Master's degree students in fashion and apparel studies Leslie Siron (student on left, wearing white sweater) and Crescent Scudder (writing) talk with farmers in a cotton field in South Africa.

Sustainable textiles

UD assists South Africa in revitalizing its cotton industry


11:12 a.m., March 9, 2015--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.

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“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 job loss. 

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 result.

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.”

Article by Ann Manser

Photos courtesy of Marsha Dickson

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