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Labels - Green is the new Black

Carlyn Frittelli Davies and Njabulo Mchunu

"Sustainability" is used as the foundation for motivating positive change in aged industries, and inspiring the establishment of new ones. The focus on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) imperatives for the clothing, textile, apparel and footwear industry can lead to investment in the ailing local fashion industry.

“Sustainable development” is defined as “integration of social, economic and environmental factors into planning, implementation and decision-making so as to ensure that development serves present and future generations”. The elements clearly include humans, the economy and the environment to achieve a harmony of sorts, to ensure longevity of all three elements in a developing country. While the global fashion industry wrestles with the definition of “sustainable fashion”, the unregulated use of environmental jargon could lead to greenwashing. Greenwashing is a term used to describe an instance where an entity provides misleading information to deceive its customers into believing that their products are more environmentally-friendly than they actually are. Voluntary initiatives through factual labelling may be needed to unify the fashion industry and its embodiment of sustainability.

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What’s in a label?

Brand Identity. Often a second label is found hidden inside and towards the bottom of a garment. It indicates the fabric content, origin of manufacture and care instructions. The information enables a consumer to make informed decisions. This is a basic requirement for transparency and authenticity in an age where greenwashing is likely to entice, rather than impede, sales.

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How to label?
In terms of the Merchandise Marks Act, 1941 (the Act), an item of clothing is required to indicate the country of origin where the item was manufactured. This basic requirement, if contravened, will be met with a fine and/or imprisonment. In either instance, the court is also empowered by section 20(2) of the Act to order the confiscation of the goods to which the offence relates, in addition to any other penalty that may be imposed. The South African National Standards additionally require the fibre content and care labelling of the garment to be indicated. Experience has shown that there are often no secondary labels, or the information is insufficient, particularly in e-commerce. It is unclear whether this relates to indifference, cost-cutting or an inability by the merchant to obtain this information from its supply chain. The fashion industry would be wise to remove this supply chain gap, since the South African Sustainable Finance Initiative often follows the movement of the European Union. Recently, the European Parliament received recommendations to adopt legislation to prescribe due diligences for responsible supply chains in, among others, the garment and footwear sector.

Why do we need labels?
Originally, union labels were used by labour groups in the United States of America to show their strength and, in 1874, cigar-makers used the origin to indicate higher product quality. Later, legislation was introduced to compel manufacturers to indicate care instructions, due to the creation of new synthetic fabrics, to ensure consumers could wash items without damaging them. Today, the care instructions are as important as ever with new fabrics being designed at a rapid rate. As for origin, it is required for import tax purposes and, as initially used, to promote support for local economies.

Labels of support
Additional labels are also used to support campaigns and initiatives. The well-known South African flag in the shape of a tick, Proudly South African, was established in 2001, resulting from the 1998 Presidential Job Summit assembled by the late former President Nelson Mandela. Its purpose is to work to combat the triple challenges of poverty, inequality and, above all, unemployment, by encouraging local investment and consumption of local products. The global pandemic has increased these triple challenges. Additional labels have been developed such as: “Made in South Africa”, “Local is Lekker”, “Cotton SA” and “Better Cotton South Africa.” These words on labels aim to strengthen an industry that, in turn, creates and sustains employment, thereby addressing poverty, inequality and unemployment. However, consumer awareness and buy-in is required for the success of these initiatives on a large scale.

The future of labels
While the focus of labels has been based on those who make the clothes and how to care for clothes, the conscious aspects of purchasing clothes and the impacts on the environment are coming to the fore. South Africa does not have eco-label legislation yet, but the extended producer responsibility has recently been implemented in the electronic and packaging industries, indicating a shift of responsibility from consumers to producers, which aligns with eco-labels. The global clothing industry is designing various labelling systems, indicating the true cost of the industry on the environment through eco-labelling, such as the Nordic Swan Eco-label. Larger corporates tend to look to technology and technological measuring systems in order to determine their impacts. More examples emerge each year, including the Fair Trade Movement, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and OEKO-TEX® certification, to name a few. Smaller, slow fashion brands look to include information such as the carbon footprint of an item, or the true production cost thereof. The traditional label is too small to include sufficient detail to communicate cost and impact transparency, but technological developments such as QR codes will aid this endeavour. The ingenuity required in the label industry is being led by consumers’ needs. As a result, the global label industry is forecasted to grow from $1,9170bn in 2020 to $3,1857bn by 2028.


So, look for the labels, consider and question their content and make a choice that will support the local economy, increase employment and, if you like, protect our environment for those who will one day walk in our shoes. 
 
Frittelli Davies is a Consultant and Mchunu a Candidate Legal Practitioner, Natural Resources and Environment | ENSafrica.

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