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.

Challenges

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.

Solutions

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.

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Tirupur Dye Houses closed

Tirupur in India is one of the world’s centres for clothing production. Sitting next to the city of Coimbatore, Tirupur is a place I have visited on a number of occasions, to visit factories, print shops, dye houses and so on.

Principally Tirupur is home to knit wear factories, they make tee-shirts and other knitted cotton items, many of which find their way to high street chains here in the UK.You may be wearing something right now that was made in Tirupur.

Certainly if you buy from shops like supermarkets or the larger chain stores, then there is a very good chance you have items which were made in Tirupur. But as well as being home to a few high standard production units, Tirupur has also struggled in recent years, with a reputation for production facilities which are not what they could be – or should be. Where workers are, if not necessarily mistreated (although sometimes that is the case), then not given the respect or conditions that they deserve. This is not a malice thing, it is about costs. If you are looking at saving a few cents on each garment, then you arent going to spend as much on your workforce, or their workplace.

Hand in hand with this kind of treatment of humans, has gone harsh treatment of the environment. One of the most environmentally damaging aspects of the clothing supply chain is the dye process – because of the scale of production, the dye plants are huge things, with massive amounts of chemicals used on a daily basis. The usual process for the kind of fabric which teeshirts are made of, is Jet dyeing, where fabric is zoomed through a process where jets of hot water containing dye and other chemicals are pumped into them – this process uses large amounts of electricity, steam and of course the chemicals themselves.

The problem comes of course, not so much in the dyeing process itself, which is energy intensive but contained,  but in the disposal of effluent.  There has to be an issue of effluent after the dying process, and it will necessarily contain, among other nasties, large quantities of salt – as anyone who has dyed a piece of fabric at home will know.

The cheapest way of getting rid of such effluent is to dump it in a water course, and that is what most operators do, they simply pump their polluting effluent into nearby rivers. This kind of pollution has meant that the agricultural land in the area has been badly affected by pollution and salination over a number of years.

Attempts have been made to set this right, plants have been prosecuted and closed down, even the British government got involved (they realised we import 90%+ of our clothes, and recognised we have some responsibility to the producers) and for a while Tirupur began to be held up as an example of ‘best practise’. Levels were set to regulate the amount of salt in effluent, to try and protect the surrounding farmland, and it all seemed to be going in the right direction.

Not for long of course.

This week comes the news that Madras high court has ordered over 700 dye plants to be shut down – yes, 700. The local electricity board has begun to shut off power to those who have failed to comply with the order. The reason is that the level of salt in the effluent discharged into the local water courses is too high. Once again farmland has been terribly damaged by discharge of salt – and its the dye houses which are to blame.

As it stands the 700 plants are on shut down, thousands of jobs which go with that are at risk or already lost – suppliers will not be getting their materials, clothing supply will be affected. Farmland is polluted and will not produce a proper harvest this year, and meanwhile people continue to buy cheap clothes because they dont see the link.

I actually feel rather sorry for the dye house owners and operators, they are in a hard world, trying to provide a service against very tight price demands – I genuinely feel that we, the consumers and producers are not really being fair on them.

I feel that at the centre of it all, it’s our consumption that is driving this pollution problem, it’s our quest for a bargain that is putting lives and livelihoods at risk, and it’s our choices which have meant that today many poor people stand on the brink of ruin.

So yes, 700 dye houses are closed today, and I’m sorry to have to tell you that it is pretty much our fault.

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.

Shorts weather

Shorts weather has arrived. At long last I might add, it is the 23rd of March for pity’s sake!

Mind you, on a walk the other day with my parents who were visiting from warmer climes, they told me about the problem of sub-cutaneous fat for those who wear too little clothing for the weather.

Must confess I’m a little sceptical about that particular theory, seems a bit too close to the old ‘wrap up warm’ philosophy to me. So anyway, while I held back on stripping down to pants and vest I was sporting my least scruffy pair of shorts today, which was a pleasant relief – particularly as they can be partnered with sandals, thereby dispensing with the need for socks. Ah unencumbered foot bliss.

Having just been told by a friend that some parts of my blog are ‘boring’ I should probably stop this particular post here.

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.

Good Customer service from Finisterre

A while back I bought my wife a Merino jumper from the British clothing brand Finisterre, it was a pretty high value item which was bought as a present, and I was impressed by its technical performance. I think it was one of the first ever pieces of Merino clothing we bought.

Now you have to understand that because it was an expensive piece of clothing Kel didnt wear it an awful lot, certainly not for rough outdoors type activities, which is what it was designed for. She used it mainly for layering (thermal and wicking properties are very good) and what you might call ‘light leisure wear’.

But after a while we noticed there was an issue with the garment, namely a couple of small holes had developed along one or two of the seams. I had a close look at them and decided I felt that rather than wear and tear, these were caused by either too tight stitching at the seam or too dense a stitch count meaning that there’s not enough give at the seam to accomodate the relatively soft nature of the wool. Sorry, that’s quite boring, and might even be wrong – but that was my assesment.

So I got in touch with Zoe at Finisterre to tell her about it.

Customer service point 1) She suggested I send it back to them using a freepost system.

Customer service point 2) She listened to my points, and kept me closely informed of what was happening to the top. She sent it to their product designers to see what they thought the problem was.

Customer service point 3) Rather than argue with me about it, they mended the top and offered a discount on future purchases.

Many many clothing companies wouldnt even consider this kind of customer service, Finisterre have my admiration for excellent quality customer and product support, and this one small issue aside, very good quality products.

If you buy new clothing, which in the main I dont, then I reccomend you check them out. Their prices are quite high, meaning that their products are not throw-away and their range is quite small, meaning that they dont have loads of waste.

I really rate this brand for quality, ethical production and superb customer service.

Thanks Finisterre.

Homobonus, patron saint of sweatshop workers

First prize in the silly sounding names for saints list goes to dear old Homobonus, whose name literally means ‘good man’.

But on his feast day (November 13th) we should remember the people he is supposed to be patron of.

Homobonus was a medieval tailor and merchant, a man who believed the wealth he had inherited and earned was there for him to look after others with, and he maintained scrupulously honest accounts and gave generously to the poor.

Today we are all rich over here in the UK, very, very few of us live on anything like $2 per day, but all around the world there are thousands, millions even, of others who do. People who are quite literally slaves to our lifestyles, working in conditions which are unacceptable and for wages which keep them just out of starvation but a long way from comfort.

Our determination to buy cheap clothing from unscrupulous retailers who think that signing the ETI is enough to give them ‘ethical’ status shows that we as a society have forgotten the ways of Homobonus, and have become a collective Homomalus, trampling on the impoverished producers of our clothing.

If you want to buy clothing today (or any other day), please act responsibly and avoid the attractions of cheap disposable clothing which is made by people enslaved to our whims. The best thing to do is to buy second hand clothing, if you have to buy new, then seek out good quality clothing which will last, is made of environmentally responsible materials, and which is made by people whom you can trust to look after their workers.