University of Delawareâ€™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 Africaâ€™s Department of Trade and Industry to revitalize its cotton textile and apparel industry which has been affected by the availability of inexpensive imported clothing.
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 UDâ€™s fashion and apparel department.
They 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. 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.
During the second year of the project, 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.
According to Dickson, the goal of the competitiveness grant is to allow whatever is implemented to continue and thrive after they leave. Hence, thereâ€™s a need to develop domestic expertise at universities there.
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.
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. They work to apply their research to the real world.
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