South Africa is working to revitalize
its cotton textile and apparel industry, which has been damaged by the
availability of inexpensive imported clothing, by focusing on
sustainability — a focus that is expected to benefit from the University
of Delaware’s expertise.
UD’s Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies,
a recognized global leader in the area of socially responsible apparel,
is included in a five-year grant from South Africa’s Department of
Trade and Industry. The $20 million grant is funding the establishment
of a Southern African Sustainable Textile and Apparel Cluster, with a
goal of helping the industry improve its competitiveness by creating an
integrated supply chain from cotton field through retail that seeks to
minimize negative impacts on the environment and people involved.
“This idea started with the cotton farmers, who felt an urgent need
to revive and expand employment opportunities through farming, and they
thought that a focus on environmental and social responsibility would be
a good way to rebuild,” said Marsha Dickson, who is Irma Ayers
Professor of Human Services and chair of UD’s fashion and apparel
department. “We were brought in as an outside group that can provide a
global perspective and work with farmers, textile mills, apparel
manufacturers and retailers to implement a sustainable cotton supply
chain that will have long-term success.”
When apartheid-era trade sanctions against South Africa ended,
imported cotton fiber, textiles and finished garments began streaming
into the country, to the disadvantage of the local industry. With
expanded global competitiveness, an uncertain market and lack of
subsidies, many cotton farmers stopped growing the crop, and many
textile mills and clothing manufacturers shut down, leading to extensive
The industry, which Dickson described as “somewhat dysfunctional
because silos of industrial suppliers are all looking out for their own
needs” today, went in search of a way to become competitive and
profitable again, and the idea for the sustainability cluster was the
Faculty and graduate students from UD are finishing up their first
year of work with the project and are developing their plans for Year
Two. Seed funding for the research came from the University’s Institute for Global Studies and the College of Arts and Sciences’ Center for Global and Area Studies.
They have collected benchmarking data on the current environmental
and labor standards and practices of the supply chain beginning with
both large and small farmers, have conducted a workshop to share
information about the value of sustainability and get input from
stakeholders, and are conducting a pilot project to test manufacturing
capabilities in the supply chain.
They will soon begin surveying global buyers of apparel about the
value of key elements of the supply chain under development, such as the
ability to trace raw materials back to the farm and know the
environmental impacts and working conditions.
“There is a lot of rebuilding to be done, and a lot of trust to be rebuilt,” Dickson said.
During the second year of the project, she said, UD will continue its
research in a variety of areas and expects to begin working with South
African colleges and universities that have apparel programs, to help
them integrate sustainability into their curricula.
“The goal of the competitiveness grant is to allow whatever is
implemented to continue and thrive after we leave,” Dickson said. “So,
there’s a need to develop domestic expertise at universities there.”
Sustainable production includes policies that affect health, ecology
and fairness and ensure economic viability, Heinrich Schultz, cluster
manager for the Sustainable Textile and Apparel Cluster, told an
audience at UD last year. Schultz, who also is managing director for
OrganiMark in South Africa, spoke about the commercial value of
sustainability as consumers become increasingly interested in “green”
products that are manufactured with ethical integrity.
Dickson noted that South Africa has some advantages already as it
strives for a sustainable supply chain. Because labor unions are
prevalent in the country, issues involving working conditions and pay
are less problematic than in many other locations, she said.
Sustainability and the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies
In 2008, the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies worked with
key industry partners to establish the UD Sustainable Apparel
Initiative, which promotes environmental sustainability and social
responsibility in the apparel and retail industries.
The initiative uses the department's expertise in sustainability and
social responsibility, consumer behavior and apparel design to research,
design, create and demonstrate a framework of guidelines, practices,
programs and solutions as the industry moves toward sustainability.
In the South African project, as well as other initiatives, faculty
and graduate and undergraduate students have numerous opportunities to
conduct research in a real-world setting.
“We put ourselves out there beyond just theoretical academic
research,” Dickson said. “We work to apply our research to the real
world and then also to take what we learned in the real world and bring
it back to the academic setting.”