Ethical Consumption in South Africa: Clothing

About two years ago I wrote an article on ethical consumption of chocolate and coffee. Those are some of the easiest products to source ethically. I remember – while still being in Belgium – that for clothing it’s a different story. I went up to my friend Niels, who was working for an organisation combatting human trafficking, and the few stores he could recommend back then all had very … well, “hippie-ish” clothing. So not really my style.

Luckily, a lot has changed in the last five years.

Why should you care?

My answer hasn’t changed since the article I wrote two years ago: “Because you are human.” If we don’t all together start caring about the environment and the living/working conditions of our fellow humans, our world is going to pieces. Only together we can make changes.

Getting rid of “fast fashion”

The first step about contributing to ethical consumption of clothing doesn’t start with sourcing, as surprising as that may be, it starts with a sustainable lifestyle. Fashion trends change several times per year. And that’s problematic because that results in fast, and disposable clothing. This puts a strain on the environment and worker conditions; it needs to be fast, cheap, and disposable.

So instead of following these trends, try to buy clothing that lasts. Wear your pants until they are really worn-down. Keep your shirt until it doesn’t fit anymore–yes, I’ve gained weight over the past five years. Don’t let your urge to buy new clothes be driven by fashion trends. Ask yourself if you really need new clothing.

Also, don’t buy at shops that have clothing with a reputation for being fast fashion only. For example, Primark is notoriously known for its appalling quality of clothing.

Of course, at some point, you’ll want to buy clothing. In some countries, there’s a big market for second-hand clothing, but that seems to be less the case here in South Africa. Also, I do seem to have a weird body-type, and even in Belgium, I rarely would find fitting clothing in thrift stores.

So, what about new clothing? There’s just no way to start checking the supply chain for every single brand. There are two main ways to source your new clothing in South Africa.

Local is lekker

The first one is to buy locally. However, this is not as simple as it seems. For example, the Watershed in the V&A Waterfront has quite a few shops that pride themselves in using local labour for the production of the clothing. When chatting with the salespeople, we have however found out a few times that they are merely talking about the sewing process. The supply chain doesn’t start there though, people were involved with the harvesting of the materials needed for the fabric and weaving the fabrics.

In most cases, it’s a matter of chatting with the vendors. We’ve found several places where the brands have clearly considered the whole supply chain and not just the final few steps in it.

Another big challenge with this approach is that–on average– it’s quite a bit more costly. At the same time, in light of trying to buy less frequently, you may just save a bit longer and buy less clothing, but more expensive items.

Ethical fashion guide

A second approach is to research international brands. Public opinion and lobbying are having an influence on a lot of bigger brands. Many of them are actively taking the initiative to change their supply chain to make it both more ecologically and humanly moral.

There are two sites that we use frequently. The one is called Ethical Consumer. They have one of the most comprehensive approaches, but that’s also making it quite challenging to find anything at all.

A second one, that’s easily accessible and has some clear guidelines is the Fashion Guide of the Baptist World Aid Australia. We’ve gotten into the habit of not buying clothing for anything that gets below a B- rating, and try–as much as possible–to aim for A-ratings.

The fashion finder on the phone works a bit slow, but it does the trick while shopping

Every year, the organisation releases a report in which the evaluate clothing brands on several categories. Last year there were four areas, but this year they organised it in these 5 areas. Each of them gets a separate rating:

  • Policies
  • Knowing your suppliers
  • Auditing and supplier relationships
  • Worker empowerment
  • Raw materials

So, if you have data on your phone when you go shopping, just Google for “ethical fashion guide”, and search for the brand you’re looking to buy. The mobile version does load quite slow, as you can see in the screencast, but it works nonetheless.

This list gets updated every year, and unfortunately, sometimes that means that brands you supported previously, are no longer worth your money. For example, last year RVCA had a B-rating and this year that dropped to a C-rating.

Ralph Lauren's rating on the 2018 Ethical Fashion Guide
Expensive brands do not necessarily get a good rating on the Ethical Fashion Guide

Interestingly, the rule is not that more expensive clothing is more ethical. For example, Ralph Lauren has a shockingly low rating for its cost. The same goes for Abercombie and Fitch.

What does it cost you?

In comparison to five years ago, really not that much. Even if you go for the international brands approach, just avoid brands that have a bad reputation and rating. There’s just no excuse to go for brands that are at the bottom of the rankings.

Unless you think your sense of (fast) fashion is more important than the environment and how others are treated …