“I think buying local is unrealistic for people who aren’t bourgeois,” Antonia* says. And there’s something like condemnation in her tone. I cringe. Because, you see, I buy local. Of course, my parents are professionals and I do go to university but my latest purchases were a R350 suede jacket and a R90 off-the-shoulder top. Both were made in South Africa.
However, buying local has become so infused with vintage markets lit up with fairy lights; boutiques on Long and Kloof; and stackable silver rings that go for R400 a piece. And this is a reality — but only for some.
The issue is that this perception of buying local or buying consciously is exclusionary. “When I see that [sticker proclaiming the good is locally-made] I think ‘oh my god, it’s going to be expensive,’” says Laaiqah, a 21-year-old student. Locally-produced goods are so associated with quality that her expectation is that they are unaffordable and, as she says, “I don’t have freedom of finances.”
Antonia agrees. Buying local is not affordable, she feels. She brings up an interesting comparison, to that of vegetarianism and veganism: it’s an “exclusionary” practice. “Ethical decisions,” she elaborates,” are constrained by income”.
And I agree. It’s difficult to be powerless and want to effect change. There’s a price tag to doing good. “Adopt” a lion cub for R460. Feed one child for a year for R600. Buy a canvas bag for R20 to support the underprivileged school in Durban. All great ideas; some affordable — but only for some.
You see, there’s a new item that the elite are sporting about town that’s made an astonishing comeback as globalisation and capitalism have shown their dirtier sides: conscience. It’s in the Woolworth’s fridge of vegan meals. It’s in the shopping bags made of recycled materials. And it’s in the latest suede coat that’s been made in South Africa. All these things are relentlessly marketed as conscious, ethical choices that people can buy. The elite’s backing of “conscience” has made an effect on the rest: it’s fashionable and very, very desirable. Nevermind the few oddballs who never left Edgars to shop at Zara, buying local is trending now because the elite have made it so. And they’ve made it seem like it’s only for them, that only they can save our flailing textiles industry.
Ethical practices like buying local or vegetarianism have been captured by the elite. They’re being made inaccessible much like prime land in traditionally working-class areas. Large firms build towering apartment blocks in areas like Woodstock or Bo-Kaap; a steady stream of the financially-savvy middle-class “invest in” and “develop” properties until area prices are beyond the reach of the working classes. Gentrification is so easy to go along with, especially for the middle-class: I mean, who doesn’t like coffee shops with hanging plants and earth-toned houses?
And it’s a similar story with buying local. There’s an instant charm about night markets that sparkle, serve wine and have live music. That sort of buying local is so fashionable, it’s become so…gentrified.
Buying local is about supporting the South African economy but by excluding potential markets, this is undermined. If it’s fashionable to have a conscience nowadays, what happens when the fad dies? Fashionable may seem like a good thing but in the long-run, as prices rise alongside popularity, could this exclusion be more of a death sentence? The property prices in Cape Town seem to attest to that. I hope that the buying local movement won’t.
The merits of popularising buying local are obvious: increased demand, increased supply, increased employment, increased equality. But if we stop the shopping cart at “increased demand”, we can clearly see increased prices. And that puts a large market of working-class and emerging middle-class South Africans off.
Sustaining the trendiness of buying local is the key to maximising this new fashion’s advantages. And you know when purchases are both popular and sustainable? When you hardly think once about buying them. When you don’t notice the big yellow “Made in South Africa” sticker. When you don’t have to check labels to see if a product is South African. When the practice is so engrained, its trendiness is irrelevant, unthought-of. After all, some fashions do become styles that last.
That may be a long way off but there are steps that we can take towards that future now. It’s too easy to relegate these problems to our beleaguered government. We need to put our money where our mouth is and support local production so that the demand and supply meet at affordable prices.
Because there are ways to buy local without bursting the bank. Magical things called sales; the good fortune of living in South Africa’s factory shop capital. Better still, there are stores that are normalising locally-made goods. Antonia and Laaiqah were both surprised that Mr Price and Pick ‘n Pay Clothing, cheapie staples, stock locally-produced clothes. These stores don’t shout about it; you’ll only notice if you check the labels. But they’re there. And if you compare prices, you’ll find that the price difference isn’t always that great when you buy local; in fact, sometimes it’s not even there.
Practices like these mean that we can buy local on a tight budget. The trick is to uncapture the perception of exclusivity from those pretty boutique stores and bright little stickers that so innocuously proclaim “Made in South Africa.”
*This name has been changed to maintain the interviewee’s anonymity.