in educating local designers and connecting them to local fibre manufacturers and suppliers.
Lighting the way
Laura Ferreira, creative director of Lucent, says that she didn’t set out with the intention of creating a sustainable label. “The process flowed organically. I knew that I had specific objectives, and it so happened that these added up to a sustainable and environmentally-conscious brand.”
Ferreira maintains that many other South African designers share this ethos. “Our country is absolutely on the right track when it comes to sustainability; it’s almost if the characteristic of care is ingrained in us through our African roots. There are so many signs of hope and actions of promise, and it’s beautiful to see so many
local designers promoting sustainable methods and ethical practices, taking the time to add value to the supply chain and revive a once booming industry.”
Her plans around sustainability are far-reaching, starting with partnering with factories that genuinely care for their workers and prioritise equality. Linked to this, the label aims to create two small, trans-seasonal collections, which sets a slower pace for the design team and allows them to source sustainable fabrics and manufacturing methods while minimising waste – an antidote to fast fashion.
At the same time, Lucent favours eco-fabrics such as Tencel, linen, hemp and organic cotton, as well as fibres grown without the use of toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilisers. All garments are packaged in biodegradable materials, with a minimal environmental footprint. Leftover materials are used to create blankets for the homeless and pencil bags for underprivileged children, so that less waste goes to landfill. Lucent has, furthermore, joined a green-efficient printing partner with a low carbon factory so that the printing ink contains no harmful chemicals. Finally, the brand gives a nod to social projects with last year’s women empowerment initiative, the #IamWomanTee.
Fashion is changing, says Sitting Pretty’s Emma Longden: one has only to look at the introduction of fabrics like pineapple and mushroom leather, or the use of 3D printing for samples, for proof.
There’s still some way to go, though. South Africans have bought into the concept of fast fashion because it provides a false sense of wealth – and with every polyester garment that has a short shelf life, our landfills grow. That’s before you consider the conditions of the workers who produce these items. “Sadly, the buzz from buying new outweighs the concerns around factory conditions and environmental impact, and it’s difficult to change people’s shopping habits when they’re constantly encouraged to buy more.”
Longden’s approach to the problem has evolved over time. She admits that she knew little about sustainable or ethical clothing when she established Sitting Pretty 10 years ago, but as she became more aware of the environmental impact of the fashion industry – and developed an increasing discomfort with how this sat alongside her values – she made a deliberate decision to source only natural and environmentally-friendly fibres. This ethos has carried through to the production side, where the accent is on producing a versatile look that remains wearable over a long time, rather than focusing on what’s “on-trend”.
“A staggering 150 billion new garments are produced locally every year, and 50 per cent of these are burnt or end up in landfills only one year after being made,” reports Lunar’s Nicola Luther. The fashion industry’s crimes further include the release of half a million tons of plastic microfibres when synthetic fibres are washed, which, ultimately, end up in the sea.
This explains Lunar’s insistence on using 100 per cent natural fibres; a philosophy that was already in place when the label was established 22 years ago. This makes Lunar South Africa’s eco-fashion frontrunner – but this impressive status doesn’t grant immunity from challenges.
“It’s difficult not to feel overwhelmed by the issue of climate change,” says Luther. “We often feel like we don’t know what to do or where to start. Most of the actions you can take have both pros and cons and there is often conflicting information regarding sustainable practices.”
Lunar’s approach has been to focus on researching and educating as far as possible, then doing whatever it can to become more and more sustainable.
“We are not perfect, nor do we have to be. We do, however, need to improve constantly and do better than we did yesterday,” Luther says. She laments the lack of a sustainable infrastructure, which would enhance the label’s efforts (and those of other designers). This is where the consumer has a part to play: “If we all demand sustainable practices from the businesses we support, suppliers will come through to fill these gaps in the market. After all, the market is based on supply and demand. We all need to make responsible choices about what we support and where we spend our money.”