SA fashion retailers are looking for homegrown fabrics – reviving sectors crippled by Chinese imports

Business Insider SA
Farm workers harvesting cotton, Mpumalanga (Gallo Images)
Farm workers harvesting cotton, Mpumalanga (Gallo Images)
  • South Africa's once-thriving cotton industry was decimated by cheap Chinese imports in the early 2000s.
  • Now major fashion retailers, like Mr Price, are focusing on farm-to-fashion strategies for local procurement and production.
  • These are the same retailers blamed for the cotton industry's demise, something Mr Price was reminded of during a recent panel discussion as part of the Africa Textile Talks.
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South Africa's major fashion retailers want to source fabrics locally after relying on cheaper imports from China which crippled the country's once-thriving farmers and producers.

Cotton fabric has a rich history in South Africa. Farmers, producers, designers, and retailers all benefited from a thriving local textile industry, but that all changed in the late 1990s when South Africa opened to trade with China.

Retailers started importing fabric and clothing directly from China at a cheaper cost, greatly reducing the demand for local production. As a result, the manufacturing industry's capacity dropped sharply.

Where South Africa had around 20 cotton spinning plants in the early 2000s, within a decade, this number had dwindled to just four. From the height of production in the early 1990s, when South Africa was producing almost 80,000 tons of cotton lint, by 2012, this output had decreased by more than 90%.

Now, locally grown fabrics are back in demand, with South Africa's major clothing retailers buying into the sustainable farm-to-fashion strategy. Foschini, Mr Price, and Truworths are just some of these retailers that have committed to local procurement, which could reinvigorate South Africa's farmers and manufacturers.

"It really just started with a question around could our products have South African cotton in it. We understood what that could do from a socioeconomic perspective, from a business risk perspective, from a sustainability [perspective], in terms of environmental elements," said Natasja Ambrosio, the head of sustainable value chain for cotton at the Mr Price Group, during the Africa Textile Talks panel discussion at the end of June.

The panel's discussion, hosted by sustainable fashion magazine, Twyg, centred around farm-to-fashion strategies, highlighting the importance of locally produced clothing, and reigniting the farm-to-fibre philosophy to create a whole-system approach to sustainable fashion.

Ambrosio, who said that Mr Price's push towards procuring locally farmed cotton started in 2013, was taken to task for the fundamental role retailers – like Mr Price – played in crippling South Africa's cotton industry by importing from China.

"We talk about farm-to-fashion. There was farm-to-fashion. South Africa had a very vibrant cotton industry from farm to the shelves," said Bruce Robertson, the CEO of Uganda-based Gulu Agricultural Development Company, specialising in organic cotton, who was heavily involved in South Africa's cotton sector from the 1990s up until 2008.

"Only one spinning mill remains, and that's on its last legs. Why is that? In my view, it's because the retailers have too much power in the structure, and they basically wiped out the cotton industry by importing. For example, Mr Price, if you look at their history and where their clothing came from during their ascendency, it came from China. All credit to them, because that was good for their bottom line, but the imports from China, from about 2002 to 2010, killed the South African cotton industry and cost it hundreds of thousands of jobs."

"I feel a little bit miffed when I hear about our interest in farmers and cotton and development and impact and all of that… because it's the retailers that wiped it out in the first place."

In response to Robertson's criticism, Ambrosio noted that as part of the strategy to uplift rural farming communities, Mr Price has started to provide input finance for small-scale cotton growers and to commit to buying the product on the condition that it fits within the specific grade.

"Around about 2017, a number of retailers got together, and I was fortunate to be part of that group, where we sat around a table and said something's got to change. I think retail stood and recognised, to the industry, to government, and to everyone, the fact that we were part of the problem," said Ambrosio.

"So, the problem that Bruce described, in terms of the history of imports and global value chains, it is what global value chains became. Retailers sourced from all over the world, from various different countries, and it had a significant impact on local production. Now, we sit on a weekly basis, discussing how we can contribute [and] significant commitments have been made to localisation.

Ambrosio added that the majority of its procurement had shifted to Africa in recent years, with up to 75% of some of Mr Price's businesses relying solely on local production.

"Yes, retail has to stand in its shoes and acknowledge that it was part of the decisions that we made in the past that impacted the industry significantly," said Ambrosio.

"Now, the good thing is that we're standing together, and there are discussions with everyone from spinning to textile mills to [the] footwear industry to furniture [and] we're involved in almost every master plan that relates to our product to try and shift that production back to South Africa."

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