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.

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.

Better Cotton initiative success in Pakistan

Encouraging reading in the Guardian about sustainable cotton production in Pakistan.

I notice they dont mention water however, and I would be interested to know how levels of water usage have (or havent) changed. One problem with growing the long staple cotton demanded by most retailers, is the level of inputs required, the plants are simply not as hardy or drought resistant as the more ‘robust’ varieties, which tend to yield less commercially attractive fibres.

All that aside however, I still dont see how countries like Pakistan have a real hope of international competition (regardless of the merits of that concept) while the US continues to lash out whopping great subsidies for their cotton farmers. Immensely unjust.

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.

Nick Mason, organic cotton, K2 and mountaineering

Ok, so things are coming to a head concerning Nick Mason, aka Nicholas R Mason of Conwy, North Wales, and the subjects of Organic Cotton, Conservation,  Tanzania, Everest, K2 and Mountaineering in general.

I have for a long time had a number of searches hitting this site regarding Nick Mason and Organic Cotton. A number of people have emailed me to find out who Nick is and what his involvement is with this sector.

More recently information has come my way that Nick is planning a mountaineering trip to K2.

I want to emphasise that I am not an expert on Nick Mason or his background, skills or character. I knew Nick for a couple of years during which time he told me that he had set up the first Organic cotton project in Handeni, Tanzania. What he described sounded wonderful, and it took me a long time to realise that some elements of his story did not add up. He also told me how he’d been beaten up and falsely imprisoned in Tanzania, and had only escaped after political intervention.

I am not accusing Nick of anything, only saying that some of the things he told me did not seem to have evidence to back them up, rather the evidence appeared to demonstrate the opposite.

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Nick also told me that he had climbed Everest and various other mountains, and my hasty research appeared to bear that out. Others have done deeper research and have contradicted these findings.

I am very concerned that anyone involved in the proposed K2 expedition should do a great deal of due-diligence before committing themselves or their money into the project. I know of a number of individuals who claim to have lost money to Nick for one reason or another.

I really liked Nick, I found him great company and very inspiring. However, I was very saddened to find that some of the things he told me couldnt be verified, and I feel personally that my time spent with him was sadly wasted.

If you want to know more about Nick, I can put you in touch with others who know him better than I did, you can make your own judgements that way.

Areas he has been involved with in the recent past include fund-raising, hot-air ballooning, drama and theatrical companies, development, conservation and mountaineering.

There are two other notable Nick Masons with whom he should not be confused, the first is a notable expert on mountain Medecine, who lives in Cardiff and is a hospital consultant. That Nick Mason is a real mountaineer.

The other notable Nick Mason is the former drummer for Pink Floyd… he’s not the same guy either!

I am sorry to be doing this, it feels like a betrayal of a friendship, but I dont want to see anyone get hurt or lose any money because of potential character flaws in a person I used to like very much.

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.

Indian organic cotton fraud?

The news is out about contamination of organic cotton by genetically modified cotton in India. Certain Indian producers have failed to suitably protect their crops from contamination in a major scandal which has been called a fraud by some observers.

Rather than accept claims that the cotton has been cross contaminated through pollination, there are suspicions that GM seeds have been used to artificially boost yields in otherwise poor conditions.

This is a temptation with organic cotton production, which can result in poor yields if growing conditions arent right. GM seeds provide reliably good yields in all situations, leading some producers to choose GM as a way of ensuring a good crop.

But now some big names including H & M, and the European brand C & A have been called to account for failing to adequately test their cotton to ensure it is organic.

My sources tell me that Control Union (CU, formerly SKAL) have now decertified whole regions of India in the face of this scandal. Indeed very few farm level certifications are now available.

This is a very dangerous situation for India, organic cotton producers there are fond of claiming that China can never reach their level of organic cotton production, as GM prevalence is too widespread there. But if GM spreads too widely across the cotton growing belt of India too, they will find themselves in the same position.

More information here, or if you can read German, there is a very good and fulsome article here.