From rags to riches – if we support local clothing manufacturers

Since Covid-19 knocked on our doors in March, our economy has been deeply shaken, with quarterly GDP contractions of 51% and skyrocketing unemployment rates. Last week, recently released data showed that 42% of South Africans of working age are unemployed. Among them, just over half (23.3%) are looking for a job. The rest have given up on the search.

It’s nothing short of a tragedy, and looking at how things play out, the rest of the year doesn’t bode well. While the situation has improved since the lockdown restrictions were lifted to Level 1, businesses, including some of our country’s most established and prolific brands, continue to scale down and shut down.

A small but powerful solution is for everyone in this country to take the ‘local is lekker’ path and nurture the economy from within, as consumers and business owners. Proudly buying South African goods, services and products is one of the most powerful tools that every entrepreneur and consumer – roughly 37 million adults – has at their disposal to effect change.

Spending our money on locally made clothes, food and housewares instead of going to imports proudly keeps the doors of South African businesses open and people employed.

The problem is that in a price sensitive country like ours, where nearly half the population lives on or below the poverty line for bread, not everyone is able to choose local. Take textile products, something that everyone needs. Often, South African clothing is more expensive than items with “Made in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and India” labels.

Contrary to popular belief, corporate greed has little to do with it.

From my professional and direct experience, I can tell you that many South African clothing manufacturers do not make millions. Companies are often forced to produce at break even, or even at a loss, to keep their employees in employment. Sweet-Orr, the company I work for, did it. With 150 years to our credit in the world, including 90 years in South Africa, we are fortunate to have a buffer to navigate uncertainties. In the future, many more will not, which has dire implications for unforeseen expenses involving, for example, replacing an extremely expensive piece of machinery or a leaky roof.

Our current textile situation contrasts sharply with the not so distant past. Before our first democratic elections, the South African garment and garment industry was a booming economic powerhouse, accounting for a quarter of a million jobs in the early 1990s. It wasn’t because companies produced products. well-priced, high-quality clothing at an extraordinarily efficient rate, but because there was no competition. The country was, after all, in a global lockdown, for all the right reasons, offering built-in protection to local businesses.

This changed when our borders opened, allowing us to escape isolation and join the global economic battlefield. Soon, imported products – including fabrics and clothing – began to pour in, triggering a process of competition. Being produced at a much faster rate at lower prices by cheaper labor with cheaper raw materials has been good news for South African consumers, especially the poor.

In the meantime, measures have been put in place to protect vulnerable industries such as fabric manufacturing, including a 22% import duty on imported raw fabrics.

Regardless of these interventions, and in line with global trends, many South African textile factories have started to shut down due to increased competition from elsewhere. Fortunately, we still have a number of strong suppliers, which allows us to continue to support local businesses where possible. In addition to building our local economy, sourcing raw materials closer to home instead of importing them, reduces lead times and therefore prices, because we don’t have to deal with currency volatility either.

That said, the shutdown of fabric manufacturers has affected the availability of options and has pushed and continues to push other local clothing manufacturers into the arms of more expensive imported fabrics. This results in more expensive clothes. The higher the price of your raw materials, including chemicals and yarns, the more expensive your end products. All of this is compounded by a weak and unstable rand.

Of course, the quality also plays a role in the price. The better the product, the higher the price. The problem, however, is that in a country like ours, quality is an asset. What’s written on a price tag is what keeps customers on your side, not if a pair of jeans lasts two or more seasons. The Covid-19 pandemic has only intensified, making the purchase of proudly South African clothing infeasible for most.

A final pressure point is that despite various import regulations, the local market is inundated with insanely inexpensive clothing made in other parts of the world, making it virtually impossible to compete with local manufacturers. The influence of international fast fashion giants is not helping. A number of clothing companies have therefore moved most of their operations out of the country to keep costs low, with only a local office or a small manufacturing plant. The question is: can you still consider yourself a proudly South African company if most of your products are made elsewhere?

I do believe, however, that we can restore our garment and textile industry to its former glory, enabling it to manufacture affordable, quality products that create and maintain jobs, develop businesses and attract foreign direct investment. We have the infrastructure, the talent and a people willing to work.

The government seems to be on the same page. With its new textile, footwear and clothing master plan, it intends to increase the proportion of fashion produced locally and sold in stores from 44% to 65% by 2030. This could create 120,000 additional jobs, thus increasing the number of employment opportunities across the industry. value chain to 330,000.

For the master plan to work, we need to do things differently. South Africa will not be able to sew a better shirt or protective suit if they insist on using the same thread that keeps snapping.

Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Mail & Guardian.

Gladys T. Hensley

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