Tuesday 28 February 2012

Fairtrade Fortnight

Comes around quickly, doesn't it? It's Fairtrade Fortnight, and there's loads of exciting events and promotions going on to celebrate and promote ethical trade. Why, as I write this I'm sipping on a Fairtrade coffee from AMT, the only way to kick start the morning for a writer like me (i.e. one that doesn't get enough sleep).

In fact, that's the big idea for this year's event. Take A Step For Fairtrade encourages us all to add a Fairtrade product into our daily routine, whether it be tea, chocolate, flowers or like me, your early morning shot of joe. The Fairtrade Foundation want to see 1.5 million people take a step during the next two weeks. And whaddya know, they're already halfway there!

Plenty of clothing retailers are supporting the fortnight too. Top Man and Laura Ashley are launching limited-edition t-shirts and cotton tops today, with more in the pipeline.

The Fairtrade Step is a great, fun and easy way to show your support for ethical trade, making sure third world producers get a proper deal for their products. Can't say fairer than that, eh?

Find out more at the Fairtrade Fortnight 2012 page. I'm off there now to register my step. How about you?

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Signed, sealed, delivered?

You can call yourself a sustainable business, but if you don't have the paperwork to back it up, then no-one is going to take you seriously. However, as Chris Large makes clear in The Guardian, the certificate itself might not be the right fit for the business or its suppliers.

The problem is that the focus can be on the process of certification rather than the good practice that it's supposed to be confirming. Major certificates, like ISO14001, the environmental management standard, require huge amounts of work and may be not just overkill for small suppliers that are doing the best work, but completely inappropriate.

As Chris puts it:
"It's like asking someone to prove they're healthy by obtaining a Great North Run medal. They might be able to run it in two hours, but prefer swimming and clock up 100 lengths per week. And, if unfit, they could train for 2 months, stagger round the course, whilst being pretty unhealthy for the rest of the year."
Putting the focus on certification means less time spent on actually ensuring that the supplier is doing enough to remain sustainable. If the supplier is already green, then the whole thing can turn into a box-ticking exercise--one that needs an awful lot of boxes to be ticked, and a lot of time and effort spent on confirming practices that are already in place.

Now, I'm not saying that certification is a bad thing. At Pier32 we're proud to stock brands that are WRAP-certified, and of course we're happy to be able to prove that we're a carbon neutral company. But it's important for companies and their suppliers to talk, and allow suppliers to demonstrate their green credentials in their own way.

This is a much healthier approach, and could allow your supplier to show results above and beyond the expectations of the certification panel. After all, certification is a way of showing your customers that you have reached certain proven standards, but there is more than one way of communicating solid green credentials.

Blindly insisting on the production of a catch-all document that might only confirm the good work that's already being done could have the opposite effect. If a certificate becomes an obstacle to sustainability rather than a path towards it, then it might just be worth considering whether you and your suppliers need it in the first place.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Cool As A Coconut

The recent bout of cold weather has got us all pulling out our warmest items of outerwear. There are some real innovations in this area at the moment, and Homeschool, a clothing company based in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, have come up with an idea that you could call a little bit on the nutty side.

Well, coconuts, to be precise. Their high-performance outerwear uses cocona tech, a fabric made from discarded coconut shells. This stuff is not just waterproof. It's also incredibly breathable, which is just as important when you're spending a long day romping over the countryside or on the slopes.

Carbon particles from coconut fibres are infused into the cocona tech fabric, giving it breathability and a quick-dry time that's been proven to be the best in the industry. End result: you stay drier and more comfortable. Coconut is of course a sustainable fibre, and Homeschool also use recycled polyester in much of their clothing.

Based in the coldest and wettest part of America, these guys know and understand how decent winter outerwear ought to perform. Their savvy use of technology and sustainability make Homeschool all right in our book. And the gear is lean, mean, goodlooking and built to last.

Find out more at the Homeschool site.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Fair Play For Fair Pay

Another sign of the imminent collapse of the Coalition’s ill-fated Work Programme appeared this week, as major High Street retailers Sainsbury’s and Waterstone’s pulled out of the work experience arm of the scheme. It’s certainly one of the more controversial ideas this government has cooked up.

The scheme effectively forces job-seekers into unpaid work for big-name stores for up to six months – without pay and with no guarantee of a job afterwards.

Worryingly, some charities have also started down the same path. One of them, with a blithe lack of irony, recently advertised for an intern position that only paid out local fares and a lunch allowance. These charities defend their decision by claiming that interns have access to training and contacts that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Surely any reputable employer would offer these benefits on top of a living wage. Claiming otherwise is a dangerous game, particularly for charities campaigning for fair pay and conditions in the Third World.

Unions are currently negotiating with the big-brand firms involved in the scheme, and a case is currently going through the High Court involving student Cait Reilly, who argues that she was made to work unpaid in Poundland, contrary to the forced labour provisions in the Human Rights Act.

With this in mind, it seems that any charity involved in the scheme has put themselves in an untenable position. Any decent employer can find a way of balancing the budget that doesn’t include the exploitation of vulnerable young people. Any that do while simultaneously campaigning for worker’s rights abroad shouldn’t be surprised if they face charges of double standards – or downright hypocrisy.

For more, check out this piece by Brendan Martin in the Guardian.

Friday 10 February 2012

The Hoodie Is Hot

In face of the, to put it mildly, inclement weather sweeping the country this week, it's essential to wrap up snugly. What's needed is a nice warm jumper you can wear as an over- or underlayer, perhaps with a hood that you could pop up when snow or rain fell. Oh, if only someone could invent a garment like that...

It is time to reclaim the hoodie, to rehabilitate its less than stellar reputation. It's comfortable and versatile, and comes into its own in foul weather. I've been living in a Pier32 hoodie all week, and feel snug and secure even on a bike ride home in a snow-storm.

We are hoodie specialists at Pier32, stocking over 50 different types from more than a dozen manufacturers. Everything from the fitted longline garment for the ladies through to heavyweight zoodies (hoodies with zips, natch) that will shrug off the cold with ease. If you want to take your sounds out and about with you, many of our hoodies feature holes in the pocket (yes, that's a feature, not a flaw) and loops in the collar to keep your leads tucked out of sight. And of course we can print or embroider your logo onto any of our garments.

Why not check out our most recent newsletter for more, including a potted history of the hoodie? You can also follow Guru Ian on Twitter for the very latest news from The Pier. Have a safe and warm weekend, everyone.

Pier32 Newsletter: It's All About The Hoody
Guru Ian on Twitter: @Pier32UK

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Asking The Right Questions

When you try to map ideas of sustainability and ethical behaviour onto large-scale businesses like fashion you frequently run into tricky conundrums. For example, a visit to a sportswear manufacturer in China may impress you with the cleanliness of the plant, or the keen way that the management proudly point out their high-tech production line and bleeding-edge processes.

But their attitude towards the workers that keep those plants running can be less impressive. The idea that they need to be looked after, treated as anything more than another cog in the machine, can often get overlooked. It's not even a case of a company being "evil"--worker's rights have simply never been factored into the complex equations that underpin their working practices.

This is a tough job for global brands to get right, which is why the pioneers of green and ethical fashion tend to be smaller companies that have the ability to work much more closely with their manufacturing base. Frequently they'll partner with factories that already have a decent record in looking after their staff, sourcing materials in a sustainable way and doing their bit for the environment.

This is only going to become more relevant as customers start to demand more ethical behaviour from big companies, and as those companies see the benefit in lower production costs, increased productivity--and yes, in the associated warm glow of positive PR.

The trick is to be seen to be doing the right thing and to back it up with proper accreditation. WRAP certification in the fashion industry is a great step forward, but it's only part of the story.

Once you move away from the simple life of an atelier and onto the global stage, the dance becomes more complex, and there are many more steps to learn. Your idea of decent pay and conditions may differ radically from that of your supplier. You might consider going to work at the age of twelve to be child labour. In some cultures, that's simply how it's done, how it's always been. Dancing your way round all these concerns is tricky to say the least, and it's a rare global brand that hasn't tripped over their own feet at some point.

It can be done, of course. It's heartening that some of the bigger companies are starting to ask the right questions. Finding the answers that work for everyone from boss to worker, from culture to culture and country to country is, of course, another story.

Friday 3 February 2012

Post Recycle Dry

I spent a quiet morning earlier in the week going through my wardrobe and sorting out the clothes that I no longer wear, or that no longer fit (I have long arms, which means that shrinkage on long-sleeved shirts shows up quickly and obviously. Big hands and skinny wrists poking out of a too-short cuff make me look like a gibbon). A merciless purge every year is the only way to keep my clothing from running out of control.

Of course, I don't bin the old stuff. It goes into the charity bins down the road. I've often wondered what happens to my old gear once it goes off to another life, especially the worn stuff.

A lot of it gets recycled, of course, and it's always interesting to see how old becomes new. An example would be these rather splendid Slim Jim jeans, created by Nudie and sold exclusively through Barney's New York. Made from a mix of recycled denim and new organic cotton, the jeans are sharply constructed, brilliantly coloured and built to last. The finish is rougher than Nudie's usual high standard, but for these jeans it doesn't matter. In fact the slubby look just makes them more desirable. They're in a limited edition of 500 though, so if you want to snap up a pair you'd better get your skates on.

It's great to see recycled and upcycled clothing take a rightful place in the realm of covetable high fashion. Who knows, the next pair of posh jeans that you buy might have something of a beloved old pair as part of their makeup. New clothing with built-in history; now that's intriguing.

For more, including a short film on how the Post Recycle Dry jeans are made, check out the Nudie Jeans site.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

The State Of Welfare

It's all starting to look like a bit of a shambles, really. The welfare reforms that the coalition government has tried to fast-track through government and into law have loudly run into brick walls. The Welfare Reform Bill has time and again, been turned away at its Lord's reading over concerns that it will leave our most vulnerable citizens at risk.
For charities, David Cameron's Work Programme, the training scheme that is supposed to solve our unemployment problems, is even more of a bust. The idea is to get charities more involved in helping "hard-to-reach" people like single parents and the disabled back into jobs. In fact, their expertise in working with the sector was deemed to be vital to the success of the programme.
Seven months in and the wheels are already coming off. According to surveys published by two third sector umbrella groups, confidence in the Work Programme is in the dumpster. Charities fear that the private companies with which they are partnered aren't referring clients their way. Worse, that they're skimming off the cream and simply handing over the toughest and most intractable cases to their charitable brethren.
In desperation, some charities have pulled out of the scheme altogether, worried about bankruptcy as the money they were promised to do their job refuses to materialise. At a recent meeting between the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and employment minister Chris Grayling, Joe Irvin said:
"We all support efforts to help unemployed people get back to work. But the public needs to be assured that some of the big private providers in the Work Programme are not either profiteering, or letting down unemployed people, by failing to make proper arrangements with the local voluntary organisations who want to help people back to work."
Grayling's blithe response to this, "Inevitably in a big programme of this kind not every single organisation will succeed," tells you everything you need to know about the blinkered approach that the government has taken. None of which should be a big surprise. The changes to our welfare state have been massive, wide-ranging and criminally rushed.
The widespread opposition to these changes shows that the government just isn't getting the balance right. As the list of humiliating defeats to their proposals grows through downvotes in the Lords or simple pressure of public disapproval, you have to wonder how long the Work Programme is going to last in its current form--and whether charities will again be expected to pick up the pieces afterwards.