Back outside at last

It’s been a long time coming, but this afternoon, at long last I was back out on our allotment again.  Except to drop off compost I have not spent any time on the allotment since the Autumn, and it shows, I mean it really shows.

Most of the plots which are under cultivation have been freshly dug, or are at least looking tidy, mine on the other hand looks like a disaster, broken glass on my cold frame and in my greenhouse, overgrown beds, long grass everywhere, and plenty of unpromising looking mud.

But its all grist to the mill, today I put two of the beds back to rights (more or less) ready to be raked and cultivated a bit more, before they can be planted. Lots of work to do all over the plot, but I’m glad to say that in the couple of places where I placed sheets of damp proofing plast last year, in an attempt to sheet mulch them, the ground beneath the plastic is now nice and clear, and ready for cultivation.

Everywhere needs a good tidy and sort out, which it will only really get in part, I dont really want it to be too tidy if I’m honest. I like there to be room for creatures to hide and flourish, and I love the variety of bees, beetles, butterflies and bugs that pootle around there in the summer months.

And most of all I like to sit down after some work, and enjoy a hot drink. I had to relearn the art of making fire when wood is damp and newspaper in short supply, but it didnt take long.

If you dont have a garden or access to an allotment, then try and find some other outdoor space that you can spend time in, and if possible, grow things in, it is pure therapy, it helps to reharmonise you with nature, and nothing is quite as relaxing as knowing you have accomplished a job.

That’s right folks, its the first Kelly Kettle picture of the year from me, fear not, there are bound to be more. If you’re wondering, the plastic tub is what I like to think of as my tinder box, containing cotton wool, and home made char cloth. Marvellous.



Saint Francis

Today is the feast day of Saint Francis, the poor man of Assisi.

Francis founded the brotherhood now known as the Franciscans, and is widely regarded as a model of selfless Christian virtue. His commitment to radical living is respected across the traditions, but its worthy of note that very few of us are willing to follow too closely in his footsteps.

Here was a man who repented so thoroughly of his worldly ways that he gave up all of his possessions, choosing to abandon everything and rely solely on providence and charity. A difficult enough task for anyone, but consider that Francis was born into wealth and privelige, and from an early age had a reputation for being a party animal.

Francis demanded of his brothers a vow of poverty which was considered too extreme by his contemporaries, leading him to evenutally be deposed from the leadership of his own order.

His poverty wasnt tokenism either, he suffered for his choice, hard living and malnutrition leading to his becoming ill towards the end of his life (he only lived to 45), and going blind. When the pope heard of his blindness, he ordered that he should be operated on – which meant the cauterising of the eyes with red hot pokers – nice.

So Francis models radical devotion, selfless and without personal consideration. He reminds us that it is not the self publicists and the powerful who can have great influence for good. He reminds us that Christianity means suffering, that none of us are exempt from hardship because of virtue.

No wonder so few of us want to model any part of our lives on his, but love to talk glowingly of him as one of our favourite saints.

Just a note by the way – Francis was originally Christened Giovanni – which is ‘John’ after the Baptiser – his father demanded he be renamed Francesco and should become a businessman and dandy. It was only when he broke with his father’s expectations that he reclaimed the mantle of the itinerant prophet clad only in rags.

Francis too is remembered for his love of, and respect for, all nature. He has much to teach any of us who make pretentsion to care for the environment and the garden in which we live.

A truly important figure in the ongoing story which we are part of – and one on whom we need to turn more of our attention.

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.

Permaculture Principles

If you are interested in permaculture – whether its as an approach to growing crops, or perhaps as a more general approach to life, then you will need to understand the permaculture design principles.

These are core, underlying principles which can be applied to any sphere of life, allowing us to engage with people, projects and places in a sustainable and productive way.

To get a full idea of the 12 design principles (Observe & interact; Catch & store energy; Obtain a yield; Apply self regulation & accept feedback; Use & value renewable resources & services; Produce no waste; Design from patterns to details; Integrate rather than segregate; Use small & slow solutions; Use & value diversity; Use edges & value the marginal; Creatively use and respond to change) a good starting place is this excellent site, which details the permaculture design principles, and illustrates their practical outworking.

The content of the site is based largely on the work of David Holmgren, who along with Bill Mollison (an interesting interview with him here) is credited with the co-origination of the concept of Permaculture.

I personally believe that if we were to apply these principles to a wide spectrum of our lives, particularly in the sphere of work, we would find ourselves creating more imaginative and sustainable businesses and institutions. Certainly they teach us to consume less energy, to not just accept the way things are always done, and to apply a way of thinking which works with our environment, rather than against it.

Maddy Harland’s permaculture garden on TV

I spotted on Emma Cooper’s blog that Maddy Harland’s permaculture garden is going to be featured on TV soon, seeing as I’m in something of a ‘lets recommend things on iplayer’ mood, I strongly suspect this will be worth watching.

Maddy is the editor of Permaculture Magazine, which is kind of required reading really, good stuff. I should have an article in the next issue, looking at monastic history and its relationship to sustainable land use.

Maddy also blogs a great place to go if you have any interest in permaculture.

Her garden is a mature forest garden and from what I’ve seen and read before its a great example of permaculture in a real setting.

So anyway, the programme is part of gardening guru Alys Fowler’s series, which glories in the name of The Edible Garden, it’s going out on BBC2 at 8.00 pm on Wednesday 7th April 2010. If you have a TV, you could watch it there and then, if you’re like me, then you can catch it on iplayer afterwards.

Warmly recommended.

where on earth..?

yet again it seems like its been a while since I posted here, but that is basically because once again I am in India. Having previously not been to India for years, I am now on my third trip in less than twelve months.

I am here again to visit fairtrade registered clothing factories, to look at how they are operating and iron out some technical issues relating to garment production. All this has been a pretty steep learning curve for me, and one that I have enjoyed greatly – albeit with more than a touch of carbon guilt playing on my mind as I fly backwards and forwards.

I have also found myself in the unusual position of ‘the rich guy’ who has to be looked after and checked up on wherever I go by my anxious Indian counterparts. This was somewhat stifling on my last trip, this time I have pretty much managed to circumvent it whic his a relief.

Having said that I dont really have much by the way of free time, I’m out at factory sites for most of the day, and in a car for quite a while too. So while I would like to see more of this wonderful country while I am here, its not really something I get the chance to do.

India, for all its charm and manifold delights is of course a place of grinding poverty. This is one of the main reasons I am here, the impact that fairtrade has here can be huge. Whereas with organic cotton cultivation the farmer groups or their commercial partners must come up with all the cash for social uplift themselves, with fairtrade the farmers are given a guaranteed premium for what they produce, which means that the social uplift comes from within rather than without.

However, there are problems at the moment with fairtrade cotton, the principal one being that people arent buying it in sufficient quantity. One major retailer which was one of the pioneers in Fairtrade cotton has recently scaled back its commitment to buying, in favour of a less costly scheme, leaving the cotton processors who have invested heavily in fairtrade cotton rather in the lurch.

Unless we can get consistency with buyers, then this will be a rocky road for the producers. One way for that to happen would be for buying companies to form co-operative buying groups, allowing them to be able to buy sensible amounts of goods on a consistent level. One factory owner I met yesterday complained that he was getting orders for 250 pieces, which in his terms is so minute as to be not worth it. However, for the buyer this may represent a reasonable investment, without the risk of having unsellable stock. If that buyer were to find three other like minded buyers, and they clubbed together to buy 1000 pieces, they would not only save money per item, but they would also help the factory immensely. This has the knock on benefit of being more sustainable, as the lower purchase price means more profit for the buyer, and a better likelihood of continuing in business.

I must admit to having had my grumbles and qualms about the fairtrade system recently, what with the uptake by brands like the much maligned (quite reasonably) Nestle, and the less maligned but also huge Cadbury. However, these kind of trips help to restore my faith in what for farmers can be a very good system indeed. As monitoring increases and more players come into the field, the system will have a really positive impact on factories too. All the FT factories I have visited have been of a high standard in terms of labour rights, cleanliness, and so on. Personally I think that as Transfair, the American fairtrade people get to certifying more supply chains in this area, we will see some real progress.

If brands and consumers can stick with fairtrade for ten years, I think that we will find it become the new norm. A decade of fairtrade cotton could prove to be the end of farmers in suicidal hock to chemical companies, and kids toiling in sweatshops. The question is, can we bear to pay the premium prices for a decade, or perhaps the real question is, can they bear for us not to.

There is a fight on, the vested interests in conventional cotton will not give up their cash cow lightly, nor will the sweatshop owners relinquish their ability to make money out of desperate people.  But my message is simple, make the changes you can, dont buy the cheap fast fashion, consider all purchases and when you need to buy a new garment, where possible buy from responsible companies who are investing in organics and fairtrade – in doing so you are helping to change the future.

And it will make the nightmare I had trying to get a blinking visa all worth while 🙂

Organic cotton in China?

On my visits to India this year, I’ve been particularly interested to talk to Indian people about their perspective on China, with whom, many feel, the Indians are engaging in a new cold war.

Of course my particular interest (not withstanding the wider geo-politics) is in textiles and raw materials, especially cotton. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Mumbai Bio Fach for a short time on my last trip, and was fascinated to see the scope of organic and sustainable products on offer from India. But as yet the potential is largely untapped, it is seen as an export market, not a domestic one – a situation which is likely to change rapidly I predict.

India, like China, produces lots of cotton. In the area of organic cotton at least India has the jump on China. The Indians also have the benefit of qualifying for potential Fair Trade accreditation, wheras Chinese cotton is unable to apply because of the government’s human rights record.

What China can do though, is move incredibly fast.

So when the Chinese do decide to go for Organic cotton in a big way, which they are bound to, it will be very big. Some of my friends are already leading the way in terms of pioneering large scale organic cotton farming projects in China, and they seem to be nearing the end of the red tape which has held them back so far.

The situation in China is very serious, if you want a good example of how destructive conventional cotton can be to an environment you can look to China where huge irrigation and chemical inputs have contributed to desertification on a massive scale. Chinese cotton, like central Asian cotton, while cheap to the consumer – exacts a high price from those caught in the tail end of the production cycle.One government official went so far as to claim that the price of environmental damage to land and health offset the country’s 10% economic growth rate. This report makes sobering reading.

It’s no suprise then that moves are apparently afoot among Chinese government to press ahead with organic cotton farming trials. And you just know that when it happens, it will of course be massive. But so far my Indian friends arent too concerned, they have an established foot hold in the organic cotton market, they have a number of well established producer groups who meet ethical standards, and have proven to be socially and environmentally beneficial to their communities, and they have a manufacturing base which is in some sectors keeping up with demand.

I must say though that they do seem a lot stronger in knit production (tee-shirts and so on) than wovens (formal shirts, trousers) which is perhaps a reflection on the demand rather than the background of the producers. Organic cotton seems to sell much more readily in fashionable teeshirts and cutesy baby clothes than it does in formal and work wear – this is perhaps a reflection on price and fashions rather than anything more serious.

But yes dear reader, expect to see organic cotton coming on strong from China in the next few years, it’s about time. And for those still buying new garments in conventional cotton, please remember that in doing so you are participating in environmental havoc and destruction. The choices are there, you can buy organic or second hand if you need to buy at all.