Friday 26 June 2015

I'll Tumble For Ya: Shaking Up The Tumble Dryer

It's a little-known fact that a significant percentange of the energy that any one piece of clothing will use in its lifetime occurs after it comes home with you. The processes of washing, drying and ironing can really add up. Which is slightly ironic if you've bought clothing specifically as items to last you a long time. Sustainable fashion is a slippery beast. It gives with one hand and takes hard from the other.
Tumble-dryers are the worst culprits of the lot. They can use up as much energy as a washing mashine, dish-washer and refridgerator combined in one drying cycle. That's greedy, by anyone's standards. Although changes have been made to the controls and external looks of the beast in the utility room over the years, the basic principle of drying through heat and agitation remains unchanged since the machine was first designed back in the nineteen-forties.
There's a move, particularly in America, to use energy-saving techniques long established in Europe to help take the pressure off. And even simple steps like running dryers at a slightly lower temperature can cut down massively on the power they suck out of the grid.
But there may be another way. Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee have come up with a new way of drying clothes: vibration. The secret, according to head researcher on the project Ayyoub M. Momen, is in using the same components found in commercial humidifiers that turn water into fine droplets. He placed a piece of soaked fabric on top of these transducers. What happened next, he told USA Today, was a real eureka moment:
"It was mind-blowing when we saw it the first time, how quickly it can dry a piece of fabric. It was amazing. Boom, it was dry in 14 seconds."
Momen estimates that using this new technology, he could cut drying time on a full load down to 20 minutes. This would be a major saving to power needs in the US, potentially enough to take 3 full size coal-fired plants offline each year. Or, to put it another way, 16 million tons of CO2 emissions.
Momen and his team are now working on a full-sized prototype, which they hope to have ready next year. It's an exciting upgrade to a process that many of us take for granted. Although of course, you could always cut out that bit of the energy bill completely and just use a clothes line...

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Use It Up, Wear It Out

If you want wisdom in the often confusing world of ethical fashion, then you need look no further than Orsola De Castro, founder of Esthetica and one of the primary voices behind Fashion Revolution. In a recent interview with The Telegraph, she nailed one of the essential truths that people often miss about the field.

For a garment to be truly sustainable, it's not enough for it to be made using solar power, or recycled water, or even using upcycled components. The true test of whether a piece of clothing is sustainable is whether it's worn more than once. And this, bizarrely, is still something that those in the public eye have to deal with on a regular basis.

How many times have we seen celebrities castigated in the press for the fashion "crime" of wearing the same outfit more than once? We're not just talking the red carpet here. The clothes police of the tabloids will gleefully pick up long-lens paparazzi shots of the stars shopping, or scooting off to the gym. And heaven forbid that they should do that in anything that isn't boxfresh.

Orsola tags this attitude as toxic nonsense. She says:
“The concept of wearing something just once is sad. It indicates a lack of style, confidence, and it misses the point of what fashion is about.
“Fashion is about loving clothes, and style is the ability to be effortlessly comfortable in your own beautiful skin.
“Nothing beats a trusted old something, restyled to look fresh.”
Hear hear to that. Sustainability is all about making the most of what's already in your wardrobe, and ignoring the voices that tell you otherwise. If you've chosen a piece wisely for its timeless appeal and durability, with the understanding that it's going to last you for years to come, then you truly get what sustainable fashion is all about.

Let's put the lessons we've learned today into a song, shall we? Turn it up. I'm calling this one an anthem for sustainability.

Friday 19 June 2015

Introducing The 30-Year Sweatshirt

The notion of clothes that are designed to last for a season, only half a year, has long been a bugbear of the ethical fashion crowd. Clothing should be durable, surely, keeping its good looks and comfort for years. If you have to pay a little more, so be it. That investment will repay itself off many times over the life of a garment that's built to last. Vivienne Westwood says it best: Buy Less. Pay More. Choose Well.
This is a mantra that designer Tom Cridwell has taken to heart. He's already making a name for himself, with a successful Kickstarter under his belt for a range of colourful trousers that have been bought by Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Stiller and Daniel Craig. Now he's aiming to disrupt the fashion industry again with a new product: the 30-Year Sweatshirt. Made with the finest materials and sewn by Portuguese artisans, this new venture aims to do what it says. To create a piece that will be a staple of your casual wardrobe for not just years, but decades.
Tom spoke exclusively to us here at the Pier, and we asked: what drew him towards the notion of sustainable fashion in the first place?
"I founded the Tom Cridland brand a year ago, specialising in making luxury trousers in unique colours. We had great feedback, got stocked at Wolf & Badger in London and, as I became more and more familiar with the fashion industry, I grew increasingly aware of the notion of built-in obsolescence - the idea that clothing brands make garments systematically to only last a year or two so that consumers will be forced to continue buying.
This should not be the case when it comes to wardrobe staples like plain colour sweatshirts. Sustainable business in fashion can be created from consistently making beautiful and original designs. Built-in obsolescence is not necessary and something like a beautifully made sweatshirt should last a lifetime."
No argument from us there. The Sweatshirt (sorry, I can't help but capitalise, it feels like that sort of product) is made from organic cotton, and comes in six colourways unique to the range--these have been blended to Tom's exacting standards from up to six other shades to get the colour he had in mind.
The sweatshirts are made in Portugal by a group of craftsmen that use traditional loopback techniques to create a garment that is both sturdy (let's not forget, the sweatshirt was originally designed for athletes) and keeps its looks for longer. I wanted to know what made Tom decide to go to Portugal.
"I am half Portuguese and I strongly believe their rich tradition of making durable clothing by hand is overlooked. The Portuguese shoemaking industry is booming once again. I think this project can hopefully also draw attention to their amazing textile heritage."
Cleverly, Tom has outed the uncomfortable truth about the high price of luxury clothing: the huge percentage of the final price that is taken up by distribution and retail markups. By selling directly, he can not just undercut those prices, but ignore them completely. Which is why a high-end garment like the 30-Year Sweatshirt is priced at only £55 ($85). That's ridiculously cheap, and just goes to show what happens when you cut out the middlemen.
Much as I hate to gloss over The Sweatshirt when it's not yet been funded, I was interested to know what Tom has in mind for his next step.
"The 30 Year Sweatshirt is all I’m focusing on at the moment, but the Tom Cridland brand will eventually scale from just trousers and now The 30 Year Sweatshirt to include shoes, socks, swimming trunks and dress shirts. Each of these will be launched separately though, as special stand alone projects."
Modest as ever, Tom neglects to mention that his Kickstarter has a stretch goal (for those of you unaware, if a project does amazingly well, further rewards and products become unlocked) that takes another staple and gives it the Cridwell treatment: the 30-Year T-Shirt. Now that's an interesting idea...
As you can probably tell, I'm extremely excited about this product. It's everything we like about ethical fashion: fast-moving, disruptive to the broken old ways of doing things, and blending the best of ancient and modern techniques to create a garment that's a real investment. You have until July 15th to support Tom and his new venture: at the time of writing he's just over 10% of the way there with 26 days to go to hit his funding goal.
This is the point where you can really help to support ethical fashion, enabling a young designer to create something beautiful, durable and sustainable. If my maths are right, and if Tom's assurances as to the long-lasting appeal of the garment are true, your £55 investment means you get The Sweatshirt for under 2p a day.
I don't think you can call that anything other than a bargain.
Get over to Tom's Kickstarter page to find out more about the 30-Year Sweatshirt:

Wednesday 17 June 2015

The Volvo Safety Jacket: the way forward for cycle safety?

An interesting sidebar in ethical design is coming out of Sweden, inspired by car manufacturer Volvo. They've sponsored a competition with the London School Of Fashion to design futuristic clothing, taking cues from the new XC90. One of the winning entres might just save lives.

It's a jacket for cyclists that includes some innovative safety features. In three strands--Commuter, Competitive and Weekender--the students have created clothes that incorporate reflective fibres and piping, left and right turning indicators and even group tracking to allow a peleton wearing the clothes to communicate with each other.
There's a lot of thought in these new jackets, and Volvo certainly seem to be trying to do the right thing by cyclists in showcasing these new designs. It's not even their first foray into the field. The company recently launched a product called Life Paint, a reflective spray which allows cyclists to easily make their clothing and bikes visible.
But there are problems with Volvo's move towards cycle safety. For one thing, Life Paint is non-permanent, lasting one week between applications. With no proper release date as yet (so far it's had a limited roll-out as a freebie in a selected few bike shops, making it nearly impossible to get hold of) there's no way of knowing if it's anything more than a marketing ploy.
Cyclist groups remain unconvinced by Volvo's strategy, saying it's a move by a car manufacturer to shift the focus on road safety firmly onto the cyclist. The awful truth is that almost all bike-related fatalities in London this year have been through collisions with HGVs in broad daylight--conditions in which Volvo's innovations would have been no use whatsoever. Mikael Colville-Anderson of Copenhagenize Design points out the double-standards at play:
"Where are the Volvos of the world promoting motorist helmets, reflective paint on cars, airbags on the outside of cars that the Dutch have been working on since 2007 and yes, health warnings on cars, etc?"
This is not to downplay the achievements of the students, or to claim that cyclists shouldn't take their fair share of responsibility for staying safe on the road. It's nice to see cycling clothes that don't make you look like a day-glo bubblehead. But, with no indication of the Volvo Safety Jacket being anything other than a prototype, and with no details on pricing, it's no surprise that many commentators think that Volvo are steering cyclists into a dead end.

Thursday 11 June 2015

REMAKE The Connection Between The Maker And The Clothes.

There's an clear divide in our thinking when it comes to the clothes in our wardrobe. They appear on the racks of Primark or M&S, we buy them, we wear them. We don't think about the people at the other end of the process. The ones who make the clothes in the first place.
That dissociation is part of the reason that fast fashion has become so prelavent in our world. We don't see clothing as a crafted item, more as a product spat out of a machine. If that were to change, then perhaps we would be a little less blasé about buying an item, wearing it once, then chucking it away.
REMAKE is a recently-formed consultancy aiming to reconnect us with the people who make our clothes. Working with major brands like Levi's, they're trying some innovative new ideas to make the business of apparel production more focussed on the well-being of the artisan at the heart of the process.
For example, by organising trips for brand executives and headquarter employees to the factories and communities who make their products, they're helping to find tangible ways to enhance the well-being of workers and their families. The idea is to put a face to the person that stitches the clothing, packs it, cleans it. When that happens, we can't help but empathise. With that empathy comes the willingness to make their lives better, entwined with the understanding that there are real business benefits to having a happy workforce. Simply put, a reasonably modest investment in worker well-being ensures workforce loyalty, less disruption and and a bounce in production.
In a recent piece for their website, REMAKE spoke to four garment workers in Haiti, who make clothes for some of the biggest names in American fashion. The stories that Guerrier, Maud, Bruce and Celestin tell are typical of the people that work in the big clothing factories. They work hard. Perhaps their families depend on the tiny income they bring in to keep going. They live in conditions that are close to poverty, in shacks and tiny rooms. They have very little. But they have hope for the future, and make the very best of what they have.
Of course they have wishes. But they ask only for simple things. Access to medical care and education for their loved ones, the chance for their children to do better in life than they have. It's almost heartbreaking. But it's also important that we see and hear these people, so that maybe we can use our influence and power to do a little better by them.

Please read the interviews with Guerrier, Maud, Bruce and Celestin on the REMAKE website. It might help you to rethink the people behind your clothes.

Tuesday 9 June 2015

After The Ice Bucket Challenge

It was the social media phenomenen of last summer. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were full of videos of people dumping buckets of iced water over their heads, and then challenging their friends to do the same. Everyone was at it: pop stars, politicians, pundits. It raised the awareness of a hitherto little-known and little-understood disease into common knowledge, and raised a lot of money in the process.
It was the Ice Bucket Challenge, raising money for Motor Neurone Disease (better known in the US as ALS). And, as we come up to the first anniversary of its launch, the question is: what happened next?
Let's look into the successes of the Challenge. Over the course of a couple of months it raised $115 million for the cause, with over $11m coming in on a single night, August 20th. In the UK £7m came into the coffers. For American charity ALSA, there was a flood of donations that totalled a five-fold increase on their annual income. That kind of windfall can turn an organisation's head.
After the noise, the silence. As the cool weather set in and the prospect of upending ice water over one's head became less attractive, the donations ebbed to a more manageable level. The staff of charities like ALSA could step back, take a deep breath and figure out what to do with the money. The die-back of the campaigning and the disappearance of ALS from the public eye was a good sign. There was a lot of work to do.
The tragic thing about ALS is that there's no real cure. The best we have at the moment is a drug called Rilutek, which can allievate symptoms by a couple of months. Most charity work focusses on running clinics that help with palliative care, treating the symptoms and trying to make patient's lives comfortable as their bodies quietly fail them. But there's a huge hole in funding into research. The money from the Challenge will help, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to what's needed. Getting a successful treatment into the hands of doctors can cost billions.
70% of the money raised by the US Challenge is going directly to research, with some promising studies into stem cell therapy. There's a big question as to why Stephen Hawking, probably the best-known ALS sufferer, has survived for so long. Is there a genetic predisposition that has allowed him to keep going long after most people with the disease are gone? With money to spend, perhaps that question can finally be answered.
But that money won't last. Most of the funds earned have been allocated and spent. This summer, there will be a second Ice Bucket Challenge, helping to keep the momentum going. We can only hope that people will view the return of the event in the way it's intended, and not as an attempt to cash in on last year's fad.

There's a very good Guardian article on the Ice Bucket Challenge. You should read it.

Friday 5 June 2015

Altogether Now: How Collective Action Might Save Fashion

An article I recently dug up on the Ethical Fashion Forum provides plenty of food for thought for all of us that want to see real change in the fashion world.

Last year's Impact Economy Symposium in Switzerland brought together thinkers and advocates from across the spectrum of the ethical fashion world with a single purpose--how do we change things? Or, to put it in more accurate terms, how do we create viable sustainable supply chains? It's a thorny road, littered with potholes. But there are practical steps that can be taken to make it through the woods and out into a brighter future.

Dr. Maximillian Martin has written for the Ethical Fashion Forum outlining the roadmap to ethical sustainability in the fashion industry. The whole thing is a fascinating read, but let me parse out a few of the key points.

Firstly, and probably most importantly, if we carry on as we are now, more incidents on the scale of Rana Plaza are inevitable. We've already seen factory fires that have killed dozens of people, and the knock-on effect of the Nepal earthquake on poorly-built factory buildings in Bangladesh is one that government observers are treating seriously.

Meanwhile, unrest from workers who are seeing the benefits that collective action can bring are grinding factories to a halt in most of the hot zones of fashion production. Unions are seeing a surge in membership, but workers are also using technology in the form of social networking to see if they would be better off moving to other factories. Fluid workforce numbers are forcing factory owners to think creatively about the relationship between management and employees. Sadly, in some cases this has meant using their government contacts to call the police in to quell protests.

And of course, the industry is notoriously polluting. The director of The True Cost documentary, Andrew Morgan, has accused the apparel sector of being the second most toxic to the planet after oil.

It's blatantly, laughably obvious that things have to change.

Martin calls this "shifting from a nineteenth-century model of abuse to a twenty-first century of viability". To do this, he envisages some fairly radical step changes. Chemical input savings of up to 20 per cent, energy savings of up to 40 percent, and water savings of up to 50 percent. Sounds great. But how do we achieve it?

Pretty simply, by encouraging investment in modern methods. There is a small but increasing number of model factories that are implementing the "merging of cutting edge knowledge from a variety of fields such as chemicals, next generation manufacturing, information technology and financial engineering into one scalable, cost effective approach." These test beds are showing real benefits in increased profits and output while cutting emissions and improving worker/management relations.

Initial costs are, of course, off-the-chain huge. But you have to invest in the future to have one in the first place. There is no one player in the fashion game that has the money to make this happen, so Martin sees a consortium of interested parties. A kind of League of Fashion Nations, pooling resources for the common good. Taking a cue from the factory floor, using collective action to make a real difference. Which sounds nice but a bit hand-wavy hippy love-fest... except that the Symposium got a lot of big names talking seriously about doing exactly what what was proposed.

Money has to be at the hub of this. Persuading the big players of the benefits of investment in modern methods of production and management of every resource from workers to power, is the key to giving the fashion world the boot up its expensively-clad butt that it so badly needs to move into the 21st century.

Read Dr. Martin's full article over at the Ethical Fashion Forum.

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Justice At last For Rana Plaza?

Two years after the Rana plaza disaster, in which over 1,000 people lost their lives, warrents have finally been issued. The owner, Sohel Rana, has been charged with murder. He's not alone. In total 42 people, including a dozen government officials have been arrested in conjunction with the crime. Also indicted are the owners of several factories housed in the building.
So why has it taken so long for the Bangladeshi justice system to creak into action? Accusations have flown of corruption, of police in the pockets of vested interests. In fact, factory owners in Bangladesh are powerful enough to influence government policy. And investigators have privately admitted that their efforts have been hampered by officials that have done their best to make sure certain figures are not charged.
But the fact is that an industrial accident on this scale is enormously complicated to properly investigate. Investigators have taken statements from over 1,200 witnesses, from injured factory workers to structural experts. The full story may never come out, but it now seems clear that the building had three extra stories added without proper safety checks.
Arrests on this scale and at this level of Bangladeshi life are unprecedented. But international outrage and attention has kept the story alive, and made sure that this one isn't being brushed under the carpet. We're still a long way from seeing Mr. Rana and his co-defendants in a courtroom. And the notion of justice when applied to the multinationals involved in the case seems to have vanished. At one point charges of culpable homicide were being levelled at the likes of Gap and Walmart. No longer, it seems. And let's not forget that many families of the deceased are still waiting for fair compensation.
Nonetheless, this is a major step forward that has sent shockwaves through the upper echelons of Bangladeshi society. This is not simple scapegoating. This is a move that could fundamentally rewrite the way the vitally important fashion sector does business in the country. When business as usual means unsafe working conditions, something drastic needs to change. At last, that might be the case in Bangladesh.