Shirts to have faith in

I love it when a plan comes together.

We’re in the middle of Fairtrade fortnight here in the UK, and the web is full of people talking about the steps they are taking to support the principles of fairer and more equable trade.

Probably nobody thinks of Fairtrade as the be all and end all of ethical trading any more.

That idea died away when we all realised that despite the public adoption of Fairtrade as an effective guide to brands and products which are produced with ethics in mind, there remain significant issues to be overcome in terms of living wages and the sustainability of industry.

Perhaps those issues will always remain while we live and operate in the kind of economic environment that we do.

Ethical trading

From my perspective the Fairtrade movement has been very positive in many ways. It has brought the plight of slave labour in the chocolate industry to widespread public attention for instance. And the Fairtrade mark still gives a good guide with regard to where a product is at in terms of its production supply chain.

That is why I think its very good news that retail sales of Fairtrade products rose by 12%in 2011.

One of my particular interests for about 15 years has been the garment industry.

I’ve been active in one way or another in activism and campaigning in that area since my late teens. My focus initially was on the plight of garment workers, particularly as sweat shops became better publicised.

I later became very invested in the issue of organic and sustainable textile production, particularly as I began to understand that the standards applied by Organic certification agencies often demanded a great deal from employers in terms of social standards, as well as regulating the use of harmful (often lethal) chemicals.

Organic cotton in particular is a vital part of sustainable textile production. When compared with conventional cotton farming the benefits are too many to list. In part, this is why I also think its very good news that the organic clothing and textile sector recorded an increase in turnover of nearly 8% in 2011.


Over a number of years of involvement in this area, I encountered con-men and crooked dealing, I realised that life is very hard for small companies trying to help farmers convert to organic agriculture, and I saw how farmers could be lured away from sustainable agricultural practices by the promise of quick cash.I have also seen many well intentioned businesses go to the wall, leaving their suppliers with nobody to sell to.

My own attempts to set up an organic cotton farming project have so far come to nought, but thankfully that’s not all I’m involved in.


A couple of years ago I was contacted by a company that manufactures uniforms, something which immediately interested me. As opposed to fashion which is built to be disposable, uniforms have to be long lasting, hard wearing, and aren’t just going to be thrown away at the end of the season.

ImageOne particular clothing line came to the fore in our talks, a market leading brand of clergy shirts called Reliant.

If we could begin to transition these clergy shirts to Organic and Fairtrade cotton, could other lines follow…?

Well the road to achieving our goal proved to be a rocky one, and I think its fair to say it took longer than any of us had hoped, but at the beginning of this week I received a box in the post. A Reliant shirt, made from 100% Organic and Fairtrade certified cotton.

So in time for Fairtrade Fortnight, the new Reliant Fairtrade and organic cotton shirts are available from clergy suppliers.

I love this, love it, love it, love it.

High quality shirts, not disposable fashion, produced by people we’ve worked hard (and spent considerable time and money) to develop relationship with.

This kind of process is the ‘present-future’ of garment production, while we almost certainly need to cut back on the production of disposable fashion, we need to re-invest heavily in establishing a direct link between the field where the cotton crop was grown, and the high quality output at the other end.

It combines ancient agricultural practices guided by sunshine and rainfall, with high tech sewing operations guided by laser cut patterns.

I love it when a plan comes together.

An interesting delivery

A couple of weeks ago somebody contacted me from a well known clothing company, he had read my blog post about why I dont buy new clothes.

Clearly this chap and his company, which make fairly high end outdoor wear, has a different perspective on new clothing and its value. So to cut a longer story short, he offered to send me – free of charge – some pieces of their clothing so that I could assess for myself whether I thought that the quality they offer is worth buying new, and spending quite a few quid on. It certainly says something for their self belief that they are willing to open themselves up to scrutiny in this way – they obviously think their clobber is worth buying, I remain to be convinced.

So over the next months and perhaps years, I’ll be posting my own ongoing reviews on these pieces of clothing (trousers, shirt,  & jacket), giving my assessment of their design and general quality. This isnt just going to be cheap publicity for the company in question either,  where I have reservations or questions about the clothing in question I will voice them – the only deal I have made in that regard is that if and when I have negative points to make about the clothing I will let them know first in case its something which they can put right.

Given the punishment I usually give clothing, this should be interesting.  A follow on post, revealing the name of the company in question and initial thoughts about the clothes will follow in the next few days.

M & S recycled clothing labels

Marks and Spencer are one of the most ethical of clothing producers – I have seen some of the factories they use, they are very well resourced, have exceptional high standards and are pushing ahead in bringing fairtrade and organic cotton into the mainstream. They have also been developing a relationship with Oxfam which helps to close the loop on their clothing – recycling it. The fact that they also tend to make good quality clobber, and at a reasonably high price point makes sure they arent able to be accused of promoting disposable fashion.

Their latest move forwards is to begin the introduction of care labels made from recycled polyester – amazing that hasnt been mainstream by now, but there you are. The labels will be printed ‘recycle with Oxfam’ – strengthening the link yet again.

I’m impressed by Marks and Spencer, they are a high street monolith, but they are making what look like real efforts with their clothing – and they already lead the field in other areas (sustainably sourced fish for example). So well done M & S.

See the press release below:

Marks & Spencer to introduce Recycled Clothing Labels

300 million M&S care labels a year to be made from recycled polyester

Marks & Spencer (M&S) today announces that it will use polyester made from recycled PET1 drinks bottles instead of virgin polymer to make over 300 million clothing care labels a year.

The labels will also carry a new message2 – ‘Recycle with Oxfam’ – to encourage customers to use the M&S and Oxfam Clothes Exchange3 which rewards customers who donate their clothing in Oxfam stores with a money off voucher to use at M&S.

Two million garments a year are already recycled through the scheme and, as part of Plan A, M&S has made a commitment to help customers to recycle 20 million items of clothing a year by 2015.

The new labels will start to appear in M&S clothing in stores early next year and will cover two thirds of M&S’ annual use of washing and care instruction labels. Approximately two million recycled plastic drinks bottles will be used every year to make the labels.

Gordon Henman, General Merchandise Packaging Technical Manager at M&S, said: “This is a fantastic example of how a small step can make a big difference. Using an environmentally friendly material to make a 4cm x 2cm care label makes a big impact when you multiply it by 300 million.

“As part of Plan A, we’re committed to ensuring that the raw materials we use come from the most sustainable sources. Increasing the amount of recycled material we use in products and packaging will help us achieve this commitment and reduce our impact on the environment.”

Instead of making the labels from virgin polyester, which is made from oil-based polymers, the new labels are made from ‘post consumer waste’ plastic bottles. The bottles are collected through the recycling system, granulated and washed. They are then melted and turned into yarn by forcing the liquid through a shaped die. The yarn is then woven into a care label and printed.

why I dont buy new clothes

I was at a conference this weekend (which was great by the way) and as part of it, I hosted a little seminar about environmental stuff.

A little comment I made seemed to get quite a lot of attention, and so I thought I’d briefly revisit it here in case others are interested.

A couple of years ago I made a basic commitment not to buy new clothes – except for socks and underwear.

I did this because I think its completely unnecessary in the main to buy new clothes, it contributes hugely to the problem of clothing being over produced and then scrapped – the UK has huge amounts of junked clothing to deal with, just ask my old pal Joe, he’ll tell you all about it.

So anyway I made this commitment, which seemed to me to be quite clear. And in the main I’ve kept to it – in point of fact I’ve always been a charity shop shopper anyway, so that wasnt such a big shift. But for some of us, I think its a big mind shift.

Now it must be said that I have bought some new clothes in this time, and I’ve been given a few pieces of new clothing too – as presents etc.

In particular I found there was a problem for me with second hand jeans, I just went through them really quickly, and so about 18 months ago I bought an expensive pair of organic cotton jeans made by Timberland. They’ve been very good, multipurpose, and have taken the obligatory ‘mud and bike’ based battering that I tend to give all clothes.

I have also found it very difficult to find smartish polo shirts, and so bought two fair trade, organic cotton polos from Gossypium quite recently, they should last me a long time.

But in the main I’ve bought all I need from charity shops, which are particularly good for shirts I think. I’ve needed a few smart short sleeve shirts for trips overseas etc, and they’ve all been sourced in charity shops.I’m also mainly wearing second hand leather army boots at the moment (until sandal weather arrives). The strength of army boots, I think, is that they last forever if you look after them, they can be re-soled so they can just go on and on, they also can look smart or casual, and take the same mud and bike based battering with ease.

I’ve also done a wee bit of alteration here and there of old clothes – including to the disgust of my nearest and dearest cutting up a pair or two of old woven boxer shorts (my own) and hemming them up to use as handkerchiefs. Perfect.

I dont think its obligatory to buy absolutely everything second hand, I just dont think we should take new clothes for granted. Some are necessary, I think particularly in uniforms and so on, we will always need new clothing production. But in the main, for day to day wear, second hand could provide almost all we need. When you do need to buy new clothes, please dont just buy any old rubbish, think carefully, choose slowly, and buy quality, ethically sourced, product.

Organic and Fairtrade value chains, a free business guide

There’s a very lengthy and, at first glance, very useful guide to doing business in the organic and fairtrade sectors available here, and made available to either view online or downloadable as a pdf.

By the looks of it, this guide should prove very helpful for anyone who is interested in developing or managing a supply chain in the organic and/or fairtrade sectors, and it certainly looks like something I wish I had read a couple of years ago, and which I may yet be dipping into.

Certainly helpful for anyone who doesnt want to lose lots of money setting up an enterprise, which is sadly the all too common result of attempts to set up these kind of businesses. I’ve personally seen far too many companies go belly up, and its only by the grace of God, and not having any money to put into anything (perhaps the two are the same thing) that it hasnt happened to me.

If anyone has read through it all already – Joe probably has – then please do comment here, it’s going to be a while before I get round to it.

Rogue Organic certification agency?

A warning to buyers of certified Organic Cotton, EUCERT/Gotcertificate, in otherwords these guys, may be a rogue certification agency, which is what Organic cotton in particular needs like a hole in the head.

Organic exchange have issued a warning (incouding pics of the relevant certificates) about them, so anyone working in the Organic cotton industry should beware of their certificates. In my experience any decent producer will be certified with OE/GOTS anyhow, I’ve never actually seen one of these certificates, but maybe that’s because I’m not interested in doing business in Turkey.

As far as I can see, most of the best Indian producers are certified with Fair Trade too now, which adds an extra level of protection.  The moral of the story is that you can’t take anything on trust, if you are an organic cotton buyer, make sure you check the certification right down the line.

I dont need to make the case for Fairtrade cotton

The case for fairtrade and organic cotton makes itself .

In India, since 1997 there have been nearly 200,000 farmer suicides, according to some reports the rate is now at one suicide every 30 minutes.

The amjority of the suicides are in the notorious ‘big five’ states, India’s suicide belt of Maharashtra, Andhara Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh which account for approximately 66% of the total.

Of these, Maharashtra is the worst, having logged 41,404 suicides since 1997. It is claimed now that about ten farmers kill themselves every day in the state.

In 2008 a bundle of relief was handed out to farmers by government bodies, but that hardly seemed to dent the number of desperate people taking their own lives. The following year, 2009 was a drought year, as yet there are no figures for 2009, but it would seem obvious that they are going to be worse.

These figures arent unique to India, all over the developing world similar stories are told of farmers who take their own lives because of effective slavery to debt (caused often by the unscrupulous sales tactics of chemical salesmen). Also these farmers have no guaranteed income, if their crops fail, they get nothing, and if they have already spent a lot on chemicals, they get less than nothing… and if they have chosen a cash crop over any kind of subsistence farming, rather than a combination as favoured in an organic set up… then they have less than nothing and no food.

Farmers of all kinds of cash crops are trapped in cycles of debt and poverty which, combined with the hard nature of the practical work they are involved in, are too much for them. Desperate and helpless, they take the only way out they can think of.

In accredited organic and fairtrade systems, the farmers are liberated from the crushing debt cycles to which others are subject. They are supported through the development processes by NGOs and cotton companies who have an interest in ensuring the farmers are making a viable living, not completely dependent upon cash crops, and not destroying their land through the mono culture cultivation practises of conventional agriculture.

I dont need to make the case for fairtrade cotton, the farmer suicides alone make a compelling enough case. Rather those companies and consumers who continue to choose conventional cotton over organic and fairtrade need to make a case for their lethal choices.