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.

Advertisements

the cotton war looms large

For some time now, a cold war has been rumbling on between India and China – Asia’s biggest economic powerhouses, and the predicted future global superpowers.

While tensions between these two nuclear neighbours have yet to reach USA – Soviet levels, there has been a long term antagonism between them as each strives for dominance in a new world of global economics.

One of the principal factors in the war has been commodities, both states are large scale producers of raw materials, as well as having massive amounts of cheap labour. The ability to vertically integrate production of items such as clothing for the export market has been massive for both China and India in terms of development and financial growth.

As I referred to clothing there, the obvious commodity which comes into play is cotton, the world’s most successful commodity. It is grown on vast scales in both countries by both small holder cooperative type arrangements, and monocultural agri-business.

But China has always grown much more cotton than India – there are various reasons for this – now the main one now seems to be that Indian cotton is generally hand picked, as opposed to the machine picking which is done in countries like Australia (reportedly the world’s most productive cotton country), the USA, Brazil, and indeed China.Even if this were to change, it seems unlikely that Indian soils, water supplies and farming practises would be able to sustain a greater level of production.

Per hectare Chinese cotton farmers may be able to plant more than ten times the amount of cotton plants than their Indian counterparts. This has an obvious affect on output.  Production yield per hectare then is about 1,301 kg in China, compared to a 2008 high of around 554kg per hectare in India, which has now dropped to 475kg.

This low level production, along with a dry year, a drop in global cotton prices and a corresponding likely future decline in acreage under cultivation means that for India to maintain or increase its garment production levels, it is likely to move from being an exporter of raw cotton, to needing to import cotton in only a few years.

Added in to the mix is the factor of a growing battle for acreage between cotton producers and food grain producers – the latter being likely to secure better subsidies, thereby luring farmers away from cotton. India’s growing demand for meat (as it develops a more western lifestyle) means greater demands on grains to be used as animal feed. That’s not even taking the population growth into account.

We may note that some experts have also suggested that India’s disasterous introduction of BT cotton into Maharashtra has also spoiled its chances of gaining dominance in the area of organic cotton production, this is my own area of particular interest – but not the subject of this article.

When it comes to textiles, China is the world’s largest exporter, with a global market share of 28.3 percent in 2010, approximately 7 times the size of India’s share of 4.3 percent.

It’s massive export volume requires China to maintain a huge cotton processing industry, and as that grows its reliance on imported cotton, particularly from the USA, will grow. For India to continue to try and compete with China, it will have to go toe to toe in the search for sources of cotton to import. This may be good news for some of the South East Asian countries looking for cash crops, but India is way behind China in terms of its cultural outreach – Chinese influence and financial clout has seen it extend agriculturally into countries as far away as Africa.

As these two antagonistic neighbours both seek new sources of raw cotton, I predict that by 2020 we will see a marked rise in demand for conventional cotton from places like Central and South East Asia, and Northern Africa.

But despite China’s dominant market share, India is used to pushing the odds, and to punching hard. Its vast population continues to grow exponentially and its financial muscle grows daily. If there is to be a cotton war, which seems highly likely to me, it could get very nasty, much may yet depend upon the USA’s relationship with China, and how it’s commitment to massive cotton subsidy holds up in the teeth of ongoin recession and growing demand for both bio fuels and food crops.

sources: Economic times; Tirupur exporters association; South Asian Idea

Previously on there goes rhymin simon – US Cotton change could save lives

Vaude win award

The outdoor sports company Vaude has just been honoured for their commitment to social and environmental responsibility.

To be honest, I have been quite impressed by the commitment shown by a number of outdoor sports companies, to social and environmental responsibility. Patagonia are an obvious ‘name’ which has pushed the environmental agenda, Rohan are another big company which is making serious strides in that area too, and there are a number of others which can also claim to have pretty decent environmental cred.

But I am particularly impressed by Vaude, a German company whose reputation for social and environmental responsibility throughout their design and production is pretty much impeccable.

As I say, they have just scooped another award or two, this time at the ISPO, an industry trade show in Munich. They won an overall award for their company wide social/eco activism in regards to their production, and a product award for the Vaude Blue One tent – which is a two man tent I think, I’ve yet to see one. All I really know is that it’s made of a poly cotton, which is 65% organic cotton and 35% recycled polyester (PET1).

They are a pretty impressive company, the sort of people who remind you that there is really no excuse for other companies of a similar nature not to be walking the same path. Among other things they say about themselves:

“VAUDE is mindful in its dealings with people and the environment. Due to our constant inner reflection and unwavering idealism, we are quick and courageous to seek out contact with contemporary subjects and explore our own potential – leading to stories worthwhile in their making.”

Sport equipment and clothing is high specification stuff, the good stuff lasts a long time we still have a Vaude rucsac that has been going strong for some time, a veteran of a number of overland expeds and other voyages – other cheaper rucsacs have not fared so well. If you are buying new, which I accept with this kind of clothing or equipment is often the most effective way (ahem – unless you go on ebay – ahem) – then buying from the most responsible producer you can is important. Check out the maker before you buy, and dont let yourself be glitzed by the fashionable looks of a particular jacket or piece of kit, that look will be old in a year or two’s time, while the item itself should have many years of life in it.

So well done Vaude, I’m genuinely impressed. I have asked for more info about the Blue One tent, and if and when I get it, I shall share it.

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.

Back – with news of perennial garlic and surfing sheep

Yes I’m back, from another trip away with the family (working this time – not jolly holidays) and feeling slightly despondant about the state of the allotment. It really is scruffy this summer – yes it is fruiting, I harvested a ton of tomatoes on Monday, with another truck load still to ripen, but it looks very overgrown.

I would put this down to it being ‘wildlife friendly’ but in fact its just down to me not having spent a day there since late spring. sigh.

As I have already mentioned, we have a massive garlic crop this year, and I’m certain that’s a trick which can be repeated over and over again, but I have also become intrigued by the idea of ‘perennial garlic’ – which I read about here, after seeing a mention here.

I love the idea of a garlic patch which is effectively no dig – although I would struggle to get the required mulch, and I would also struggle to get the required birds to till the required mulch – however, it’s very interesting none the less.I may try it on a small scale this year, although I suspect it will take some time to really get going.

And while we’re on the subject of things which interest me, I see the nice people at the British sustainable surfwear brand Finisterre are busy breeding a kind of sheep which will grow suitable wool here in the UK, to make their super snazzy Merino garments with. Merino wool is usually garnered from down under – the globe that is, not the sheep. And Finisterre have been very strong on the ethics of their Merino gathering, I wont bore you with the details.

Anyhow, they are breeding rare breed Bowmont sheep, especially for their fleece – very good idea! I tried unsuccessfully to do something vaguely (but not terribly) similar on a much smaller scale in Wales once, I wasnt breeding the sheep you understand, as this would have been tricky in a Welsh terraced house – rather I had plans to buy certain type of rare breed wool and turn it into garments – sadly I never managed to find a company which would spin it to a thin enough yarn for what I wanted, and the whole project snuffed it. May have another go 0ne of these days.

Finisterre however are much better at these things than I am though – and they are proper grown ups too – which I wasnt, and still arent. Although they do make very childish adverts…

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.