Friday, 13 January 2017

Growing The Skills For Organic Farming In India

The move towards organic farming of textile crops has to be applauded, but so far it has been a slow process. The problem, particularly in the cotton fields of India, is in retraining farmers that only know how to grow using pesticides.

Education, as ever, is the key. So it's heartening to see the C&A Foundation focussing on empowerment of organic farming in the heartlands of the discipline - the state of Madhya Pradesh. Here, over a quarter of the world's organic cotton is grown. It makes sense, then, that educators should be based here.

In November 2015, a new chapter was unveiled in the history of one of India's premier agriculture universities - the Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya. A three month programme aims to give educators the skills they need to pass on to the farmers of Madhya Pradesh the ability to change over to organic cultivation. The course integrates practical and theoretical modules, as well as industry exposure.

Ipshita Sinha, of C&A Foundation, says:
“We've found a great champion in the university, which is putting in some serious effort in driving this course, as well as a great champion in the state government, which is very keen on developing organic farming in the region."

Putting the focus on organic farming in India is a slow process, but it's great to see industry, government and NGOs working together to make it happen. Today Madhya Pradesh, tomorrow the world?

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Six Items Challenge - Join The Fashion Fast!

You know how it is. You have a wardrobe absolutely stuffed with clothes and yet somehow you always end up wearing the same stuff. Those go-to items that fit and feel the way you like. Your signature look.

What if that situation was a pledge you could make to help out other people? Could you, if it absolutely came down to it, spend six weeks in just six items of clothing?

That's the challenge that Labour Behind The Label are issuing to raise funds this spring, while kicking back at the demon of fast fashion. We're consuming more and more, while paying less and less. Cheap clothing promotes waste and enables the exploitation of the workers who are forced to work to punishing deadlines. By choosing to not buy clothes we don't need, we can make a stand. The Six Item Challenge is a fashion fast against fast fashion.

Now, don't panic. A pair of shoes is not going to constitute two items. Undies, accessories and footwear are exempt, as is active and sporting wear. This is not the Sack-Cloth And Ashes Challenge. Labour Behind The Label are asking you to think carefully about a capsule wardrobe, and how the same item can be used in different settings - from work to play to party. Which, to be frank, is a useful skill to learn.

Are you game? If so, hit up the link below to sign up. The Challenge will take place during Lent (that's March 1st to 24th April for you non-churchy types) so you have plenty of time to sort out your super six items.

Go lean with your clothing choices this spring. It might just train your brain into new ways of looking at your wardrobe.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

A Sustainable New Year From Selfridges

You may recall that this time last year Selfridge's flagship London store gave over its iconic window display to sustainable fashion. The Bright New Things promotion sought to highlight emerging designers and the work they were doing to support sustainability.

For 2017, they're at it again, with a whole new range of designers–and a clever hook to show just how broad a church the field has become. Material World takes eight different fibres and fabrics, and presents designers that are doing fascinating and innovative work with them.

For example, leather is represented by Swedish brand Deadwood. They specialise in recycling, taking inspiration from vintage styles to come up with a new take on an old classic: the leather jacket. Showing respect for the material while exploring the possibilities of its durability are good, strong ticks against a sustainability checklist.

On the subject of thinking laterally, Tengri, representing luxury fibres, have come up with a new twist on the usual suspects. Cashmere and angora have come under fire over the past few years with accusations of animal cruelty and over-farming of pastureland. Instead, founder Nancy Johnston has discovered the incredibly soft fibres of the Mongolian yak pelt have a decidedly luxurious feel. She calls the resultant fabric yakshmere, and it needs to be felt to be believed.

Material World is all about taking on the challenges we face in using the world's most popular fabrics and fibres, treating them with respect and finding innovative new ways that are less cruel, greedy or polluting. There are some really interesting ideas on display in the windows of Selfridges right now until the end of March. If you're in the area, go and check them out.

Or just have a look at the collection via the Selfridges Material World site here.

Friday, 6 January 2017

How Chuck Gave It All Away

We spoke yesterday about Ken Townsley, businessman and philanthropist who has dropped a fair chunk of his fortune on deserving causes in his home town of Blackpool. We've all heard stories of powerful figures bestowing their largesse on the needy, for reasons that run from common goodness to the need to appear generous while enjoying the tax benefits that charitable donations bring.

But up until very recently, the most generous donor of them all remained resolutely anonymous, choosing to let his money do the talking. Now, as The New York Times reports, Charles F. Feeney has finally come out of the shadows. The reason? His work is done. He's given away all but the tiniest fraction of a considerable fortune.

Charles' history reads like a slightly overheated airport blockbuster. A New Jersey boy, he served in the Air Force during WW2, before setting up a duty-free business to airports in 1960. That business would make him a billionaire. But Charles was never one for expensive living. As he put it, "you can only wear one pair of pants at a time." His tastes ran to burgers and a beer at his local pub, rather than fine dining in gilded restaurants.

And from the beginning, he knew what he wanted to do with his fortune. Consider: over the last forty years he has paid for over 1,000 buildings across five continents, including schools, hospitals and scientific research establishments. His network of charitable foundations has done an extraordinary amount of good, and given away an extraordinary amount of money. Charles F. Feeney is down to his last couple of million dollars, handing over a fortune–$8billion.

For Feeney, it was a no-brainer. That fortune, born from shrewd investments in scrappy little tech startups like Facebook, was there to do some good. His influence spreads far and wide. He advocated for legislation that would help to bring the Affordable Care Act into being, and secretly met with Northern Irish paramilitary groups, encouraging them to move towards peaceful means of discourse. His one key demand: that his name was kept quiet. He had no interest in the publicity, just the end game.

Now 85, Charles lives in a rented apartment in San Francisco with his wife. It's a quiet end to a remarkable life, and shows how philanthropy, when engaged in whole-heartedly, can make one hell of a difference.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

How Ken Gave Back To His Home Town

We're all nervously looking up the line, worrying about the news that 2017 will deliver. Here at The Pier, we choose to view things positively. Therefore, we're entering our 11th year (we opened for business in December 2007–good grief!) with a little shot of happy news, to show that there is still good in the world.

Meet Ken Townsley. The 71 year old is a former airline baggage handler from Blackpool, who took the news of redundancy in the late sixties as an opportunity. With his payoff, he set up his own holiday business, Trident Travel. The company, based in his home town, went from strength to strength, eventually employing 700 people locally. He sold it to Thomas Cook, trousering over £80million into the bargain.

Good for Ken. You could be excused for thinking that he'd take the money, whizz off to Florida and live the high life. And you'd be right. But Ken was at heart a Blackpool lad, and he pledged to do right by the place.

So he's set up the Kentown Wizard Foundation, which is dropping large cheques onto good causes based in the area. Hospices and children's charities have benefitted with donations adding up to several hundred thousand pounds, given with very little warning. Fund boss Margaret Ingham sums up Kentown's freewheeling approach:

“Quite often they are very surprised to hear from us because they have not applied. We just ask if they want some money!”

Len Curtis of Donna's Dream House, a charity which offers holidays for children in need, confirms that it doesn't take much work to get onto Ken's radar:

“We got a letter saying we would be considered, but it didn’t have much information other than they wanted to come and talk to us. Then it came to a couple of meetings. It was only revealed on Wednesday the extent of the help they wanted to give.”

That help, in case you're wondering, is a complete refurbishment of the charity's premises, work that would have been completely out of the question before Ken's intervention.

You hear a lot about philanthropy and charitable donations from the rich, but Ken's local and slightly eccentric focus does our weary old ventricles a bit of good. We're happy to see a Blackpool lad giving back so solidly to his old community. More news like this in the New Year, please!

Friday, 9 December 2016

Concept To Coat In 25 Days

If you need an example of how fast fashion has changed the face of clothing retail, then you need look no further than a high-collared dark coat with a ring fastening that went on sale recently at Zara in the US. A month before it hit the racks, it was no more than a vague preference in a customer feedback form.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, it can take as little as 25 days for a broad concept–in this case, customers wanting more hardware on their outerwear (that all important ring fixing)–becoming not just a prototype, but an actual product on the racks.

The key is that all-important customer feedback, linked to a tightly focussed and centralised production based largely in Zara's home base of Spain. The coat was prototyped in the small industrial city of Arteixo, before a squad of pattern-makers, cutters and seamstresses got to work. A little under two weeks later, 8000 coats were on a plane at Barcelona. Destination: the racks at Zara stores across the States.

Other retailers are seeing the benefits to this tightly-integrated and streamlined system. US-based companies are beginning to move operations closer to home, using the Caribbean instead of Asia as manufacturing bases. This squeezes up that all-important transport window, getting new items into the shops much more quickly.

However, we have concerns. This fast-track model only works if corners are cut. Can we be certain that QA standards are as high as they could be, given the reputation for fast fashion's poor quality of fit and finish? After all, one reason that the clothes are so cheap is that they are deliberately designed not to last for more than one season. As Zara are redefining the length of a season into weeks rather than months, should we be surprised that clothes from fast fashion retailers don't suit purpose after the first couple of washes?

You have to wonder about the design process as well. A five-day window for prototyping seems awfully slim. It makes you wonder if designing for a limited range of sizes is part of the business plan.

Zara's parent company Inditex are clearly very successful at what they do, and their business model is envied across the sector. Global communication technology working in concert with a localised and tightly integrated manufacturing base have basically allowed them to redefine the way that clothing is designed, produced and consumed. However, as we all know, the fast-track process and its built-in environmental impact is not necessarily that great for anyone... apart from Inditex's shareholders.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Join Breakfast in A Bag on the streets this Christmas!

It's a hard life on the streets, and especially at this time of year. The temperature and dark days don't make it pleasant, but Christmas and its focus on family and togetherness can really put the boot in.

A new charity aims to make a tiny difference this festive season, with a special push to help the homeless of Central London. Breakfast In A Bag are a highly mission-specific cause who aim to do one thing very well–make sure that those in need get a wholesome and nourishing start to the day. Their breakfast station has been open since the summer. This Christmas Day, they will be out on the streets handing out their signature bags. These include cereal, milk, fruit, juice and a cereal bar–certainly enough to get you up and about.

As well as the Christmas Day offensive, Breakfast In A Bag will be throwing a street party next Friday, 18th December. There will be a choir, party hats, mince pies and a few surprises! It'll be worth checking out if you're in town.

We like Breakfast In A Bag for their media-savvy approach to raising awareness and funds. You can donate through Paypal, by handing over supermarket vouchers, or even through their Amazon Wishlist. Of course, volunteers are always very welcome!

BIAB are also great at reaching out directly for very specific items–they've been after crackers recently, funnily enough. After gaining support from famous names like Al Murray, David Baddiel and Nick Knowles, as well as Labour MP Jess Phillips, the charity's profile and message are getting out to a wide audience.

Breakfast In A Bag's inclusive, open approach is making a real difference, and we wish them all the best with their first Christmas on the streets. For more info, and to find out how you can help, hit up the website.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Have An H&M Xmas!

It's likely you've already seen this, but just in case it's passed under your radar this week, here's a little Friday film for you. It's one of those shorts that only really becomes an advert in the last five seconds, so don't feel too guilty about enjoying it. After all, 'tis the season of massively expensive Christmas special ads.

This one gets a nod as it's directed by Wes Anderson, the symmetry-obsessed guy behind such visual treats as The Grand Budpest Hotel and The Royal Tennenbaums. Here, his sharp visual sense is dialed into a sweet little story of a train delayed on its way to deliver passengers for the holidays, and how the inventive Conductor Ralph does his very best to make things right.

With a dry turn from Anderson regular Adrien Brody and a sumptuous mise en scéne (that's set dressing and costumes to you and me), the film is well worth three minutes of your time. I mean, it's no Buster The Bulldog, but it has its moments. Of course, you could question whether the famously fernickety Anderson is bothered that his carefully-tooled aesthetic is being corralled in the services of fast fashion. Or you could just bask in the warm and fuzzy feelings it engenders. Once again, 'tis the season.

As an aside, yr humble writer recently changed day jobs, and I'm happy to report that the place I now work for, Cinelab, had a hand in the creation of the film. And I mean film. None of that digital nonsense here, thank you.

There. Plug plugged. Enjoy the film.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

A Beastie Of A Shoe. At Least It's For A Good Cause.

There are fascinating examples of fans buying products designed or promoted by their favourite brands or celebrities with little thought given to whether it's worth it. You could argue this goes all the way up to the week-long queues we used to see outside Apple stores for the latest iProduct. When I used to work in London's trendy Soho, I regularly witnessed block-long lines at cult streetwear store Supreme. Famously, once people queued for a Supreme-branded brick. Yep, a regulation-sized house brick stamped with the Supreme logo.

You do have to wonder if there's some sort of bet in place amongst certain well-placed designers as to what people will fork out on, and how ugly a design has to be before they will walk away. Case in point: the new sneaker endorsed by Beastie Boy Ad-Rock, which is now available for pre-order. Created in conjunction with vegan footwear company Keep, net profits from the sale of the shoe going to Planned Parenthood. Ad-Rock says:

“Given the outcome of our current election, it’s gonna get a lot colder before we can feel that summer sun again. So I collaborated with my friend, [Keep Shoes founder] Una [Kim], not just because I wanted warm sneaks, but because I support small business. I support women-run business. I support Asian-American-run business. Net proceeds of this shoe will be donated to Planned Parenthood because I support a woman’s right to choose and feel that women should not be punished for making decisions about their own lives and bodies.”  
All very admirable. Keep are well-known as a highly ethical, worker-supporting company, and Planned Parenthood are an exceptionally worthy cause. However, the problem is in the shoes themselves. They are pretty darn ugly. Made of nylon and cordura, with bungees instead of laces, they look more like nan-shoes than anything you'd want to be seen in on the street.

Here's the issue, then. Should you buy the shoe, or others like it, if you support a cause or like the endorsing artist, regardless of whether the item itself is unpleasing to the eye? Is this just a matter of taste, and I'm sneering at the Keep X Ad-Rock Ramos simply because they aren't to my taste? I mean, I'm hardly an exemplar of street style. But I fail to see how anyone would want those within safe minimum distance of their feet. 

Fashion and causes and celebrity endorsements have always been bedfellows, and the resultant offspring have frequently been a bit odd-looking. The Keep X Ad-Rock Ramos is just the latest example of that trend, and they're at least born out of the noblest of intentions. I just hope they're more comfortable than they look. 

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Time To Give Back On #GivingTuesday

We've finally got through Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Both of these 'holidays' are unadulterated celebrations of greed, as we're encouraged to spend, spend spend. All this on the run-up to Christmas, which is the most commercialised holiday of them all. The message seems clear. The holiday season is all about conspicuous consumption.

One small ray of hope is the beacon of Giving Tuesday. It's a chance for you to ease your guilt at the excesses of the weekend just gone, and those to come, by offering up something that can't easily be bought or sold... your precious time.

The idea is simple. Pick a cause. Offer to volunteer for a set time. A few hours can make a real difference. There's no time limit, or cut-off date. Donate what time you can, and volunteer when you like. Just show up, and find how simple and fulfilling giving back can be.

Last year, last year people from 12 countries came together to donate over 3,500 hours to important causes including refugee empowerment, education and freedom of expression. Let's see if we can improve on that this year. Let's face it, 2016 has been a tough one for all of us. It's little gestures like this that can help us find our way back to the light.

If you'd like to join in, look up #GivingTuesday on social media, or head to to pledge directly.