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cyril naicker

Cyril Naicker: How to Build a Sustainable Fashion E-commerce Business

Cyril Naicker is the Chief Sustainability Executive at Plain Tiger, a global platform for sustainable and ethical luxury. They curate high-quality conscious fashion, beauty, and home décor brands from around the world on one e-commerce platform. Cyril conceptualised and wrote their Sustainability Accelerator Program that launched in 2021. 

In episode #10 of the Future Females Show, hosted by Media Personality & Transformational Coach, Susana Kennedy, and Co-Founder & CEO of Future Females, Lauren Dallas, Cyril talks about how to be an ethical and sustainable e-commerce business.

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Tell us a little bit about yourself. 

I studied fashion design and came to Cape Town to work for a large retailer. I worked as a buyer for a few years and it was at this time that I realised our systems were flawed. We were producing in China and we were basically glorified copy artists. That was not something that I wanted to do so I decided that I needed to make a difference and so I resigned. With that came a restraint of trade for two years and I had to move into a different industry. I went into the events industry and realised that, if I ever got back into fashion, it would be on my terms – which was social justice and activism.

But to come back to the question – I am a fashion revolution country coordinator for South Africa. We also have a family business called Imprint Luxury, which focuses on marketing, publicity, and events across the board. I am also the Sustainability Executive for the e-commerce platform Plain Tiger. These businesses are related to each other, so while it may seem like it is crazy busy (which it is…), I tend to get involved in projects that are fashion-related and sustainability-driven and I try to do the best that I can within those industries. 

I want to dig a little deeper into what the big problem is that we are not seeing when it comes to the fashion industry, specifically sustainability. What is that problem? 

I am going to highlight two problems. One of them is people, and the other is the planet. When it comes to the fashion industry the clothing that we are wearing is either made at the exploitation of people or at the exploitation of the planet. Recent research has shown that fashion is between 2% and 8% of global carbon emissions in the world. So while we may not be the second, third, or possibly even the fifth most polluting industry in the world, there is no reason to be complacent because we are contributing towards climate change. 

What is really the fault? Fashion Revolution has a hashtag called #WhoMadeMyClothes and basically what we try to do with that is to highlight the people behind the clothes. I recently saw Valentino’s couture show and what was quite nice was that, at the end of the show, they had all the ateliers and the people who made the garments come out. That is what we are really fighting for – policy and advocacy for the people that make our clothes, and also for our planet. 

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What is Fashion Revolution and how did it start? 

Fashion Revolution started in 2013 and was founded by two women: Carry Somers and Orsola De Castro. It basically happened because of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. Rana Plaza was a factory that housed many CMTs (“cut, make, and trim”), and the people who were working inside were working under poor conditions. When I talk about poor conditions, I am talking about no breaks, cables hanging from the ceiling, and bad infrastructure. There was a fire that broke out and it killed just over 1 000 people and badly injured just over 2 000 people. People were stampeding over each other. That was the largest catastrophe in the fashion industry and Carry and Orsola decided that something like that should never happen on their watch and they started Fashion Revolution. It is basically an activism NGO and we advocate for policy. We are not popular with the government and unions, but that is really what we have to do. We are currently in 90 countries globally. 

What is the policy that is causing the problem? 

To answer that question I would have to highlight something called a transparency index. Policy goes back to your value chain, so for example, in the jacket that I am wearing, there are various different stages for it to be made. From the fiber (where it is farmed, where it is made) to the production (in terms of the factory), to the dye houses (the print and dyes that go into it). So, across the value chain we look at various different things, and then when we go a little deeper, we talk about the rules and regulations around it. For instance, it is a known fact that if you want to look at what the colour trend for the new year is, you would look at the rivers in China. Berry Perry was the trend for this year, which means that purple was running all through the rivers in China. If we bring that back closer to home it means that kids are playing in that water, they are getting sick, fish are swimming in that water, and guess what? We are eating those fish… The entire ecosystem is flawed and this is why legislation and policy across the value chain are vital. 

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There is a huge problem in gaining the right fabric and the right machinery in South Africa in order to manufacture. How do we get around those problems?

These are huge problems and I would hate to say that I have the solutions right now because once again, it is government legislation. When I was studying fashion 24 years ago, we had thriving industries in Durban and the Western Cape – in fact, the Western Cape had one of the largest clothing industries in South Africa. After that, we moved a lot of stuff offshore which meant that fabrics were not available here anymore and we started to import. There is currently a 40% import duty tax on clothing that lands in this country. We always ask why clothing is cheaper abroad. It is because there is less duty tax on those clothes. We need to start producing in South Africa again… There is a huge talk about getting hemp done in South Africa, and there is talk about cotton but the issue with that is water. We almost hit day zero in Cape Town and now the Eastern Cape is heading towards day zero pretty soon with water restrictions. There are solutions to these issues, though. For example, when we were heading towards day zero Proctor & Gamble came up with a haircare product for women and men that did not require the use of any water. So there was a solution. Even with garments and fabrics, there are solutions, and people are working hard to find them. 

What do you think are some of these solutions and do you think that founders in this country have a dual responsibility where they have to be an activist as well as an entrepreneur?

Absolutely. You cannot do business alone, you have to collaborate too. I think that is a big thing for South Africans to take home in the sense that, no man is an island. I guess we have to look at nature – wolves hunt in a pack and that is the best analogy. Human beings have got to learn to work together. 

It would be a miss for me not to address the issue of plastic… There are a lot of microfibers in recycled plastic, which means that even if a t-shirt is made from six plastic bottles, when it goes into a wash cycle in your washing machine there are micro-particles that then end up in the ocean and this affects fish, penguins, etc. While it is great, because we do need to clean up the oceans and we do need to take those plastic bottles and use them for making fabric, we have got to also do our due diligence in terms of that entire cycle. We can not go and reinvent washing machines now to cater to this, but we can do things that are clever and we can look at the entire process in terms of making washing and care levels better. 

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What are the most sustainable fabrics that we can buy?

The first thing we teach with Fashion Revolution is to look at the care label – it is the DNA of your garment and it will invariably show you the product of origin. If you look at a garment in South Africa, it is going to say: Made in South Africa, but from imported fabrics. This is because we simply do not have the fabrication. 

I would encourage people to support local designers because it keeps jobs going – and that is important. However, I know that not everybody can afford local and therefore people look at mainstream and what we call “fast fashion” (which is retail stores). If you have to look at retail stores, look at the retail stores that are doing good business. Follow their journey, and get onto their website. It is law and legislation that they should be documenting their good business journey. They should be telling you where the garments are made, by whom it is made, which countries they are sourcing from, etc. 

In terms of what is the most sustainable garment, it is the clothing that is already in our cupboards. I want to encourage everybody to shop wisely. If you are shopping, edit your wardrobe and look at what you actually need. Do you need a seventh pair of jeans? Probably not. Do you need a seventh caftan? I don’t know. But if you really do need that seventh jacket, shop pre-loved or rent – especially for weddings or special events because if you are only going to wear that garment once, please look at the renting model. 

I saw that you launched a sustainability accelerator for entrepreneurs in 2021. Can you tell us more about that? 

I found that a lot of business owners who have established fashion brands and companies did not really understand what sustainability involved, so I came up with a curriculum that had seven lessons around it. Plain Tiger initiated the whole drive and to date, we have taken just over 20 brands that have gone through the accelerator (10 in each cohort) where we teach them everything from the basics to finances, how to work sustainably with communities, garment construction, understanding fabrication, and really the entire business side of sustainability. The intention is that once they get to understand sustainability, they are able to offer business that is much more sustainable on a global platform. 

Very interesting things are developing and it is all about technology and advancing people in the industry.

In terms of the business model of sustainability, it can be expensive for the entrepreneur. Is there a profit upside for a sustainable brand? 

Let me answer that in terms of cost factors. Going sustainable certainly is much more costly. The reason is that fabrication costs a lot of money. There are some designers in the crowd who want to bring in fabrics, but it is impossible to bring a small run without paying a lot of money, and that becomes a problem. However, if we had a local sustainable manufacturer it would solve the problem. We also have the issue with tax, which ads on. 

In terms of upcycling – is it sustainable? We have got to look at the future and the potential of going forward. Sustainability is not something that we can ignore, and if we care about future businesses and their longevity, we must do things the right way. For example, the fabrication and the factories should be good, there should be no slavery and no child labor. It really needs to be clean green businesses and that does unfortunately at this point in time come at a cost. But, I am an eternal optimist and I hope that in a few years it will be the norm and it will not be so costly. 

Do we have good legislation in terms of the factories that people work at in South Africa?

Absolutely. We hear a lot of negative things about South Africa but when it comes to the clothing industry I am proud to say that we are doing things right. One of the good things that we do is we have a good union (SAPTU), and we have the bargaining council and these two operate together. What they do in the clothing sector is to make sure that people are paid a minimum fair wage. I have to also differentiate – there is a difference between a minimum fair wage and a living wage and the owners of companies need to understand the difference. 

We also have policymakers that advocate for job creation in the clothing sector, and this is important. 

I am not saying that we should be doing away with imports and exports, because it is important for our economy. What I am saying is that services drive the economy. We live in a country where the youth form the biggest part of our population, and most of them are unemployed. We need to be upskilling them in a trade that they can learn and get into. Unfortunately, because we have had a lot of job cuts and factory closures, the youth are not interested in working in the fashion industry because they have seen their parents being put off work. 

One of the big things that we need to do, from a PR perspective, is to make the fashion industry sexy again and encourage people to be creative. 

Lastly… if you care about women’s rights, gender-based violence, and poverty alleviation, look no further than the clothes on your back 

Watch the show episode video here: 


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