Weathering workwear storms
Weathering workwear storms
In the past 25 years, South Africa’s textile industry has struggled to hold its own against competitors from cheaper labour markets. Too often, the fast fashion industry has seen a race to the bottom, characterised by labour exploitation and shoddy products. However, one local company – Sweet-Orr & Lybro – has taken a different approach.
Protective workwear company Sweet-Orr & Lybro has identified a gap where quality is prized, and it has invested in the knowledge and skill required to be a trusted manufacturer.
Before the first democratic elections, in the early 1990s, South Africa’s clothing and garment industry accounted for 250 000 jobs. This changed when borders opened, with imported fabric and clothing being produced at a faster pace, at lower prices, using cheaper labour and cheaper raw materials. While the new goods were welcomed by South African consumers, local textile companies found the going hard. Over time, the influence of international fast fashion giants has accelerated this trend.
“Several clothing companies have moved the bulk of operations outside the country to keep their costs under control, with only a local office or small manufacturing plant remaining,” says Sweet-Orr & Lybro executive director Denver Berman-Jacob.
Sweet-Orr’s own story is very different. Early on it identified a niche where quality products would be prized. In the protective workwear sector, clothing has to perform under the harshest conditions. It’s this focus on quality and service delivery – as well as long experience – that has allowed the company to survive and thrive for 150 years, even during the Covid-19 lockdown.
“We’ve always made a point of adapting and diversifying. Just because you are doing well today doesn’t mean you will be in business tomorrow. It’s our job to move with the times and remain relevant. You need to think and act differently all the time to have a sustainable future,” says Berman-Jacob.
Sweet-Orr & Lybro celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding and its 90th year in South Africa during 2021. “There’s no doubt that we’ve weathered some severe storms over the years, but we’ve always sought out opportunities and we’ve never compromised on quality,” says company CEO John Jacobs.
The company grew from humble beginnings in Wappingers Falls, New York state, in 1871 when James Orr and his nephews, Clayton and Clinton Sweet, identified the need for workwear that labourers could buy off the shelf rather than tailoring their own. Sweet-Orr was possibly the first commercial manufacturer of blue jeans, according to the New York Times, and supplied official uniforms to the US armed forces and Boy Scouts Association for over 100 years.
In 1931, it was time to take the next bold move – establishing offices in booming South Africa and diversifying the business in the wake of the Great Depression. In partnership with UK brand Lybro, Sweet-Orr & Lybro was born with offices in Woodstock, Cape Town. In 1969, Sweet-Orr opened its current 5 500 m2 premises in Elsies River, with a production capacity of 3 500 garments per day. Today, all Sweet-Orr & Lybro garments are manufactured there by the company’s skilled machinists, and the company is wholly and proudly South African owned.
Since its founding, Sweet-Orr & Lybro has demonstrated a thirst for excellence. It was the first manufacturer in South Africa to triple-stitch lapsed seams and incorporate hemmed pockets and bar-tacked stress points – innovations that further strengthen garments and prevent rips or tears which could catch on machinery and cause serious harm. And, in 1978, Sweet-Orr became the first local clothing manufacturer to be awarded the coveted South African Bureau of Standards’ (SABS) mark-bearing certification SANS 434.
Alongside a single-minded focus on quality, it is also a company that takes family values to heart. Employees, suppliers and clients are all treated as part of the same family, sharing the same goals, and a commitment to skills development, staff education and training. Sweet-Orr has an in-house training academy whose graduates are employed within the company. It is also registered with the Fibre Processing & Manufacturing Sector Education and Training Authority (FP&M SETA) and offers learnership programmes under the auspices of the SETA.
Sweet-Orr currently distributes garments across the Southern African Development Community region as well as in the United Arab Emirates. The company is also looking into agreements with other countries in Africa and has re-entered the United States.
“As one of South Africa’s oldest manufacturers of protective workwear, being able to once again serve the very country where we once originated is incredibly exciting. Making the circle complete is a tremendous feat,” says Berman-Jacob.