Friday 28 August 2015

Tencel: The Wonder Fabric!

A lot of people in the ethical fashion game bang on about organic cotton as if it's the only game in town. While cotton grown without pesticides is a boon to sustainability, the crop is still thirsty and hard to grow. We're better off lessening our reliance on the fluffy stuff altogether.
Of course, there are alternatives. One that's proving to be a game-changer in the ethical fashion game is Tencel. A trademark of Lenzing AG, the science-name for the material is lyocell. It's a product of wood cellulose–the stuff paper is made from. With a couple of tweaks to the treatment process, you end up with one of the most sustainable fabrics around.
Lyocell is sourced mainly from eucalyptus trees, which are fast-growing and quick to regenerate. I should know: I had one in my back garden, and the damn thing shot up like a rocket. The woodpulp gathered from eucalyptus is washed in a solution of amine oxide, which breaks it down to a slurry which can then be air-dried and stretched until it becomes a fibre. That fibre can then be spun and woven and hey bingo, lyocell.
It's what's called a regenerated fibre, needing a few more processes than cotton or silk, without being entirely manmade, like nylon. Lyocell's natural origins give it a number of additional benefits. It's wrinkle-resistant, has moisture-wicking capabilities, and takes on dyes so readily that you need far less to get a strong, vibrant take of colour. It's strong, and naturally snow white in colour, which means it doesn't even need bleaching. And by treating the short surface fibres in different ways, it can mimic other fabrics–not just cotton but linen, silk and even suede!
Best of all, lyocell boasts a closed-loop production technique, where the non-toxic chemicals used to produce it can be fed back into the system. There's very little waste, and no nasties make it out into the wider ecosystem. In short, if you're after a natural, sustainable fabric with which to make clothing, you need to look no further than lyocell.
Tencel has been making its way into the marketplace for a little while now, and can be found in a wide range of clothing. It's especially good in sports-wear and basics. Keep an eye out for the Tencel logo the next time you're out shopping. You'll know you're buying clothes made with a supremely sustanable fabric. And that's good for everyone.
Of course, we have a range of basics made using Tencel here at The Pier.

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Upcycling For Modern Dandies

I'm fascinated by the way young designers are starting to look at material that would once have been considered to be waste, and using them to make new, fresh products. Take Kelly-Dawn Riot, whose new sustainable range of menswear is sourced from the humblest of materials.
Formication is a collection of boldly colourful clothing that harkens back to the last great era of dandyism–the sixties and seventies. The range uses scraps rescued from Scottish textile mills, as well as natural linens and cottons. But Kelly-Dawn doesn't stop there. The bright colours and patterning of her clothes is achieved using eco-friendly printing techniques. No nasty chemicals needed.
Kelly-Dawn says of the process:
(it's) more eco friendly than other traditional printing techniques as it uses water soluble inks and a printing process which only uses the pigment necessary, alongside this it does not use screens which means no harmful chemicals are needed to expose screens unlike traditional processes. I also used engineered prints to insure only the necessary amount of pigment and fabric was used leaving no waste fabric or ink."
The patterns she uses for her fabrics are inspired by naturalist illustrators, whose ideas gave her the impetus to create what she calls "wearable works of art." Buzzing with detail, she wants the owner to come across something new every time he puts on the item.
Her education (she's a recent graduate of the Glasgow School of Art) has clearly informed her work, but Kelly-Dawn is just as influenced by mentors like upcycling guru Orsola De Castro. She says:
"Working with de Castro probably had the biggest impact on me. She really opened my eyes to how much damage the fashion industry is causing to our planet and highlighted horrifying disasters like Rana Plaza in Bangladesh and the disappearance of the Aral Sea basin. After exposing myself to this side of the fashion industry, sustainability was something I had to move towards. My conscience wouldn’t have let me do otherwise if nothing else."
De Castro's influence was more far-reaching: it was her idea to start looking at textile mill waste. What Kelly-Dawn found made the whole project worthwhile. Not only were the mills more than happy to let her have the waste, but the material was of exceptional quality. With that, and Orsola's encouragement, she knew that there was a chance to do something interesting.
Winner of the Scotland Re:Designed New Talent Award, which introduced her to de Castro and helped her get funding through Zero Waste Scotland, Kelly-Dawn is taking a great idea and making something bold and beautiful with it. The clothes might not be to everyone's taste, but the modern dandy in your life might just find it's the perfect thing for that next soirée.

For more on Formication, check out Kelly-Dawn's blog:

Friday 21 August 2015

Let's Get It Startas

I'm not going to lie to you. It has not been the greatest of summers. Ok, there's been a bit of sun, but overall it's not been t-shirt and flip-flop weather, has it?

Which means, for those of us who find casual is best, jeans and sneakers has been the look of the season. Which, of course, come with their own set of ethical pitfalls. Denim is notoriously water-wasteful–although research is ramping up nicely into ways to make the process less thirsty.

When it comes to footwear, you don't get more ubiquitous than the Converse Chuck Taylor Allstar. Recently revamped for the 21st century with a ton of new features, you see them everywhere. And although they're not bad in an ethical sense (parent company Nike have a surprisingly good record on CSR) you can do better.

Startas + Co began making canvas shoes in Croatia in the 1930s. Through turbulent times and giant geopolitical shifts, their factory in Vukovar made shoes that were iconic throughout Eastern Europe. Clean lined, pure and sharp. A look that defined the times.

In the early 90s, the factory sadly closed as the Berlin Wall fell and borders shifted. But now Startas + Co are back, with the same focus on quality and style at a great price. More importantly, they are produced to strict ethical and sustainable guidelines. Completely vegan, made in the same factory that Startas started in, the shoes are handmade from natural materials. Quirky design touches like differently coloured laces and detachable bows mean that Startas shoes stand out from the wannabes in this crowded market.

The company's recent UK launch focuses on women's shoes, with a curated range of classic looks. If you want to see more, they'll ship to the UK from their international site for a fee. The men's shoes have a certain sunny Euro-flair that I find quite pleasing.

Look, we might get an Indian summer yet. It's not quite time to haul out the heavy boots. If you're in the market for a pair of ethical and quirky bumpers to see you into the autumn, Startas + Co could be just the thing you're looking for.

Here's to the sunshine.

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Is It Time For American Apparel To Drop The Sexy Ads?

An absolutely fascinating article in the Journal Of Global Fashion Marketing (yes, such a thing exists) gets to the heart of the fundamental disconnect that can happen between a brand, its advertising and its customers. Particularly when your advertising can be a bit on the controversial side.
American Apparel are well known for their well-priced, good quality clothing, but more specifically for the direction which their advertising has taken over the past few years. An increasingly sexualised approach has featured barely-disguised innuendo and barely clothed models, some of which are better known for their careers in adult film. It's a daring approach, which seemed to be working for a while. But as the JoGFM points out, no longer.
They compared reactions to AAs edgy advertising on ther Facebook page to those of a competitor who is also known for controversial campaigns: Dolce & Gabbana. D&G have been featuring a "sexy housewives" branding for the past three years. Surely a little behind the times, and ripe for a social media skewering. Right?
The results were eye-opening. AA's ads were described by visitors to the page as "sleazy," "tasteless", "trashy" and, more uncomfortably, as promoting "sex slavery/sex-trafficking." D&Gs ads, on the other side, featured female characters that the audience saw as "strong", "confident" and "empowered". Ouch.
The strange thing is, of course, that AA have a great history of featuring their strong ethical background in ads. As one of the few multinationals to produce their clothes in the US using local workers who are well-paid and treated, AA don't really need to go down the controversial route. The JoGFM are equally bewildered, saying: would seem to be wise for AA to cease its inappropriate marketing campaigns and focus on ethical marketing claims. It is perhaps time for the company to consider its social responsibility role from both an ideological (e.g. AA’s sweatshop-free claims) and a utilitarian ethical viewpoint (e.g. financial productivity through ethical claims and brand reputation) in order to balance corporate social responsibility and profitability.”
With the departure of AA founder Dov Charney (under something of a cloud, it has to be said–he's under indictment for multiple claims of sexual harassment) maybe it's time for AA to really push their solid ethical credentials. Those are, after all, the reason why we stock them here at The Pier (although the range we carry is slightly different to retail and we can't sell them uncustomised). AA do the best basics out there in a way that many other fashion retailers would do well to copy. Push that, and pay attention when your customers tell you that your ad campaigns are a turn-off.

Friday 14 August 2015

Could A White T-Shirt Save Fashion?

This week, to lighten the gloom over the state of the charity sector, I tried to find some more inspiring stories to tell. I came across a doozy. MA student in Fashion Media Production at the London School of Fashion Dino Bonacic has written a passionate piece about his new appreciation for sustainable fashion over on, logically enough, the Sustainable Fashion blog. It's well worth popping over to read the whole piece, but there are a few points Dino makes that I want to tease out in slightly greater detail.
First of all, Dino nails the problems with the fashion industry in a single sentence. He has a very clear idea of the primary concerns that anyone interested in ethical fashion has to face. He says:
I wasn’t feeling happy with everything that had surrounded me in terms of fashion – ridiculous pacing of trends, a blind plague-like exchange of information, and the overcrowded conveyor belt feeling that current fashion gives.
Bingo. If anything, things are getting worse instead of better, as brands like Zara and Primark develop micro-trends, designed to be put on the shelves and sell out in a single run that can be here and gone in a few weeks. Never mind seasons: we're working on a monthly basis now, with no thought given to build quality. Make and sell the product cheaply, with the understandng that the customer will be back for more of something different. That pace is clearly unsustainable.
Fashion students are often accused of working in a bubble, encouraged to pursue a single vision with no thought given to further impact. It's inspiring to see that the MA Dino is studying for insists on collaboration. Working as a team enables a whole new set of skills unavailable to the individual designer, and the end results are all the stronger for it.
Dino's work cleverly focusses on one of the simplest and most iconic of fashion items, one that many of us would not consider to be fashion at all: the white t-shirt. His series of short films Confessions Of A White T-Shirt teases out the processes at work behind an item most of us have in our wardrobe. Dino says:
In this case, the white t-shirt plays a symbol – as a piece that’s extremely cheap for our wallet, we don’t necessarily think about the price for the environment. We consider the t-shirt as simple, blank and interchangeable while it’s everything but that – it’s powerful, meaningful and emotional.

Dino's work is thoughtful, critical without being judgemental, and always ready to explore a different perspective. It's great to see students of his calibre coming out of the great fashion schools. It makes me feel a little bit more hopeful about the future of ethical and sustainable clothing.

Wednesday 12 August 2015

After Kids Company, Things Can Only Get Worse For Charities

The Kids Company horror story has focussed our attention on charities, and not in a good way. But it also highlights a more worrying trend–one that we've been talking about here at The Pier for a while now.
The notion of David Cameron's so-called Big Society–that charities, volunteers and the public sector can work together to help the most vulnerable people in the country–has foundered against a couple of stark economic barriers. Firstly, as government cuts to the council purse bite ever deeper, there's less and less money available for publicly run services. The assumption is made that charities will pick up the shortfall, especially in areas where councils have no legal remit to provide help.
But charities themselves are facing an economic meltdown. The top five UK charities, including Save The Children and the RSPCA, have reported a 5% drop in donations in the last five years. Meanwhile, they've seen cuts to government grants rise by 11%. In other words, they are being asked to do more with 16% less.
The difference becomes most obvious when you look at charities dealing specifically with vunerable young people, like Kids Company. That part of the Third Sector saw government funding drop by 18% in the same period, generally because they're an easy cut from stressed local council budgets. Charity heads are starting to wonder whether it's worth even bidding for government contracts any more. In a report for the Guardian, Cathy Evans, the head of Children England, laid out the stark reality:
“It’s really not adding up any more. Some organisations have remoulded themselves so are very fit to tender and even they are not seeing enough value in the contracts to make it worthwhile delivering them. This market model is running up to the buffers because there is no profit left.”
Note two important words there: profit and value. Charities are businesses, like it or not. They have to pay the bills and their staff. They have running costs, which include fundraising so they're able to keep the lights on. Sure, they need to make a profit, which gets rolled into p[erating costs for the following year or new and bigger projects to help the peopple under their care. You cannot run a charity without money, and anyone who thinks otherwise is deluded. Our View: charities are more successful and more able to do their job when they have the right people for the job, and these highly skilled people do not come cheaply.
To make matters worse, donations are also dropping off a cliff. This is thanks in part to the toxic image charities have gained over the past few years. People have come to view essential fundraising activities like street team and phone work as a nuisance, and charities themselves as spendthrift, paying over the odds for premises and staff. There is a lot of talk in comments under articles on charities about "value for money" and "bang for your buck". In other words, people want charities to behave like businesses, but refuse to connect with the fact that businesses need money to deliver. Meanwhile, an increasing number of small operations are shuttering, putting their caseloads back in the lap of a public sector that's unable or unwilling to cope.
Here is the vicious cycle, as simply as I can put it. Charities need money to operate. That money comes either from donations or grants. When grants dwindle, they have to do more fundraising. The public get sick of constantly being asked to donate, and drop their contributions. The money vanishes. The charity closes.
David Cameron came to power with a credo of "compassionate Conservatism." If this is what he meant, he can keep it.

Thursday 6 August 2015

The Fall Of Kids Company

Up until recently, many observers of the charity sector would have viewed the youth support charity Kid's Company as a raging success. Its charismatic founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, had the ear not just of the press but the Prime Minister, who wholeheartedly supported the cause. Donations rolled in from City investors, and high-profile friends like Coldplay, who gave £8million to Kids Company. In 2013, estimates pegged the charity's income at a little over £23million.
All that money has gone. Reports note that Kids Company employees had not been paid since May. The only reason that their July paychecks went through was because an emergency grant supplied for restructuring was instead dipped into for day-to-day running costs.
Meanwhile Batmanghelidjh has been forced to leave Kids Company–her departure was a major condition of the new grant going through. Disturbing stories are emerging about the "help" that the charity was providing to the vulnerable kids under its care, and allegations of abuse at its South London premises are also coming out of the woodwork.
The real story of what went on at Kids Company is yet to emerge, although the horror stories of deprived kids treating the place as a bank, popping in once a week to grab envelopes of cash, are eye-bulging stuff (for more on that, I recommend Harriet Sargeant's article in the Telegraph). Batmanghelidjh's insistance on using discounted and in some cases Victorian-era thinking on the neurological links between poverty and abuse to guide the work Kids Company was doing haven't helped the cause either.
Things are only going to get worse, as Kids Company announced it was closing its doors on Wednesday night. Batmanghelidjh's golden touch has soured, and her pal David Cameron, who waved through that final loan despite objections from the Department of Education, has remained silent on the fall of his favourite charity. So too has his gaff-prone Minister For Civil Society, Rob Wilson, whose office deals particularly with charities and the voluntary sector. There's more to this silence than embarrasment at the connection with a failed charity, though.
The fall of Kids Company is yet another nail in the coffin of Cameron's prized Big Society. As a favoured partner, Batmanghelidjh was vocal in her distaste for the way traditional children's services were run. She collaborated with the Evening Standard in 2014 on a project callng for root and branch redesign of the system. In the article accompanying that launch, Kids Company was described as an organisation that "essentially mops up the mess social services fail to deal with." A bit rich, as the partnership between charities and the public sector was the whole point of Cameron's great vision. And of course, as the charity shutters, a fairly huge mess has just been dumped back into social service's lap.
Once again, we see how the notion of the Big Society founders when placed under real-world scrutiny. Kids Company was reliant on public money, and had major issues both financially and with its entire mission statement. Yet it was held up as a paragon of the way two sectors could work together. It's saddening that many charities that aren't headed by a founder with the connections, political nous and sheer charisma as Batmanghelidjh have been overlooked for funding, while the government continued to pour money into a black hole.
What all this means for the kids of South London who were under the care of Kids Company is worryingly vague. We should not applaud the fall of the charity, but its failure has implications for the Third Sector as a whole, particularly in the light of increased scrutiny into the way they raise funds. If David Cameron's favourite charity couldn't make it, what chance do the rest of us have?

Tuesday 4 August 2015

31 Bits: Building Communities

There's been a lot of talk in the press about refugees and asylum seekers over the past couple of weeks. But the simple fact is that these people are a tiny fraction of a major problem: the displacement of people from their homes and liveliehoods thanks to war. Take, for example, northern Uganda.
Since 1986, when Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army began tearing a bloody swathe through the country, about 1.8 million people have been relocated within the Ugandan borders. They've mostly gone into Internally Displaced People's Camps (IDCs), which clamed to offer a level of protection against the ongoing conflict. In reality, these camps were little better than prisons, and conditions behind the fences worsened badly over time. Disease, poverty and malnourishment became the norm, and there were few opportunities to leave.
Over the past couple of years, the situaton has improved, and people are being allowed out of the camp. However, in many cases there's little left for them at home. Many IDC residents are moving on, looking to find new opportunities to make a life for themselves and their families.
They are being helped by charities like 31 Bits, who are helping women in the District of Gulu in the far north of the country, to finally take charge of their own destinies. They are beng trained to create papercraft jewellery, using materials that would otherwise go in the trash. But more importantly, they're being given a framework to economic stability.
I've seen a lot of charities like 31 Bits over my years writing for Pier32, but none with such a clear plan of action for getting the people under their care out of poverty. There's a strong underpinning of financial education. Many of 31 Bits' workers have never rally had money before. They need to learn about budgets, balancing ther finances, how to save for the future. There's also a strong belief in community spirit, in making sure that everyone is included–spouses as well. With that comes a focus on physical and mental well-being. This includes psychologcal coaching and group sessions where the men of the community, so often marginalised in these initiatives, get the chance to talk about their contribution to family life.
The end goal is to build businesses that are self-sufficient and not reliant on the Western market. And that's important. If projects like 31 Bits are to succeed, it's with the knowledge that they're building strong communities that aren't depending on the vagaries of foreign trade. As domestic markets grow and money flows back into the country, then I think we'll see the true benefit of what's happening in places like Gulu. Soon, I hope, it will be known not as the ste of Joseph Kony's atrocities, but as a thriving hub for commerce.

Find out more about the work and the ladies of 31 Bits: