Monday 15 May 2017

Defending Jaws

Our relationship to the animal kingdom is a strange one. We like to feel that we care for the creatures that share our world. People often talk about how their pets are akin to friends or family. That is, of course, as long as we consider them to be cute and cuddly, and that's less clear cut than it might at first appear. Spiders and lizards may not be to everyone's taste, but they definitely have their fan-base.
Pity the poor shark, then. A supremely well-adapted predator that has become synonymous in the human mind with pitiless, unthinking aggression. Blame Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg, who forever imprinted the fear of the fin in our minds. 

With that fear, of course, comes aggression. We kill millions of sharks every year with a gleeful and un-necessary cruelty. The so-called delicacy of sharks-fin soup comes with a built-in cost–the dorsal fin is sliced off while the shark is still alive, before the poor creature is dumped back into the sea to suffer a long and painful death. It's the equivalent of killing an elephant for its tusks. If that's beyond the pale now, then surely we can do the same for the shark!
Our pals at marine charity Bite-Back have long campaigned against the mistreatment of sharks. Recently, founder Graham Buckingham was invited to speak at TedX, and his passionate defence of probably the most unfairly maligned creature on the planet is well worth fifteen minutes of your time. If you like sharks–and especially if you don't–this is essential viewing. 

Friday 3 March 2017

A Day At Printwear Live!

Ten o'clock on a Sunday morning, when all right-thinking people are contemplating a second coffee and a bite of breakfast. So, why then did I find

What madness is this? Wait, though, there's a clue, way off there in the distance. Time to do a CSI-style zoom and enhance...

Aha, now that makes a bit more sense. Guru Ian dragged me and Pier Mascot Ali along to Printwear Live. It's the one point of contact in the year for the clothes customisation industry to meet, network and maybe do a little business. All the big distributors and brands are here, so it's important for Pier32 to get in and touch base.

Hall 20 at the NEC (for yes, readers, we were on the outskirts of Birmingham, the Midland's shining jewel) is stuffed to the gunwales with huge stalls and marquees, offering a ton of new clothing ranges and customisation technology. We were all pleased to see that organics made a strong showing this year. Well, we would be. It's how we roll.

So a visit to Stanley Stella would always be first on the agenda. A new kid on the block, they've gone all out for organic and sustainable fabrics. But they also have a keen eye on modern trends and designs.

I was especially taken with the tops made from Modal–a silky, luxurious fabric that's made from birch. It holds colour for longer than cotton and keeps that colour more intensely.

Ian also pointed out a clever design detail on a lot of clothes designed for the customisation market. Size tabs are offset from the centre of the collar or area designed to rip out, allowing you to put your own branding on the item. Neat thinking.

Another must-stop on the tour was Continental, who while independent are still able to make a big noise against the conglomos at the front of the hall. Their commitment to ethical and sustainable ranges has always made them a favourite here at The Pier. Their Salvage (made from recycled fibre) and Fair Share (paying above market price to the workers that make the clothes) ranges are tremendously popular with our clients. It helps that they've been pals of ours for years, of course!

It's always fun to wander a show and just soak up the weird and wonderful sights. If, like me, this is your first time at a particular show, there can be some real surprises. Take, for example, the guys at Oku, who had an honest-to-Betsy eagle on their stand...

Or the full-on, properly choreographed street-dance fashion shows that featured clothes from brands like Regatta and Trespass - you know, the mid-range brands you'd normally see halfway round the Snake Pass or in a tea shop somewhere in the Dales...

(OK, and AWDI, who do know their street wear).

A real eye-opener for me were the robot embroidery machines. Feed art in one end, and they'll kick into life and stitch that design onto pretty much anything. The end results can be insanely complex.

It was, to be honest, a pretty overwhelming day with lots to see and do. Guru Ian was in his element and walked away carrying his own body weight in brochures and giveaways. New trends for the coming season? Look out for retro styles that harken back to the 80s, with contrast-colours on sleeves and collars.

But the real big thing will be hexoflage–camo styles overlaid with a hexagonal grid in hot colours. Imagine future military livery. Blend in? No chance. This is the sort of colourway you slather over your Titanfall custom loadout before you stomp off to frag alien hordes.

A madcap day, then, but I walked away with a few treats (including a bottle of prosecco in a raffle–thank you, Pencarrie!) and a renewed respect for the complexity of the industry into which I dangle my writerly toes.

There are worse ways to spend a Sunday, that's for sure.

Monday 30 January 2017

The True Cost Of Britain's Cheap Clothes

It's easy to look at the abuses of garment workers in developing economies and shake our heads, blaming the problems on cultural differences and misunderstandings over the average wage packet. It's not right, but it's easy.

However, when those same abuses are happening on our own doorstep, it's much more difficult to shrug and turn away.

We've all seen the stories that crop up every Christmas, of the big online retailers treating their employees and temp staff like cattle or machines during the festive crunch. Amazon always gets a kicking in the press in December. But we're starting to see poor or downright dangerous working conditions, forced overtime and low pay migrating to many UK-based brand names, such as Sports Direct.

An exposé in Channel 4's documentary stream Dispatches shows that worryingly, this trend is growing. Undercover footage in factories that were producing garments for high street stores like New Look and online brands like Missguided and Boohoo both showed worryingly lax safety standards and a decidedly cavalier approach towards the National Living Wage.

Belal, an undercover reporter for Dispatches, was paid a mere £3 per hour to label and barcode clothes for Fashion Square, a factory producing clothes for River Island–£4.20 less than the advised minimum. When he challenged the owner of the factory, the response was surprising...

Boss: How much do you get paid in London?
Belal: It depends where you’re working.
Boss: That’s why I’ve asked to see you. You won’t get paid as much as that for the work you’re doing here.
Belal: I spoke to, and he said he’ll let me know how much he’ll pay me after he’s seen my work.
Boss: Yes, yes. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. What were you paid in London?
Belal: I got at least £7.20.
Boss: You won’t get that here. That’s what I’m telling you. We don’t get paid much for our clothes, and we need to compete with China and Bangladesh.They can get it cheap there. How will they get it made cheaper here? If we pay everyone £10 or £6 then we will make a loss.
Belal: You are comparing it with Bangladesh and places like that?
Boss: Yes, yes, yes. This is the situation.

Belal also ran shifts at United Creations Ltd, a factory contracted to make clothes for online retailers BooHoo and Missguided. Here again, he was paid less than £4 per hour. More worryingly, the working conditions were considered incredibly dangerous by safety expert Richard Lloyd. Flammable materials were stacked close to hot machinery, and there was even footage of a worker smoking on the factory floor. Lloyd said:

“What people don’t appreciate is that fires happen very very rapidly, there’s a smoke build up, there’s a low ceiling, the people are partly panicking and the doors open the wrong way anyway.”

The show is a terrifying eye-opener to the conditions to which garment workers are exposed in the rush for fast fashion profit. It's becoming clear that abuses of a vulnerable workforce are not confined to the developing world–they're happening on our streets too.

The second show in the strand is screening tonight at 8pm on Channel Four. This first episode is available to stream or download via catch-up services, or through

Monday 23 January 2017

Living Lagom with Hubbub!

Exciting news from our pals at Hubbub, who are taking a leap into the unknown. They're launching a vlogging channel that will deal with all things sustainable–and they need your help!
The new channel, fronted by Sarah Duvall, will be looking at the way simple changes can bring you closer to a sustainable lifestyle. This has extra benefits, of course–not least saving money, which is something I think we can all get behind in these cold dark weeks before the February payday.
The keyword for the blog is lagom–another one of those Swedish terms that we seem to be falling for. It means 'just enough'. In practice, the lagom life entails finding a balance between too much and not enough. Obvious, and surprisingly easy to achieve by making small lifestyle changes. Like making your own lunches from extra portions of dinner, or changing your lights over to energy-saving LEDs. Marginal gains that over the course of a year can save you hundreds of pounds, and make you happier and healthier as well!
So where do you come in? Well, as I said, this is a new venture, and the Hubbub guys need all the feedback they can get. If there's a story they should be covering, or if the approach doesn't quite fit, they'd like to know. So why not subscribe, join in the conversation and get involved? Check out the first video below, and see how lagom can work for you.

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.