Friday 30 January 2015

Life In The Sweatshop

A fascinating web TV show has shown the stark reality of life for Cambodian garment workers to the people who need to see it the most: a group of young fashion bloggers.

The show, Sweatshop: Deadly Fashion, was launched by Norwegian newspaper Afterposten, and took three young fashionistas into the heart of the fashion district in Phnom Peng. Their mission was to work for a month alongside the men and women that make the clothes they write about.

The results were shocking. The Norwegians were confronted with the poverty and grinding hard labour endemic to the sector, and their initially blase attitude was quickly wiped away as they were set to work. As the bloggers realised that the clothes they were making were outside the budget of their new Cambodian friends (at one point, it was estimated that one blouse from Mango would cost a month's rent on the place where they were sleeping) the unfairness of the exploitation sank in.

The show gives us an insight not just into the conditions under which many poor Cambodians have to work, but the attitude that we have towards them. We comfort ourselves into thinking that they're somehow happy with their lot, that living in a shack that you can barely afford to keep is the best that these people can hope for. The bloggers seemed shocked that their host, garment worker Sotky, would aspire to more than that. The hypocrisy seems astonishing, but at the same time the Norwegian kids are only saying out loud the comforting lies that most of us tell in order to feel OK about buying that cheap blouse.

The end of the series shows three young people that are chastened and appalled by the lives of the people they have shared time with. The work is mind-numbingly repetitive and exhausting, the pay laughably minimal. They've seen the other side of the smiling, immaculate face that the fashion world presents to the public... and it's not very pretty.

Wednesday 28 January 2015

Sea Shepherd: Got The Money

What would you do if you won the lottery? Go mad on holidays, new cars and houses, get that gold-plated pony you always wanted? Make sure your close friends and family were looked after?
If you're like our friends at marine rescue charity Sea Shepherd, the choice is clear. They used the money from a hugely generous donation in the only way they knew would make sense.
They've bought themselves a brand-spanking new ship.
Amsterdam's Good Money Gala, an annual lottery-funded award given to organistaions that the judging panel feel are working for 'a fairer, greener world', gifted Sea Shepherd a stonking €8.3 million--their largest donation to the charity to date.
CEO of Sea Shepherd Global, Alex Cornellisen, outlined how the charity planned to spend the money.
"Sea Shepherd will now be able to have a custom-designed ship built, capable of achieving speeds that far exceed any of the vessels in our current fleet. After researching possible shipbuilders for the last two years, negotiations with Dutch shipbuilder Damen has resulted in a blueprint of our ideal ship.
"We are now able to proceed with the purchase of our dream ship and lift our conservation efforts to protect the Southern Ocean from illegal exploitation to the next level."
This is obviously fantastic news and a major boost for a group that's already doing fantastic work, defending the beautiful ceatures of the deep from poachers. Pirates, beware!

Friday 23 January 2015

Getting Closer To Closing The Loop

As I mentioned on Wednesday, innovative new fabrics are becoming a serious factor in the way ethical fashion is produced and consumed. Recycling of waste fabrics into new materials is leading to a gold rush as manufacturers scramble to find the fibre that will change everything.

For example Econyl, a nylon replacement made primarily from waste that includes such unlikely candidates as old carpet and worn-out fishing nets, is making big waves in the swimwear market. Also suitable for outdoor clothing and lingerie (now there's a photo shoot I'd like to see), the company claims that uptake of the material and been both fast and eager. CEO of Econyl Guilio Bonazzi says:
“Brands such as Koru Swimwear and Adidas were impressed with our efforts to not only recover derelict fishing nets … but also expand our supply source for post-consumer waste.”
Other brands like Returnity, who develop materials for the workwear market, are also seeing a significant uptick in interest and orders. But there's a twist. While we're seeing growth in specialist and sportswear markets, the appearance of material for consumer fabrics is significantly slower. Why is that?

The problem, it seems is quality control. It's not that the big brands don't want to use recycled fibres in their clothes. Both M&S and H&M are looking closely at developments. But the difference in what's expected from overalls for a factory and what's expected from the clothes you'd wear for a night out are significantly different... and that's a challenge that's still causing issues. Carola Tembe, environmental sustainability controller for H&M puts her finger on the problem:
“For recycled cotton, the highest amount of mechanically recycled post-consumer fibre H&M can use at the moment is 20% without compromising the quality. In the mechanical recycling procedure, the textile fibres are being regenerated in a way that makes the textile fibres shorter and with lower quality than virgin fibre. They need to be blended with virgin fibres to reach our quality standards.”
In other words, don't hold your breath if you want to see more clothes made with recycled fibres in the stores anytime soon. But we shouldn't be too downhearted. Technology and research are moving in leaps and bounds, and the notion of the holy grail of sustainable fashion--cradle-to-cradle fabrics that can be returned without environmental impact to the soil in which they were grown, is getting closer all the time. There's even discussion on the notion of rental fabrics, which remain the property of the manufacturer and are returned to them when the material has reached the end of its useful life.

Of course, that's a story with its own set of issues and challenges...

Wednesday 21 January 2015

Building The Case For Reusing Waste Textiles

It's a sad fact that we send millions of tons of unwanted or worn-out clothing to landfill every year. As well as being wasteful, it's bad for the environment and puts pressure on recycling services that are already stretched to breaking point.
But there is another way. It's down to the ongoing trend in science to treat waste not as a problem, but as an opportunity. Civil engineer Yu-Fu Ko of California State University has been researching the use of waste textiles, and has come up with a surprising idea: using it to refit buidings that have been damaged by earthquakes.
Ko has hopes that waste fabric, when combined with a resin derived from plant sources, could be strong enough to shore up concrete structures like bridges and buildings that have suffered stress from a building wave of extreme weather events. He believes that this new material is even tough enough to use as a substrate in new builds: the mega-structures of the future.
His new matrix of fabric and resin has other advantages. It helps take pressure from rapidly depleting timber reserves, and is a friendly alternative to the carbon fibre material that's currently used in earthquake-damage repair. This is nasty stuff: tricky to handle and hazardous if the fibres are inhaled.
We're seeing a lot of radical and lateral thinking regarding the whole issue of waste, and Ko's resarch is a fine example of this. If it takes off, we can all feel a little less guilty about binning that worn-out pair of jeans (although repair is always an option...).

Read more on Yu-Fu Ko and his research at the California State University website.

Friday 16 January 2015

Bringing It All Back Home

Some cheering news for those of us who regard fine British tailoring as a good example of sustainable, ethical fashion. Growing interest in classic British labels like Burberry and the attraction of the bespoke suit has had a surprising byproduct.

Happily, it seems that many high class names are hiring apprentices and bringing their production line back into the UK. There's a distinct advantage to this regrouping: products can be brought to market more quickly, and it's easier to innovate.

"Made In Britain" branding is quickly becoming the true mark of quality in the textiles marketplace. A recent report by Barclays puts potential earnings at over £2billion in the next year, as markets like Qatar and China develop a taste for fine British tailoring--and more importantly, are willing to pay a premium for it.

But there's also an opportunity to expand in the home market. For example, lingerie and nightwear brand Headen And Quarmby brought all their manufacturing back to the UK last year, gaining greater control of how the brand is marketed and sold.

But the big success in this local regrouping is in the re-establishment of the apprentice as a valuable path to continue and re-establish old skills. Mulberry has put 70 graduates through its program since 2007, and in Savile Row 60 new tailors have picked up needle and thread in the last 5 years, thanks to a scheme put together by the Savile Row Bespoke Association.

This is vital, as the venerable street was seeing a major drop in employee numbers, thanks to retirement of a significant number of old hands. This reassertion of a well-known brand as a major, profitable force in high end fashion retailing is very good news indeed.

Once, the textile industry was a major part of the UK export portfolio. Off-shoring production to save costs may have worked in the short term, but ultimately led to a fragmented sector that was unwilling to innovate and invest in the future. By moving production back home, we're starting to see a boost in confidence that shows why our clothing has always earned its premium price tag.

Wednesday 14 January 2015

Uniqlo's Expansion In China Comes With A Cost

Trouble for Uniquo this week. The Japanese fast-fashion giant, making inroads in markets across the globe, is under fire following revelations of terrible working conditions in some of its factories.
Hong Kong-based activists SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour) have released photos and videos that show workers contracted to Uniquo working in factories with poor ventilation in 100 degree heat and sewage-drenched floors. Accusations are also rife that workers at the Southern China suppliers are desperately underpaid--in some case only a third as much as employees in other comparable facilities--and forced to work excessive amounts of overtime to make up a living wage.
In their release, SACOM said:
"Low wages, excessive working hours, unsafe working conditions, heavy fines, harsh management style and ineffective platform for expressing workers’ concerns are putting workers in a vulnerable condition."
The accusations could not have come at a worse time for Uniqlo, who are enjoying a boom in the Far Eastern market at the expense of rivals like Zara and H&M. The brand plans to open 100 stores in China alone in the next decade, and accusations of native workers being mistreated will not go down well.

In a response to SACOM, Uniqlo's parent company Fast Retailing said:
Fast Retailing first learned of the SACOM report at the end of last year, and we moved quickly in view of the serious nature of its claims, by conducting an independent inspection of both facilities. We confirm that, regrettably, the inspection found several problems including long working hours. On the other hand, while the inspection did not reveal some of the problems stated in the SACOM report, Fast Retailing and SACOM have different views on some of the issues described in the report. In view of this situation, Fast Retailing is continuing with the inspection, and we are requesting SACOM to open a dialogue with us as soon as possible.
Interestingly, SACOM notes that an employee at one factory told them a Uniqlo representative visited twice a week. If true, this points to Fast Retailing turning a blind eye to abuses up to the point where it was no longer expedient to do so without harming their image. Either way, this is a story that's worth keeping an eye on.
Read SACOM's full report here.

Friday 9 January 2015

Be Safe, Be Seen, Look Cool

As an avid cyclist (well, in an urban sense) I'm fully aware of the pressure on those of us who use bikes to get around to make ourselves visible. The dreaded SMIDSY accident (Sorry, Mate, I Didn't See You) becomes a little more unlikely if you're lit up like a Christmas tree. At this time of year especially, light is right.

The thing is, why should you have to look either like a workman in hi-vis or a lycra warrior when you're on your bike? Surely there's a third way, for those of us that like to keep a sense of style about them even when they're on the cycle path.

Well, the good news is that a British company called Lumo have the answer. They design jackets and bags with cleverly integrated LEDs, that are visible up to 400 meters when you need them to be, and completely invisible when you don't.

Lumo's neat take on a classic Harrington is treated for water-resistance, and features bike-friendly notions like a dropped back hem (to keep your bum covered when you're standing on the pedals) and fully weather-proofed closures. The LEDs in the front placket and back hem are similarly weather-proofed, USB chargable and machine washable.

There's also a backpack that takes design cues from British military knapsacks, a cool Fred Perry-style pique polo with reflective strips, and even a classic cycling cap. All Lumo's apparel has been put together with a close eye to detail, fit and finish. They're unisex, filled with thoughtful design touches and look good on or off the bike.

Their Kickstarter campaign, has, I'm glad to say, just reached its first target. They're teasing a great-looking parka if they hit the stretch goal of £70, 000. The campaign has just under a week to go, and it wouldn't surprise me if the Regent makes it to market.

The conflation of technology and fashion remains an obsession here at the Pier, and Lumo's cool take on a knotty problem as one we admire deeply. A British company taking steps to keep cyclists both safe and looking good? We're all over that!

Lumo's Kickstarter

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Trends For 2015

Happy New Year! With 2014 firmly behind us, let's look forward to the new challenges and opportunities that 2015 has to offer. What are the trends and movements that will take us through the next twelve months?
Fashion is going through a period of profound change. Driven by technology, the movers and shakers behind the big brand names are quietly repositioning their business models, redeveloping their supply chains and reconfiguring the way they deal with both their suppliers and their customers. As the public become more aware of the human rights and environmental abuses done in fashion's name, and become more strident in voicing their disapproval, the high street names are frantically working to make sure they aren't seen as villains. The awful realisation that their customers are both highly media-savvy and have weapons-grade bullshit detectors has scared them into doing the right thing by both the people under their care and the planet.
We're already seeing several trends emerging as the way forward over the next few years. Transparency is vitally important, but I think we'll see big brands embracing tech in new ways to take on the biggest challenge any multinational faces--taking full responsibility for their supply chain. It's no longer good enough for a company to claim ignorance about the conditions in the factories that make clothes in their name, especially when disaster strikes. Both Gap and Walmart faced significant consumer blowback after their mealy-mouthed attempts to wriggle out of compensation payments after Rana Plaza.
I'm not saying that it's going to be easy, of course. There's a complex network of suppliers and factories to tie together, from the fields of the cotton growers, to the mills where fabric is spun, to the manufacturers and suppliers of zips, buttons and decorations, to the factories where the clothes are assembled, to the shops where they are finally sold to the public. Supply chain logistics is going to be one of the biggest challenges of the next decade, and the first company to get it right will see massive benefits, as ways to streamline and smooth the production process become clear. You need the overview to be able to get things right. It's the difference between digging in your pocket for change, and taking it all out so you can get a good look at what you're carrying.
We will also, I think, see a step change in the way that brands interact with their customers. At the moment, there are stores like H&M that have ethical collections as part of their main ranges. However, they're seen as worthy offshoots from the main branch. You're supposed to feel good about buying them, and also applaud the brand for taking a bold step into sustainable waters.
The emergence of pro-social brands, where the whole business is based around an ethical core from which every decision is made, has yet to make it into the fashion mainstream. Think of food companies like Ben & Jerry's, or Innocent. The closest this sector has to a pro-social brand is, I suppose, Patagonia. The difference between an ethical and a pro-social brand is, as the Guardian points out, a campaigning nature that steps beyond simply promoting change and goes out of its way to actively seek it. Typically, donations to set charities or causes are baked into the profit margins, and the brands go out of their way to be fair to their suppliers. Pro-social is a way to show how importantly a brand takes ethical issues, and engage customers in a whole new way. Pro-social brands set the agenda, rather than be led by customer reaction or demand. They lead, and know that a conscious, engaged consumer base will follow.
In the higher-end of the market, you'll start to see clothes that push the artisinal agenda harder than before. Products produced to a high finish that have been created by highly skilled workmen will always attract a high price tag. As fashion in general becomes more interested in the people that make the clothes, the more exclusive end of the market will shift to take advantage of that new focus. Expect to see unusual material and styling choices using rediscovered skillsets: for example, Saigon Socialite's amazing shoes that team sleek French leather with traditional Vietnamese pagoda-carved soles.
There's loads more to talk about as we slip into the New Year, but I don't want to blow all my discussion points in one post. For now, I urge you take a peek at Ecouterre's discussion with a bunch of ethical fashionistas, who all have their own ideas about what 2015 has in store.