Friday 31 July 2015

Good News Friday

Wedenesday's post was a little bleak, so let's finish off the week with a couple of pieces of good news.
First up, EU member states have unanimously voted to extend the ban on a substance found in most clothing that has a negative hit on the marine environment.
Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are rinsing agents that are released from clothing when it's washed. It's been found to cause hormone disruption in fish, harming fertility, growth and sexual development. Though NPE has already been banned in the EU since 2004, the new legislation extends to imported textiles.
A 2011 study by Greenpeace found NPEs in two-thirds of a clothing sample it examined, including items from big name brands like Ralph Lauren and H&M. Although they stress that the chemicals pose no risk to human health, the new legislation is specifically aimed at protecting marine life and the aquatic environment.
Manufacturers grumble that as NPEs are so prelavent in the global supply chain, it's will be difficult to phase them out in the time scale that the EU have demanded. Our View: I'm sure they'll figure something out.
In client news, Sarah Howcroft of Gift Your Gear has been in touch. The charity has just won a major prize at OutDoor, Europe's most prestigious outdoor trade show. The Gold Award, which was given to 9 winners out of a field of over 300 entries, praised Gift Your Gear for its innovative approach, pointing out that reuse is a much more appropriate use for outdoor clothing than recycling. Sarah told us:
"The OutDoor Industry Gold Award to Gift Your Gear is a wonderful recognition of the importance and value of ‘reuse’ to the industry.
Gift Your Gear has provided unwanted outdoor clothing and equipment to over 350 UK community organisations, youth groups and charities working with young people in the UK outdoors. Recondition such as this helps in the general understanding of the real beneļ¬ts reuse can bring to the outdoor industry.
A big thank you to everyone who has supported Gift Your Gear and donated so generously."
This September, Gift Your Gear will once again be teaming up with Rohan to make the donation of your unwanted outdoor clothing even more simple. Just take it into any Rohan store, and you'll get a money-off voucher for new purchases. Our View: can't say fairer than that, can you?
That's it for this week. Have a great weekend.

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Tangled In The Global Web Of Fashion

A must-read article by Michael Hobbes in the Huffington Post takes a forensically-focussed look at the fast fashion world in 2015. His conclusions make for decidedly uncomfortable reading.
We are urged that one route to a more ethical shopping experience is to shop ethically–that is, to buy clothes with a clear provenance, where we can track the factories our items have passed through in order to make it to our racks. If we can't, then we're urged to boycott the obvious transgressors–the multinationals who save costs by farming out their work to sweated labour in dangerous working conditions.
The trouble is, that narrative isn't just flawed: it's backwards and missing some important parts of the puzzle. The fact is that most multionationals have robust inspection regimes in place, and comply to all sorts of international standards. But for the most part, they have no real idea where or by who their clothes are being made.
As lead times for new ranges shrink, the suppliers to brands like Nike and Walmart are farming out work to smaller factories, who in turn are sub-contracting that work to outfits down the chain, that can come down to home workers. These mom and pop operations frequently pull the kids into the mix as well. In places like Bangladesh, where legislation against child labour is spottily applied, there's no way to stop an 8 year old sewing your new set of yoga pants if she's doing it next to her mum in the kitchen.
This practice is standard in the new world of fashion we've built, and it relies on a web of supply that only gets more complex the more you look into it. Most factories no longer deal directly with the brands. They work with middle-men, who are giant conglomerates themselves. Megasuppliers like Li and Fung supply everyone from Disney to Spanx, and have a billion-dollar turnover. They take the orders and the work ripples down, from factory to workshop to kitchen table. It's impossible to track, and therefore impossible to regulate. The megasuppliers have their own standards and inspectors, but frequently report back after the orders have already been filled, and there's no guarantee that the next order will be fulfilled in the same way or at the same factories.
Perversely, it's the multinationals that are doing the best work regarding worker standards these days. Stung by twenty years of bad publicity, they have set up training for management, and enabled better communication between them and their staff. You're almost better buying from them than from a small concern, who can only afford to send their work to a smaller factory whose paperwork may be in order, but who have figured out how to fib to inspectors when they arrive for an audit. If they ever see them. Bangladesh has 125 labour inspectors, with responsibility for 75 million garment workers.
This all sounds terribly bleak, but change is happening. We should not expect a quick fix, or that by not buying that new pair of Converses we are somehow saving a child from a lifetime of perury and sweated labour. It doesn't work like that. The key, if pilot schemes in Brazil are to be believed, is to focus on core suppliers and compel them to sign up to honest working standards. Consumer advocacy simply won't do the job. Modern fashion is far more complex than that.
Enough from me. Go read Michael Hobbe's article, and see for yourself what we're up against.

Thursday 23 July 2015

The Green Carpet Collection

We're all aware, I hope, of Livia Firth and her Green Carpet Challenge. The eco-fashionista has been using her Hollywood contacts (helped just a little by film star hubby Colin) to get sustainable designs into the public eye by showcasing them on the red carpet of premiere screenings. With stars like Bond girl Naomie Harris to help, Livia has given ethical fashion a real boost of glamour.

Now she's moving things up a notch. Working closely with designer Erdem Moralioglu, whose signature style of powerful femininity locks in with the GCC message, a 12-piece range of garments celebrating the best of both worlds will be launched at a special event during London Fashion Week in September. It's the first time GCC clothing has been showcased at one of the highlight events of the fashion year.

Livia is known for only working with designers that get the importance of the sustainable message. Previous luminaries of the Green Carpet Challenge include Stella McCartney, Gucci and Christopher Bailey. But Erdem has excelled himself, ensuring that the collection, made entirely with reused, surplus or sustainably certified materials, complies with exacting GCC standards.

Livia says:

"To be awarded the GCC brandmark is alone something we are so proud of, but the fact that this year it will be created by the wonderful Erdem is hugely exciting. I have always loved his designs and his use of texture and colour. The Erdem woman has values that marry so beautifully with the Green Carpet Collections – it’s a perfect marriage of ethics and aesthetics."

This is a significant step forward, and moves the Green Carpet project out of the bespoke and into the realms where those of us that don't have a Hollywood-level budget can wear and enjoy the pieces. I think the September launch of the Green Carpet Collection is going to be one of the hot tickets at London Fashion Week. That can only be a good thing for ethical fashion. It makes the explicit point that sustainable practice doesn't have to be boring or worthy. When done with a little flair, it can bring out the A-List.



Tuesday 21 July 2015

Band Together To Find Out More About Man-made Chemicals In The Air

I'm sure there are a couple kicking around in a drawer in your house somewhere. Who knows, maybe you're even wearing one right now. The brightly-coloured silicon bracelet, mainstay of charities and causes across the globe. Cheap to make and buy, easy to wear, almost ubiquitous.

Because of their universal appeal, enterprising minds are starting to see if the silicon bracelet can be used for anything other than declaring your support for a cause, an event or a group. I recently invested in a Kickstarter for the Flip Band, a double-sided affair which is designed to help with motivation over a particular task. Red on one side, green with a big tick on the other when you've done that thousand steps, or words, or calories a day.

But researchers at Oregon State University have gone a step further. They've discovered that the chemistry of the bracelets can be altered to detect chemical compounds in the air–over 1400 of them. Now, in association with a start-up called MyExposome, they're opening that tech up to the public.

When treated with a solvent, the band's altered chemical structure acts like a biological cell, absorbing the materials in the air around us. And there are a lot of them. Volatiles in everything from fragrances to caffeine, pesticides to pet products. The results can be an eye-opening shock, as MyExposome head Marc Epstein revealed...

“The specific change is that I’ve started trying to buy fragrance-free products. Why? Because I now understand that many of those lovely smells in shampoos / soaps / colognes / etc… are not essential-oils but rather they are man-made chemicals. For example my wristband detected both Cashmeran and Galaxolide (neither of which I had ever heard of) and one of which (Galaxolide) is classified as a PBT (Persistent, Bioaccumulative, and Toxic). I’m trying (with some difficulty) to avoid products with fragrances.”

We live in an age where many of the chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis have unknown or uncertain side-effects. With air pollution on the rise, it makes a great deal of sense to be able to monitor your own exposure to potential toxins in the environment.

There's a down-side, of course. The bands and, more importantly, the analysis, don't come cheap. You're looking at just under $1000 to be able to wear one for a week and get the gen back on what you've been exposed to. And then it's down to you to do the research on whether the compounds in question are dangerous are not. As international guidelines on any one product and what level of exposure is dangerous can vary from one area to the next, MyExposome have wisely decided to stick to a neutral list of ingredients.

It's expensive, sure. But it's also early days, and a quick take-up of this kind of open, people-based science could be of real benefit and rapidly drop the price. Monitoring of the chemicals we're pumping into the environment depends at the moment on small samples of a tightly defined area. Increase the sample size and widen the area and we'll get a much more accurate result of the nasties that industry has decided it's OK for us to live next to.

Expect a cease-and-desist order on MyExposome any day soon from one of the giant chemical conglomerates...


Friday 17 July 2015

A Chokehold On Funding That Could Cripple Charities

There are twitchy times ahead for charities, as the public's relationship with them and the way they raise funds continues to sour.
It used to be simple. Charity boxes in the shape of guide dogs or kids with legs in calipers outside the newsagents. Perhaps someone with a red tin and a placard on the high street on a Saturday afternoon. Drop in fifty pence, and you felt like you'd contributed.
These days, charities are ever more inventive in ways to get us to give and keep giving. From TV ads to the Ice Bucket Challenge, sponsored walks to street workers with direct debit forms, it can feel as if you're constantly being asked to pony up for a deserving cause.
That's the feeling for a chunk of the general public, anyway, who are looking at charity cold-calling and street teams with increasing amounts of loathing. The Olive Cooke case has bought the issue into sharp relief. Olive, one of the British Legion's longest-serving poppy sellers, was found dead at the bottom of the Avon Gorge in May, following a newspaper article in which she had claimed she was suffering from depression brought on by the high number of donation requests she recieved. Some newspaper reports reported that over 270 such requests had come through her letterbox in a single month.
In the light of that, and the ongoing media furore (ever alert to the chance of a headline, even Prime Minister David Cameron has weighed in with a comment, setting his Minister for Civil Society onto the Fundraising Standards Board) public opinion has cooled yet further. A letter template requiring charities to stop cold-calling launched by BBC's The One Show was downloaded 18,000 times in a week. There are concerns that it's unclear how to opt out of a charity's subscription list, or that those lists are shared between organisations.
All of which leads to one conclusion: charities are out of control when it comes to getting hold of our money. Right?
There are very clear controls in place for how charities contact the public and opt-outs have to be in place on any communication by law. Horror stories like that of Olive Cooke inevitably lead to a spike in complaints from people who suddenly feel like victims of a pernicious cold-call culture, lumping charity calls in with PPI and utility suppliers as invaders of the sanctity of the English home. Worse still, this article in the Manchester Evening News lumps street fundraising in with unlicensed busking and even begging as nuisances that are to be cracked down on buy council officers in the busy Market Street area of the city.
It's possible that the Institute of Fundraising could become more involved in drafting and enforcing guidelines, but there is no clear sign that this is likely. Ministerial involvement is likely to be fleeting, fading away as soon as the cameras switch off.
But the damage has already been done. The increasingly poor image of traditional charity fund-raising has taken another hit, and leaves us with a worrying question. As the Third Sector is asked to do more to plug the gap in funding torn open by austerity measures, and at the same time are crippled in how they raise funds to do that work, how long will it take before charities start to fold and more and more vulnerable people are left out in the cold?

Tuesday 14 July 2015

How To Get A Start-Up Charity Off The Ground

In the current, less-than-supportive atmosphere surrounding charities (more on that later in the week) it seems strange if not downright bloody-minded to be kicking off a start-up focussing on environmental issues. But then Trewin Restorick, head of Hubbub UK, has never been one to take the easy route. He recently posted the story of the start-up on his LinkedIn page, and has very kindly given us permission to quote from it. Stories are always better straight from the source, don't you think? 

Trewin describes the launch of Hubbub as "a mid-life crisis". Up to then he had been the CEO of Global Action Plan–a comfortable, safe place to ride out the last ten years of his working life. But he was worried about the low profile of environmental issues, and he saw a gap in the market... and the narrative.

Hubbub grew out of a growing sense of frustration. The science on climate change is increasingly robust and bleak, yet the level of disengagement and scepticism within the UK remains high.  We are sleeping walking to a future which will give children less opportunities and greater hardship. 
Closer examination revealed there are virtually no charities – a sector which still has a relatively high level of public trust – communicating environmental issues to a mainstream audience in a way that is compelling and accessible.  It is this group that Hubbub is aiming to reach – people who have a nagging doubt that society is not heading in a great direction but who would never describe themselves as environmentalists.
The trick is, rather than talking in scientific or darkly gloomy terms, Hubbub UK try to engage people by applying the message to the things they care about–fashion, food, sport, homes and neighbourhoods. They set simple goals like 'ending food waste' or 'making clothes last longer' (we're with you on that one, Trewin) and, working in conjunction with the appropriate government department and think-tanks, build campaigns around those issues.

The first campaign #PumpkinRescue (we like a good hashtag) was inspired by the fact that 18,000 tonnes of pumpkin are landfilled every Halloween.  We brought together a myriad of local food groups in Oxford to create a Pumpkin Festival Over 2,000 people attended festival events and 800 turned up for a Disco Soup in the town centre feeding on warm soup created from food that would have been wasted.  National polling to get the public’s reaction to food waste combined with a wealth of celebrity pumpkin recipes resulted in extensive media coverage in the Sun, the Daily Mail, Vice Magazine and even a TV appearance on Moscow Today.  
We discovered that seasonal campaigns, run at times of year when more food waste is generated, are a great way to create a national debate.  Our Festive Freeze run with Marks and Spencer encouraged people after the excesses of Christmas to freeze food that would have been wasted.  The campaign was stimulated by research from Hallam University Sheffield showing that this simple act would save households £250 a year and could cut domestic food waste by half. 
It's a populist approach, but it has impact and more importantly, gets the average person thinking more carefully about issues like waste management that would turn them off if you called it ... well, "waste management", for example. These are the things that everyone needs to consider more carefully if we're to stop climate change having the catastrophic effect about which many scientists worry. The message needs to get out in the most effective way possible, and Hubbub UK might just have the approach that's going to work.

Trewin has a clear idea of how he sees Hubbub Uk develop, and he's baked them right into the founding principles of the charity.

The first is a desire to ‘open source’ everything we create making it freely available to organisations capable of using the resources to run their own version of the campaigns. Embedding this giveaway and share mentality runs counter to natural instincts but it is the only way change can be delivered at the speed and scale required. 
Secondly collaboration is core to achieving success.  We want to build relationships between unusual bedfellows involving multi-national companies, social enterprises, civil society and education establishments.  It is only by bringing these partnerships together that truly innovative and fresh campaigns will develop that have the authenticity and capacity to engage the mainstream.
Thirdly we want to create a new positive social movement.  We are encouraging people to register for free on our website and over time we will give them access to a growing range of sociable, fun and engaging activities that do good.  This network will be available to all organisations who share our ambitions giving them a place to test new approaches and fast-track development.
We're very happy to be associated with Hubbub UK here at The Pier, and wish Trewin every success with the onward development of the charity. We're here if you need us, sir.

Here's an earlier piece on a Hubbub campaign in central London:

For more on the charity, off to the website with you!

Friday 10 July 2015

The Import Ban That Could Ruin Local Trade In Africa

Do you ever wonder what happens to second-hand clothes that don't sell? Although Oxfam, Sue Ryder and the like are popular with those of us that like a vintage bargain, there are plenty of donations that never make it back out of the front door. A different fate awaits these garments. For the most part, they're bundled up and sold off cheaply to companies who redistribute them to Africa.
In fact, 70% of donated clothing will end up in markets in Kenya and throughout East Africa, where they form the core of lively local enterprise. Since the 1980s, when Western companies were first given the go-ahead to sell garments that had previously been donated and distributed for free, most people in East Africa own at least one item of clothing that started life in a British store.
That's a major problem for the indiginous textile industry in Kenya, for example, who have seem the figures for their goods go through the floor. Estimates show that the numbers employed by local mills have dropped by over 95% since the 80s. Which brings us to an interesting question facing the Kenyan government. Should they rely strictly on imports, or do something to help their textile industry to live again?
A conference scheduled for November that will be attended by the heads of states of most East African nations is expected to call for a ban on imported second-hand clothes. Their reasoning is straightforward–why should countries with strong traditions of artisinal skill in textiles be dependent on hand-outs of Western discards?
But that could mean the death-knell for markets across the region that rely on just those items. William Ng’ong’a, a used clothes merchant at Gikomba market in Kenya, said in a recent interview with The Guardian:
"I am in this business with my parents, I joined them 10 years ago just after finishing university. It’s the only work I know. I have a degree in commerce which I have never used, but I might be forced to fall back on it if the ban goes through. I am not particularly excited to have to join the overcrowded job market and become a paper pusher because I really love this job."
Markets like the one at Gikomba employ thousands of casual workers. All of them face the sack if the ban goes through, and few of them have a degree like William to help them find gainful employment. It's a tricky situation for all involved, with no clear villains or heroes. Everyone just wants to have the chance to make a living. Whichever way the decision goes in November, people are going to lose out.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

An Effortless Route To Ethical Fashion

An interesting piece was posted recently by Jen Pinkston, whose blog The Effortless Chic is well worth a read if you're into that breezy California look. Jen's not just your average fashionista, though–she writes thoughtfully and wisely on ethical fashion and the pitfalls in making it a part of your everyday life.
She's put together a framework for shopping ethically that's pretty achievable with a tiny bit of extra effort. More importantly, you might just save yourself some money if you take Jen's advice.
Here's a rough outline. Regular readers may notice some alignment with the arguments we've been putting here at The Pier for a more ethical outlook. It's good to get the word out through as many places as possible.
  1. Don't buy something unless you need it. What use is a garment that you pick up on the offchance that it might come in useful, only for it to take up space in your wardrobe?
  2. If you need it, try to find it used. Ebay is your friend here, of course, but second-hand stores are increasingly picking up on the thrifty trend, and there's a lot of good stuff in your local Oxfam these days.
  3. Buy ethically, if you can. This, annoyingly, is the tricky bit. It's often hard to tell how ethically an item has been produced. The general rule of thumb is that if a garment is crazy cheap (like the 99p dress I talked about last week) there's a good chance it has ethical no-nos somewhere down the supply chain. There are, of course, plenty of online outlets that will do the job, and Jen has a good list on her site.
  4. Support local and small businesses! They're more likely to have rolled ethical practices into their working model, for two reasons. It's great PR, and over the long run it's more cost effective, especially at the smaller scale at which these guys work. Smaller scale often means more care and attention is paid to your order as well.
  5. Finally, if after all that you can't find the item you need, then make sure you buy it with an eye to the future. If it's well made, it'll last longer, and look better. Think investment, rather than stopgap. Remember what Pier Crush Vivienne Westwood says: Buy Less. Spend More. Choose Well.
There's more on The Effortless Chic, so check out Jen's pearls of wisdom. You too can be looking as stylish as her in no time!

Friday 3 July 2015

A Big Night Out With The Big Issue

Finally, the warm weather is here, and we can cheerfully spend more time outdoors. Get on with some gardening, perhaps. Have a barbecue. Maybe, if we're feeling adventurous, we could spend a night out under the stars.
Of course, for hundreds of homeless people across the UK, there's no other option. Rain or shine, winter or summer, they spend most of their time without adequate shelter. Our friends at The Big Issue want this to change, and they want you to help.
By joining them in a sleepover.
The Big Sleep Out, an annual event that's been taking place since 2012, gives you the chance to experience a night under the arches of a railway bridge in Vauxhall. It's not going to be a party (well, it might turn into one, even though it's a dry event) but it will give you a very particular insight into the problems every homeless person faces when they want to get their heads down for the night. The Big Issue puts it like this...
Whatever the weather on the day, this atmospheric venue will be cold, dark and different and there will be rumblings of trains above while we sleep. Sleeping out in the tunnel won’t be comfortable, so we definitely recommend that you bring some warm clothes and a sleeping bag to wrap up in and some cardboard to sleep on!
There'll be chat and some live music (see, I said it could turn into a party) before the lights go out. Previous attendees of the event have described the experience as "haunting" and "eye-opening". A safe, warm and comfortable place to sleep feels like such a simple, commonplace thing. Taking that away, even for one night, can really give you a different perspective on homelessness.
The Big Sleep Out is taking place on August 7th. To sign up, or to find out more, go to The Big Issue's Big Sleep Out page.
And don't let the bedbugs bite.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Why a 99p dress is bad for fashion

There's been quite a bit of fuss over the past few days over a simple one-piece dress. Made of elastene and viscose, it's a figure-hugging design that comes in a broad set of colours and sizes. Why all the interest?
The designers, OMG Fashion, are selling the dress for less than a quid.
There's already been some kickback as to how a dress that sells that cheaply can possibly be made without resort to sweated labour. OMG, who are based in Manchester, robustly deny any claims that their clothing is being made unethically. They say:
"It's manufactured in Leicester and bound by UK laws. It costs us more than 99p to buy this dress, we are clearly making a loss, it is a PR stunt. The dress is made in the UK."
There are plenty of sweatshops in the UK, but let's take OMG's word that they're doing the right thing. One thing's for sure. As an exercise in PR it's drummed up a lot of attention. Good Morning Britain host Kate Garraway posted a picture of herself in the dress, and it's been all over the press. The quote that made the point for me, though, was one from Kirsty McCrum of the Daily Mirror on the quality of the dress...
Made from 95% viscose and 5% elastane, it's clearly not for girls who enjoy natural fibres close to their skin, but at that price it may persuade buyers for a one-time wear.
And therein lies the problem. The dress is clearly designed to be a disposable item. Let's do the maths. You'd struggle to buy a newspaper, a bar of chocolate or a loo roll for 99p. These are use-and-chuck items. Once again, it shores up the idea of fast fashion as a "wear-it-once-and-bin-it" philosophy.
The last thing we need is more clothing in landfill, when millions of tons of unwanted clothes end up at the tip every year. I have the feeling that, flimsy as OMG's dress is, it's not biodegradable. That would be something worth celebrating. Wear it once and compost it? I'm all over that idea.
There's a market and a need for cheap clothing, but why make it as throwaway as a pair of paper overalls?