Tuesday 29 July 2014

Matalan: Keeping their hands in their pockets over Rana Plaza

As the deadline for the first tranche of payments to the families affected by the Rana Plaza disaster looms, it's become clear that one major UK retailer is yet to pay any money into the official compensation fund. Matalan, who have been asked to contribute £3million to help the victims of the collapse, faces pressure across the board to step up and take responsibility for a situation that is, to an extent, their fault.
The brand have chosen instead to donate to a seperate fund, the Rana Plaza Survivors Rehabilitation Scheme, which is managed by Bangladeshi development organisation BRAC. However, critics claim that BRAC's work is less than transparent, and it still hasn't been revealed how much money Matalan have given to the fund. More worryingly, BRAC has been accused of not spending all the money it recieves on recovery work on the ground at Dhaka.
The UN-backed International Labour Organisation, tasked with collecting and managing the official fund, has stated that contributions so far have fallen horribly short of the £40million target needed. As of July 4th, that fund stood at £17 million--not even halfway there.
David Babbs of 38 Degrees, the independent campaigning group who have helped to keep Rana Plaza and the high street brand's attempts to wriggle out of their responsibilities in the public eye, said:
"Matalan says it's a family-friendly business, yet it still hasn't paid up the money it owes to the children of people who died in the same factory that made its clothes.
"Matalan may have made peppercorn donations to other charities, but that's no substitute for the proper compensation it owes to the survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster.
"If Matalan wants to carry on selling its clothes to Britain's mums and dads, it needs to convince them that its family-friendly image is more than clever PR spin. Paying the money it owes to the families of the Rana Plaza disaster would be a good place to start."
Meanwhile Matalan's closest rival on the high street, Primark, has to date paid £12million into the fund, making it by far the most generous contributor. It's also paying directly to workers, while applicants to the ILO fund are still trickling through the system.
It's unusual to be able to applaud Primark, but their actions far outshine the weasel words and measly contributions that we've seen from many of their rivals with regards to Rana Plaza. Some brand names have given barely a quarter of a million pounds to the ILO funds. Matalan, unfortunately are only the visible part of a worrying trend. They, and the other brands implicated, need to step up and show us that they mean what they say, and that they intend to do right by the families that have lost so much. They talk about commitment and responsibility. Their actions show nothing of the sort.

Friday 25 July 2014

The Fall Of Fast Fashion?

The Wall Street Journal's 125th Anniversary Edition, which came out earlier this month, brought together a lot of interesting thinkers and figures with one brief: to talk about the future of their fields of expertise. It's an insightful and fascinating read in its own right, but for the purposes of this blog, the op-ed by fashion giant Michael Kors spoke volumes.
He said:
‘I love fashion because it's plugged into the zeitgeist, so it's always changing. Thirty years ago, I could never have predicted I'd be where I am today, so I know I don't know what's going to happen in the next five years or the next 20 years.
‘I have my predictions - I'm sure technology will continue to have an impact on fashion, particularly the way people shop. I think quality will be increasingly important - we're moving away from a time of fast fashion.'
None of this is particularly prescient, but it shows that Kors is aware, and more importantly paying attention to the trends of the industry as a whole. The impact of the internet can't be emphasised strongly enough. All of a sudden, smaller producers have the same access to the armchair shopper as the big brand names. This, tied to new production techniques and the power of social media is, I believe, the prime mover behind the powerful upsurge in interest in ethical fashion.
But it's the last part of his quote that has caused the most attention. He's not the first name to sound the death knell for the fast fashion revolution, but he has the nous of a businessman, and he sees the ugly truth. Consumers are becoming more aware of the suffering that goes into cheap clothing, and they're voting for more ethical alternatives with the most potent weapon at their disposal: their wallets. Pointing this out in a paper with a smart, money-minded readership gives the notion a lot of clout.
Of course, there's the argument that high fashion brands are as guilty of eithical abuse and maltreatment of workers as the usual high street suspects. So it's worth keeping an eye on future developments, and seeing whether Kor's call for higher quality is matched by better conditions for the workers who are expected to produce them.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Clothes To Die For

This week's ethical fashion must-watch has to be the documentary screened by the BBC on the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster. Part of the This World season, Clothes To Die For tells the story of some of the survivors of the collapsed building, inside which nearly 1000 garmaent workers died after it fell apart in April last year.
Of course, it's impossible to tell the story of Rana Plaza and its aftermath without focussing on the wider issues: how Bangladesh became one of the biggest garment-making centres in the world, and what sacrifices have been made to workplace health and safety to keep it that way.
The film, directed by Zara Hayes and shot by Patrick Smith, is particularly good at teasing out the moral implications of Western boycotts of brands that source largely through Bangladesh. In short, although the workers are paid a pittance by our standards, it's a life-changing amount of money to them. No-one wants to lose out, even if the risks may seem unacceptable.
The answers are simple, and Clothes To Die For does not flinch in putting them on screen. The workers and factories of Bangladesh need more money to survive--but the sums they're asking for are almost laughably small. As one factory owner interviewed for the film puts it:
"If the retailers want more compliant factories, they have to pay us more. Get the retailers together and make sure they pay us five cents more. Not even ten, we don't even want ten cents, we want five, we're happy with five cents on each garment."
Five cents on every garment you buy, to stop another Rana Plaza. That's about 3p. I'd pay that. Wouldn't you?

This World: Clothes To Die For is available on the BBC iPlayer for the rest of the week. You can watch it at the link below.

Friday 18 July 2014

Baggage Handling

Say you're an airline. One of your prime concerns, in this age of spiralling energy costs, is to cut your fuel bill. In the aeronautical world, the easiest way to do that is to make your planes lighter. Every aspect of the construction of your aircraft has to be carefully looked at, to see if it can be slimmed down. Not just airframe and avionics: how about the heavy leather on the seats?
That's exactly what Southwest Airlines have done, replacing the cow-skin with a lightweight material. This dropped 600 pounds per plane of weight--a pretty hefty saving. But Southwest then had a problem. What exactly do you do with the discarded leather from 80,000 airline seats?
To their credit, the answer was not landfill. Instead, Southwest teamed with upscale upcyclers Looptworks to use the leather for accessories. Tote bags, duffels and backpacks will all be created as giveaways and gifts for corporate events. This kind of reuse brings a certain eco-chic, and I can see the items that Looptworks builds out of the seats becoming highly desirable. Probably best not to consider how that leather became quite so soft and broken-in, though.
That desirability is part of the equation that makes upcycling viable. Contrary to what you might think, it's not a cheap process. The material needs to be broken down and reformed, and there will always be variations in the quality of the material, meaning that upcycling is highly labour intensive. Scott Hamlin of Looptworks explains:
"...in many cases, unfortunately, the cost of creating the upcycled material is higher than the value of the material itself. The best way of recovering the costs is by creating an upscale product."
That's not to say upcycling is just for posh bags and wallets, though. In a smart PR move, Southwest are also working with charities in Kenya and Malawi to teach children how to work leather, and a portion of the seat covers are being remade into shoes and footballs.
This clever reimagining of materials is good eco-thinking, and can create some interesting revenue streams from the most uninspiring of sources. An increasing amount of sports and technical wear (including many brands sold by Pier32) is made from PET, which is essentially recycled plastic from drinks bottles. It's great to see a big company like Southwest making a virtue out of a necessary loss, and creating something beautiful as part of the process.

The Guardian has more, including an interesting new use for fish skin.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Testimonial Time!

I know you all come to The View From The Pier for the incisive, in-depth commentary on ethical fashion and charities. But the fact is, we're here first and foremost to support the flourishing ethical promotinal wear business that funds us: Pier32. We have a vocal and enthusiastic client base who are happy to share.
So, I thought it would be nice to join the dots, and show my readership some of the real people wearing our clothing that have kindly shared their pics with us on our Facebook page recently.
The foxy ladies from Body Boost in Brighton are clearly pleased with the fitness apparel we supplied for them. Stretch pants, tops and hoodies in a real jewel box of different colours mean that they're getting in shape and looking good in the process!

Meanwhile, the team from Latin American Women's Aid, (LAWA) recently pitched up to run the Hackney Half Marathon in East London. Pier32 sorted them out with t-shirts and sports shirts to make sure they got the message across about the important work they do with disadvantaged women in South America.

While we're best known for apparel, we can put our skills to other uses. You know already about the work we do with marine conservation charity Sea Shepherd. Our latest collaboration: a beach towel, big enough to be comfortable on the sand, emblazoned with the piratical chic of the Sea Shepherd logo. Unlike the other items I've mentioned, this one's available to buy right now, through their eBay store.

The point I want to make here is that Pier32 work with a lot of different charities, groups, schools and businesses, and our focus is on making sure they go away happy... and then come back for more. We provide ethically produced and cruelty-free clothing that's good for the environment. We believe in working closely with everyone that gets in touch to make sure their order is trouble-free and high quality from initial contact to final delivery. I've shown just a tiny fraction of the happy customers that have bought ethical promotional wear from Pier32. You could be one of them. Why not give us a call?

Friday 11 July 2014

Remake:Remodel--How Jillian Owens Is Reinventing Thrift Store Chic

People sometimes ask me, "Why recycle?" They then roll out a story they heard from a friend of a friend about how they heard that a lot of material that goes into the hoppers outside supermarkets goes straight to landfill anyway. I personally treat any tale with more than one link of provenance in it with a large handful of salt.
Ask Jillian Owens from South Carolina the same question, and she'll likely point you at the outfit she's wearing at that moment. She's a fan of the thrift and goodwill store culture in the States. But, unlike many, she makes a beeline for the kind of clothes that no-one else would touch with a ten-foort bargepole. The stuff that doesn't fit. The stuff that's cut like a potato sack. With some judicious scissor and needle work, carefully placed belts and most importantly an eye for what a garment could be, and Jillian transforms these second-class citizens into sharply-crafted dresses, tops and skirts.

She says:
"A few years ago I decided I wanted to change the way the world thinks about fashion. I was worried about the impact on our planet as people tossed out their one-time-wear duds more and more quickly."
Second-hand is maybe not the best way to describe the stores that Jillian raids for her creations. A better handle would perhaps be Second Time Around. By taking on these orphans, seeing the beauty in them and allowing them to shine, she's showing the potential in any unloved garment. Perhaps there's something there to be learned the next time we have a clearout and fill a bag for the charity shop. Maybe that starts with more focus on home economics in schools, giving kids the skills with needle and thread to be able to copy Jillian. Certainly, I often wish that I could sew on a button without it falling back off, or patch a pair of jeans so they hold.

You could argue that Jillian didn't choose the fashion path she's treading with such style--as a writer who ran into financial problems, goodwill became the only outlet she could easily afford. And yet, from adversity comes opportunity, and boy, has this girl run with it. I'd call Jillian Owens the new poster girl for sustainable fashion: doing it her own way, with her own style. We can all learn something from her, don't you think?

For the full skinny, check out Jillian's set on Imgur.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Flipping The Idea Of Recycling Inside Out

I am a gent with limited wardrobe space. When I buy a new item of clothing, that's usually the cue to find an old shirt, t-shirt or pair of trews and consign them to the nearest recycling bin. One in, one out. Why hang onto clothes you don't wear anymore?
But there needs to be an easier way to recycle clothing. Billions of pounds worth of textiles are simply binned every year in the UK alone. I'm lucky in that my nearest charity hopper is a walkable distance from my front door. For many, that simply isn't an option, or they just don't think about it. A clearout happens once a year, and perfectly good items that could be donated to charity or broken down for re-sourcing go straight into the bin.
Swedish fashion label Uniforms For The Dedicated have come up with a smart idea that makes recycling an easy, straightforward process. Their carrier bags flip inside out to become a sturdy, pre-paid mailer into which you can place an unwanted item of clothing. Seal it up, stick it in the post, and hey presto, you've donated to charity. The bag and the old item suddenly have a second life, an uptick in value.
DDB Sweden, who came up with the idea, believe it has real potential. A spokesperson for the agency said:
"We consume too much. With this in mind, we wanted to find a way to convert every purchase into something that would do good in the world. We wanted to influence brands and consumers, and help them take a practical stand for sustainable fashion, recycling and social responsibility."
This idea has legs, I think. Imagine a major high street brand (particularly one with a decent ethical profile, like M&S) taking on this idea. Getting people to change their habits is a complex job, but offer them a simple solution and they will embrace that change whole-heartedly. I'd love to see mailer bags become the norm, and for more of us to keep their wardrobes clear of clutter by donating the orpans at the back of the stack.

Friday 4 July 2014

Labelling Dissent: The Primark "cry for help" controversy is just one part of a bigger scandal

A fascinating story has popped up in the national press over labelling of clothes in Primark. We're not talking about how the washing instructions have been accidentally changed from "delicate cycle" to "boil wash". This is something altogether more intriguing, and cuts to the heart of the discussion over ethical fashion. 

The basic story is this: Rebecca Gallagher from Swansea bought a £10 summer dress from Primark, only to find a hand-stitched label in amongst the others. The label said "forced to work exhausting hours." Over the next couple of weeks, other Primark shoppers found similar labels in their fast fashion bargains. Primark, caught on the backfoot, claimed that the whole thing was a hoax, instigated in the UK. The altered clothing came from different factories, hundreds of miles apart.

Whether it was a hoax or not is missing the point. The fact is that foreign garment workers do work exhausting hours for terrible pay in terrible working conditions. Drawing that to the attention of the readers of the South Wales Evening Post and later to the national papers isn't a bad thing. The danger, as a sharply written editorial by Tansy Hoskins for the Guardian points out, is that readers and shoppers will assume that it's only Primark that has the problem. It's not. Most of the high street chains have links to factories that carry out abusive or negligent working practices. The struggle for fair pay and conditions in Bangladesh and other centres of manufacturing for Western clothing is one that is going on right now as unions like the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF), based in Dhaka take the fight to the shop floor. Union officials are tired of seeing their members marginalised as helpless victims, and of the attempts to attribute blame to one brand. Tansy points out:

Their opinion is that poor pay and conditions are not unique to one brand (Primark) but rather "applicable to almost all the brands that are sourcing from Bangladesh." The NGWF is also clear that it does not want to see the destruction of the industry through consumer boycotts as there are no other job opportunities for the four million women working in those factories.
They do however want people to work with them to pressure corporations into raising pay and conditions. "People in the UK should ask brands like Primark, Marks & Spencer, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, or New Look – about the reality of their supply chain," says Amin. "They should pressure brands to disclose their suppliers and to sign the Bangladesh accord, and to ensure a fair price of Bangladeshi garments and pay a living wage to garment workers."

That goal is one that we should all applaud, but cutting the tangled web of self-interest and the quest for excessive profit is a tricky task. We as consumers are wrapped up in that web, too. It's good to see that the struggle for ethical fashion is making headlines. But we should not be fooled into thinking that there's one simple solution, or a lone villain pulling the threads.

Wednesday 2 July 2014

How Prawns Could Get Ethical Fashion Onto The High Street

There's been some encouraging news in the past couple of weeks about social responsibility, and more importantly, our attitude towards it as customers.

After a Guardian investigation into the harvesting of prawns in Thailand by forced labour--OK, let's not beat around the bush here, slave labour--the UK Government has pushed for much stronger safeguards on the food we eat and the clothes we wear, to ensure that they're produced fairly and without exploitation. The consumer affairs minister, Jenny Willott, has gone so far as to state that brands must do more to promote a strong ethical standpoint, or risk losing customers. She said:

"Following the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster earlier this year, we saw another high profile case involving oppressive labour practices in the production of prawns in Thailand.

"Consumers are increasingly aware of these issues and concerned about them. As a result of this public interest, we have an opportunity to highlight those companies taking positive action and encourage others to make a real difference."


This bullish tone is backed up by an extraordinary poll for Ipsos Mori, in which 83% of respondents agreed that a company's ethical policy mattered to them. Two out of every five said that they would spend more on a product if it had a proven clean record, despite the current squeeze on household spending.

With consumers starting to take the lead, the government is moving to take steps over ethical sourcing. In a statement to the British Retail Consortium, Willott singled out H&M and Marks and Spencer as companies with strong ethical policies that are applied through their entire supply chain. The inference is clear: these are big names that can still put eco-friendly, exploitation-free credentials at the heart of their business. If they can do it, why can't everyone else?

It's funny how the smallest of things can have such a huge potential result. The humble prawn could be the catalyst for a true revolution in fashion retail, bringing strong ethical policies onto the high street, backed up by a government that, while following the lead of its people, will end up making transparency and ethical practices a pre-requisite of doing business in the UK. Ultimately, that change has been mentored by us, as consumers making the right choices for the right reasons. We don't want to buy products that are the product of cruelty and the government seems to be indicating that, for once, it's on our side.