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Sunday Times-South Africa

Retail therapy: First World shopping fodder is often produced


SANDTON... the high temple of shopping, the Mecca of merchandise and the holy cathedral of consumerism. Its glossy, hallowed halls attract well-heeled big spenders from near and far who religiously flock to genuflect before its till points: Gucci. The Body Shop. Crabtree & Evelyn. Tumi. Godiva. Versace. Diesel... the list is as long as New York's Fifth Avenue.

The latest to join this fashionable congregation is Conran Africa, which launches this month. But it's not part of the Conran chain that has scatter-cushioned from London and New York to Paris and Tokyo. Oh, no. It's something better. It's Conran with soul.

There is, of course, a connection with the "real" Conran in the form of Sebastian Conran, British lifestyle guru Sir Terence's son, who's collaborated with Woolworths to develop a uniquely South African range for its 20 flagship stores, including Sandton.

You need only sniff through the pages of Nicholas Coleridge's Fashion Conspiracy or Naomi Klein's No Logo to know that the retail game often isn't a fair one. Shopping centres like Sandton City (and, indeed, entire countries like the US and Australia) are designed to feed the need of the armies of Tracys and Debbies who require things to buy.

So, while Sandton's Tracy considers the price of a silk undergarment set (R499) over a cappuccino, the seamstresses of the Far East - many of whom are children - struggle through life on a few rand a day.

It'd be so easy to name big retail names here, but there's no reason. Sandton City - and the entire Western world - revolves around this setup. But rest assured, your R999 designer jeans probably cost just a few bucks to manufacture. The rest of that high-ticket price goes into import duties, rentals, retail wages and the dreaded P-word: profit. But at whose expense?

The Fair Trade Movement - which promotes global corporate accountability in everything from living wages to environmentally sustainable practices - is well-established in the UK and US and is famously advocated by The Body Shop's Anita Roddick. It's bound to gain consumer currency in Southern Africa.

Yet it's no secret that there's been a flurry of textile manufacturers setting up slash-wage factories in neighbouring countries like Mauritius, Swaziland and Lesotho to meet American Tracys' and Debbies' insatiable hunger for shopping-mall labels like, GAP, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch and Banana Republic.

Conran Africa seems to be antithesis of this. Good design? Check. The crucial X-factor in designer appeal? Ditto. Price accessibility? Yes. The difference? The products are made for Debbie and Tracy - and Thoko and Fatima - by real people who are actually treated like... people.

Less than four hours' drive from the gleaming malls of Sandton is Swaziland's scenic Ezulwini Valley ("Valley of Heaven"), its hills dotted with traditional homesteads. Here, and elsewhere throughout Swaziland, women weave dyed-grass place mats, floor mats, baskets and coasters for Gone Rural, supplying more than 700 stores in 35 countries, although 75% of their products are bought by South African retailers.

It's a process based on fair trade, says Gone Rural's Zo� Dean-Smith. "Our home-based weavers are split into 13 geographically based groups throughout Swaziland. We visit each group every three weeks, when they sell the raw grass to us and buy their dyed grass from us.

"The buy-sell process keeps us linked. And it also ensures quality control, which is imperative for all of our retail customers, particularly in the US, and for big local companies, so that the colourways are exact and without variance.

"The women then take the grass back to their homes where it's woven into the designs. We go out and collect the finished work, paying them at our pre-arranged collection points.

"To give you an idea of economic impact, the majority of the women use the money earned to pay for school fees for the ever-increasing number of dependents that each of them supports."

To hear about the concept is one thing; to experience it is another. What one sees, after travelling 20km or so along a mountain dirt road, is a group of 60 or 70 women gathered on a cow-dunged sports field. An informal market is set up. Children are running about. The women patiently queue while mats are measured, stretched and analysed by a no-nonsense Swazi quality controller.

Approved? Payment and smiles all around. Doesn't quite make the grade? Unravel and start again. "Fortunately this rarely happens," notes Dean-Smith.

And then one looks again. There's not a man in sight. Many of the women are older, surrounded by small children. "Our research has shown that each of our weavers supports an average of eight dependents, many of them HIV/Aids orphans," says Dean-Smith. Swaziland's HIV-infection rate is estimated to be 38%.

Indeed, a few of the women in the queue look gaunt - but still, smiles all around. And it's not just for the camera. There's a zest for life that the world's suburban princesses spend years in therapy to achieve.

It's an unnervingly emotional experience, consciously connecting these women - and their modest existence - to the suburban glamour zone of Tracy and Debbie. One can almost hear the dinner party chatter back in Sandton, the Kugel National Park - "don't you just love these little place mats? Conran Africa! Divine, doll!" - echoing through the Swazi wind.

But dry your eyes. It's an old tale, and one that's repeated throughout South Africa and most of international suburbia, from Buenos Aires and Bombay to San Diego and Sydney.

Gone Rural is one of 16 handpicked suppliers to the Conran Africa range. Each of the project's design suppliers - ranging from Cape Town's Carrol Boyes and Durban's Century Clocks to Swaziland's Ngwenya Glass and Port Elizabeth's Pr�t-a-Pot - have similar soul-lifting stories to tell.

The suppliers were chosen for a somewhat intangible mix of manufacturing experience, design savvy, community upliftment and commercial viability.

The Conran Africa concept was brainstormed at Cape Town's 2003 Design Indaba, the result of a meeting between Sir Terence Conran and Woolworths representatives. The product range includes tableware (by Ngwenya Glass, Pr�t-a-Pot, Carrol Boyes, Gone Rural, Emvee Potters and Glass House), textiles (Twananani Textiles, funded by the Department of Arts and Culture, along with Africa Nova and Mungo Design) and accessories (Kapula Candles, Kurgan Kenani Leather, Mielie, Qualitywood, Catherine Jacobs, Century Clocks and Red Hot Glass).

"We know it's not just about bringing out a designer homeware range," says Woolworths' product director Richard Butt. "It's more about being in touch with our customers' innate sense of social awareness. The customers know that they are making a difference to people's lives in directly contributing to a project that empowers mostly female crafters in Southern Africa."

Says Sebastian Conran, who served as creative director on the project: "Conran Africa celebrates the success of African design. How consumers respond will determine the long-term vision and community benefits of this phenomenal and very brave project."

Next stop London? An army of Tracys and Debbies await.

*The Conran Africa range is available at selected Woolworths stores from this month.


Copyright © 2004 -Sunday Times (South Africa), Publisher. All rights reserved to The Sunday Times. Reproduction of this article (other than one copy for personal sreference) must be cleared through the The Sunday Times Permissions Desk.

Information in this article was accurate in October 10, 2004. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.