Q&A: The quest to sustainable fashion in South Africa

In fashion, a movement is taking shape where all the factors that are applicable to achieving sustainability are at the forefront of design and manufacturing, says Lebo Madiba.

The narrative of fashion is exceedingly coming apart at the seams and everything that surrounds it is consequential. From poorly conditioned textile sweatshops to the significant carbon footprint left through production lines, what we wear is shrouded in ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) politics, says Lebo Madiba, host of the INFLUENCE podcast and founder and Managing Director of PR Powerhouse.

The concept of sustainability applies everywhere and to everything. It calls for concerted actions in a balanced effort to achieve the ultimate goal of sustaining the life of the earth that we live on, explains Madiba. Important to this are key categories: environmental, social, and economic concerns. “It must be admitted though that there isn’t a manual on sustainability that perfectly fits every situation, everywhere and for everyone. This is because sustainability needs vary depending on where you are in the world, who you’re talking to and our ever-changing environment.

“In fashion, a movement is taking shape where all the factors that are applicable to achieving sustainability are at the forefront of design and manufacturing. What used to be an industry singing our obsession with glamour, runways, and airbrush magazine spreads and exotic surroundings no longer just is.”

To spotlight the issues facing the fashion industry, the CEO of SA Fashion Week, Lucilla Booyzen, sat down on the Influence podcast with Madiba, to chat about South Africa’s clothing industry and its quest towards sustainability. This is an extract from their conversation:

How can an industry that relies on consumption and contemporary trends become green?

According to Booyzen, the industry needs to give consumers slow and compostable fashion. She says that the local industry is already on the way to sustainability. “As an industry, we’re clear on paying people well, limiting our usage of electricity, and the designers for example, use less harmful processes for their manufacturing. We’re thus sustainable to a certain extent. Therefore, what we like to talk about is slow fashion, or compostable fashion, instead of using the term sustainable fashion,” she says.

Having been at the helm of the local fashion industry for almost 30 years, Booyzen has witnessed its evolution first hand. She explains that from a leadership perspective, they encourage designers to understand their role in ensuring that the industry is sustainable and green. “We want the designers to think of themselves as important players to achieve this by thinking sustainably in their design process. This is because we think that if they think in this way from the get-go, it should be easy for them to see slow fashion or compostable fashion as a goal,” she says. SA Fashion Week runs three competitions: the new talent, the scouting men’s wear and the student competitions which tap into over 30 colleges in SA, with a clear focus on slow and compostable fashion.

“What this means is that the designers, even those recruited as students, understand what we at SA Fashion Week stand for. We realised a long time ago that we need to change, we need to be conscious of what we do and the impact thereof on our planet. And so, because fashion forms part of almost every area of our lives (i.e.. it is the watch you wear, the clothes, the furniture, places, cars etc), it has become particularly important to us that we’re at the forefront of this change in attitude.”

How important is the fashion industry to the local economy?

“South Africans must understand that we use fashion like we do electricity. We cannot go without it. So, you can imagine why this industry is important, especially with regards to its contribution to the GDP. And so, it is also crucial that we allow it to grow, and to do so sustainability.”

South Africa has over 30 Fashion Design colleges, so, what is impeding this potential?

Booyzen mentions that the most potent challenge the industry faces today is that it is manufacturing-led, and not designer-led: “For as long as we’re led by departmental stores that manufacture clothes, and not by designers, we will continue to compete with the likes of China which can afford to dump cheap products into the global market all seasons. “It is only when the local industry is designer-led, by our own designers, that we can develop our own aesthetics and identities that people can buy into. Today when you go into the different department stores, everything looks the same. It is only when a customer is conscious of their own style and look that they start looking and buying from design outlets. That power is overlooked in this country,” said Booyzen.


The INFLUENCE podcast conversation between Madiba and Booyzen dissects this thinking further, dealing with what a designer-led industry could look like in South Africa and answering questions around price points and how such an industry could spur sustainable economic growth. Listen to the rest of the conversation here.



Main image credit: Supplied


– Receive the Retailing Africa newsletter every week • Subscribe here.