Thursday 28 July 2016

Who Really Pays For Cheap School Uniforms?

The school holidays have started, which means that, to the despair of kids everywhere, the shops are full of Back To School specials. That's the last thing they want to be reminded of during the long weeks of summer, surely.

A price war has kicked off around the most important item of any new school year: the uniform. Most supermarkets are offering full uniforms at prices that are not just knock-down, but fall-off-a-cliff. As The Guardian reports, if you shop at the right store, you can kit out your little darling for as little as £3.69.

Now, we've been down this road before. Long-time readers will remember the furore over the 99p dress, for example. Price wars are all about publicity (that Guardian article helpfully give a full lists of what shops are offering which bargains) and they're part of the dark art of getting customers in the door so they can spend more. Cheap school uniforms are a loss leader, timed to hit the shelves at the perfect point where worried parents are looking at the expense that comes with new gear for the new year. Anything that helps cut the price at the checkout is welcome.

The ethical cost is a different matter, of course. Encouragingly, consumers are becoming more savvy about how their cheap clothing items are sourced. There's an opportunity here. School uniforms can become a great educational tool. A gentle way of getting kids thinking about the thorny subject of global supply and demand, and how the people who make their clothes need to be paid and treated fairly.

Schools can help in more practical ways as well, by pointing out the places where parents can buy ethically sourced uniforms. They may be a little bit more expensive, but they're also more likely to last until your kids actively grow out of them. Second-hand and exchange schemes are also a great way of keeping uniforms in circulation and out of landfill.

I'm not saying that the cheap school uniform is a bad idea, of course. Morrison's offering has a 200 day guarantee on it, for example, which is hardly the action of a shop that doesn't have confidence in the quality of its wares. But, as ever, it's important to realise that cheap clothing has hidden costs. It's always worth asking how the supermarkets can afford to sell a full uniform for significantly less than a fiver, and who may be suffering to make British parents' lives that little bit cheaper this summer.

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Justice, Finally, For Rana Plaza?

It's taken years of effort, but last week arrests were finally made that could bring the people behind the Rana Plaza collapse to justice.

A court in Bangladesh has formally charged 38 people with murder in connection with the catastrophic failure of the Rana Plaza building, which killed over 1,000 people back in 2013. The principal accused in the case is the owner, Sohel Rana.

A total of 41 people face charges. Six are still on the run, and will be tried in absentia. Another four are accused of trying to help Rana flee the country. He was arrested after a four-day man-hunt, and was caught attempting to cross the border into India.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building has been seen by many as the spark that lit new fires under the ethical fashion movement. Dozens of dangerous factories have been closed thanks to the efforts of the Bangladesh Accord On Fire Safety, which was founded as a direct response to the tragedy. New focus has been placed on the clothing factories of Bangladesh, who have wrangled low wages and light-touch safety legislation into a $28bn industry. It's been a boon to millions of Bangladeshi, but the collapse of Rana Plaza, and the less well-known tragedies that came before and still continue around the garment sector are still troubling.

Of course, the notion of justice is meaningless to the families of the Rana Plaza victims, who have lost mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Without income, they're still waiting for compensation from the multinational brands that allowed Rana and others like him to make huge profits off the backs of exploited workers. You can't put a price on the loss of a beloved family member. It's almost mind-boggling that companies like Gap and Walmart, so clearly implicated, would not step up and do the right thing by these families.

Rana and many of his fellow accused face the death penalty if found guilty of their crimes. You have to wonder, though, how much that really means to the victims of one of Bangladesh's biggest man-made disasters, and whether there can ever be any true sense of closure when it's clear that the companies for whom they made clothing value their lives so cheaply.


Tuesday 26 July 2016

Is It Céline, Or Is It Zara?

We talked last week about Zara's nasty habit of copying the work of independent artists in order to keep up with the fast-fashion need for constant turn-around of new product. But it seems that both the Inditex brand and one of their competitors, Mango, are are also taking cribs from the look books of high fashion brands.

There is, of course, a fine tradition of brands copying brands. This is why, season on season, the shops are filled with the same kinds of clothes. Fast fashion has done a very good job of emulating the look of luxe fashion, and getting it onto the high street at a fraction of the price.

But, as my new favourite read The Fashion Law points out, brands like Zara are not just grabbing the clothing–they're taking the look and feel of the advertising as well.

A particular focus for the most sincere form of flattery seems to be French brand Céline. Over the past few years Zara has been cribbing hard from their style of cool, minimalist advertising. For the 2015 F/W collections, both brands featured split-image ads with a model on one pane and an item of clothing or accessory on the other.

It's also more than coincidental that the fast fashion brands have started using models who are a strong part of the image of high fashion names. In late 2015, Céline signed newcomer Karly Loyce for their spring 2016 campaign. Not long afterwards, Karly also appeared in ads for Zara. If you can't get the name, a lookalike will do. Mango signed Steffy Argelich for a look book that apes the mood of a recent Chloe campaign. Steffy is the spitting image of Chloe campaign model Antonina Petkovic.

It's important to note that there's nothing illegal in any of this, and it's hardly the first time that cheaper brands have sought to emulate the look and feel of more expensive products. This is something that Aldi have down to a fine art, for example. It's about making the connection and, the brands would argue, giving the fashion fan on the street a taste of luxe branding at a tiny percentage of the cost of the real item. This is a vital part of the fast fashion business model, and as long as Zara, Mango et al evoke the feel and look without actively selling knockoffs, then there's little that Céline or Chloe can do about it. Of course the tailoring and quality of fabric won't be anything like as good, and the items probably won't last the season and will go in the bin. But that's not Zara's problem, right? Just another part of the game...

Our View: the fast fashion chains often dance on a thin line when it comes to copyright infringement. The model they've set up–of constant change fuelling constant demand–means that they have to cast a very wide net to feed the ever-hungry design machine. Inspiration can and does come from everywhere. They're pretty clever at staying on the right side of that line, the occasional high-profile stumble aside. It's just a shame that they can't use that cleverness to come up with their own ideas.


Friday 22 July 2016

Art For Art's Sake, Money For Zara's Sake

Ethics in fashion can be a slippery business. We've talked for years about the poor treatment of migrant and third-world workers, about environmental abuses. But there are other, more heinous examples of poor ethical practice. These, like so many of the problems with fast fashion, can be blamed on the model itself.

Fast fashion relies on constant turnaround of new product. We're not just talking about seasonal changes. Week on week, fast fashion chains are refreshing their product lines, making sure there's always something new to entice customers in through the doors. The ideas and designs for those products can't just be mass produced. They have to come out of someone's head. Which is why the big stores often find it quicker and easier just to copy someone else, add a couple of tweaks, and get new items onto the shelves quick smart.

Tuesday Bassen, an indie artist with a pretty solid reputation, was made aware through her fans on social media that global fashion giant Zara has been doing just that. An illustrator by trade, she's branched out over the last couple of years into selling enamel pins and brooches based on her designs. Tuesday says:

“My company was borne out of my editorial illustration career, when I decided to pursue products as a way to connect directly with illustration lovers instead of art directors. In late 2015 I began making LA produced clothing based on my original illustrations. Since then, I have been featured in several major publications, including an article in Teen Vogue about being one of the New Faces of Feminism.”

But last week she was made aware that badges with designs very much like hers were popping up on clothes made by Zara. She reached out with a cease and desist order. Zara's response was, frankly, jaw-dropping. They rejected her claim as her work was too simple, and that as she didn't have the global marketplace of the Zara group, customers would not recognise the work as coming from her. In other words, she was too tiny a presence for her complaint to have any weight.

There's a fairly extensive takedown of that position on The Fashion Law website. But Zara (or rather Inditex, the parent company) seem to be confusing copyright and trademark protection. It seems pretty clear that Bassen has an almost watertight case to claim damages from the fashion giant.

And she's not the only one. A dozen other artists working in a similar style have also come forward with examples of their work appearing on plagiarised items from Zara stores. Perhaps Inditex thought that the fast turn-around model meant the badges would be in and out of the store so quickly that the artists wouldn't notice. In this case, they seem to have misunderstood their own customer base, and the ever-observant, ever-connected kids that make up such a large part of it.

The last word goes to Tuesday, who plans to pursue further legal action against Inditex:

“I felt incredibly disheartened that Zara essentially said, ‘We're a giant corporation and you're an independent artist, so you have no base and can't do anything because comparatively no one knows about you.’ I hate that I've had to spend thousands of dollars to even get that response and that Zara knows I'm essentially powerless because I have less money to defend myself than they do.”

Our View: this is a story that tells you a lot about the fast fashion giants, and their disregard for anything that stands in the way of profit. The Tuesday Bassen story has rightly blown up over the past few days. Let's hope if we can't persuade stores like Zara to do the right thing, then they can at least be publicly embarrassed into doing so.

One last point: does anyone think that Zara is the only big brand doing this? Keep your eyes peeled for the designs of your favourite artists on new clothing lines, and ask if they know that their work is being used, and if they are being fairly paid for it.


Tuesday 19 July 2016


Here at The Pier we're big fans of Bite-Back, the marine conservation charity that's serious about sharks. They've been instrumental in cutting the number of UK restaurants serving the controversial shark's fin soup, and do brilliant work to enlighten and inform us about one of the sea world's most misunderstood creatures.

Bite-Back head Graham Buckingham is a man on a mission, and he'll never face a challenge sitting down. Until now. Actually, it's probably better if I let him explain...

I’ve never asked for sponsorship before because I've never done a marathon, 10K or even a park run. And for good reason. I like sitting down.

So imagine my excitement at the prospect of completing a marathon-like challenge while sitting down?

The concept alone prompted me to sign up to the Prudential Ride London event in July and cycle 100 miles in one ...err ... sitting.

However, it turns out that the 100 mile course covers much of the 2012 Olympic route and will take around eight hours to complete. That’s eight whole hours pedalling at an average speed of 13mph. On a tiny saddle. Ouch.

Chances are that I won't be as keen on sitting down by the end.

He's a braver man than I am. The Prudential Ride London event takes places on July 31st, so there's plenty of time to drop him a few quid of sponsorship money. Your cash will go to help Bite-Back continue their work, and take shark off the menu for good.

At the time of writing, Graham's just at the halfway point to his £1000 target. Why not help him hit the finish line in style?


Monday 18 July 2016

Garment Workers Fight Back!

We all know about worker exploitation in developing markets like China. Or at least, we think we do. What if there was an opportunity to get the real story from the people on the factory floor who make the clothes for some of the biggest brands in the world?

Next week, we have that chance. War On Want is running a tour of speakers across the UK, in which workers and activists in the garment trade tell their stories, and celebrate their victories.

China does not allow independent trade unions or conform to international regulations that protect worker rights. Strikes and protests by workers struggling for their rights are routinely crushed by the government. But against all odds, workers are fighting back.

Groups like Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) and Worker Empowerment have made extraordinary leaps forward in exposing the free ride enjoyed by fashion brands, building a movement of workers aware of their rights on the factory floors of China.

For example, SACOM's undercover investigations of fashion giant UNIQLO exposed the grim working conditions facing workers, and demonstrated that what the brand had said about how they treated their workers was a lie. Within months of their report's publication, they had forced UNIQLO to take corrective action in investigated factories which helped thousands of workers to attain fairer working conditions.

The all-woman panel of speakers, which includes representatives from SACOM and Worker Empowerment, are calling for supply chain transparency and urge international solidarity in pushing brands to make their factory suppliers public. With high street names like UNIQLO hiding their supply chain, it is nearly impossible for local groups in garment producing countries to expose working conditions. Yet, against the odds, the stories are starting to come out.

The tour stops in London, Glasgow, Newcastle and Manchester, and is a must if you want to find out more about the burgeoning worker's rights movement in the Chinese garment industry. Tickets are free.

Find out more at the War On Want site:


Thursday 14 July 2016

There's Mush Room For These New Fabrics...

The quest continues for new alternatives to the most polluting and simultaneously popular clothing materials on the planet. Cotton, even in its organic form, is thirsty stuff, and dependent on pesticides. Leather needs highly toxic chemicals in order to be tanned–these can find their way back into water tables. In an ideal world, there would be much safer and more sustainable alternatives.

Researchers across the globe have recently come across a promising lead in the search for a cleaner alternative in the shape of the humble mushroom. Quick and easy to grow, sure. An essential part of the Full English Breakfast, arguably. A replacement for shoe leather or the cotton in our t-shirts?

Well, maybe not quite yet, but the research is very promising. For example, Danish product designer Jonas Edvard has developed a product called Myx. The fibre is created from mycelium–the base layer on which mushrooms are commercially grown. Once its done the job, mycelium is usually thrown away. But Edvard mixes it with hemp and linen waste, byproducts of clothing and rope production. The end result is a stable, strong fibre with all kinds of uses. The mycelium gives Myx a resilient structure, helped by the natural occurrence in the material of chitin–the stuff that makes crustacean shells so strong. Low cost, environmentally friendly and making virtue out of waste products? These are all benefits we applaud highly here at The Pier. Hooray for Myx!

Over in Italy, R&D gurus Grado Zero Espace have come up with MuSkin, an entirely vegan alternative to leather. Made from mushroom caps and tanned without recourse to toxic chemicals, MuSkin is tough yet pliable and easy to adapt to all sorts of potential uses. Think of a material that has the texture of suede, but a much softer feel.

GZE have noted MuSkin's ability to absorb moisture and are looking to use it in items like shoe insoles and watch straps. It's also breathable and water repellent, so they've started making hats out of the stuff. They don't mention how easy it is to scale MuSkin up for commercial applications, but it's exciting to see how versatile it could be.

Our View: many of the materials we depend upon for our everyday clothing needs have been with us for a very long time. In fact, skins and furs would have been some of the first clothes we'd have ever worn. So it seems only right that in the 21st century we should be looking for alternatives. The old saying goes 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' As cotton and leather are so rough on the environment, we'd say it's past time to look for a new solution.


Tuesday 12 July 2016

Charities Need To Go Mobile

Charities are seeing massive drops in their donated revenue over the past few years. There are all sorts of factors in play that could explain it, from austerity to a general sense of mistrust over the sector as a whole.

But this isn't the whole story. We are a charitable nation. Just look at the huge amounts we give every year to funds like Comic Relief, or how generously we respond to disaster relief appeals. Or the explosion in fundraising sites like JustGiving. We're happy to give to a worthy cause. What's changing, more often than not, is in the way we choose to donate.

Let's look again at Comic Relief and disaster relief funds like DEC. The one thing they have in common is how easy they make it for people to donate. When it becomes as simple as dropping a text to give a fiver to your favourite cause, the excuses not to put your hand in your pocket start to disappear.

Using PayPal or phone apps has another advantage: they erase the barrier between your wallet or purse and the purchase. Consider: when you have to dig about for loose change or pull out your cash roll, you have the opportunity to think about what you're doing. Every second spent on fetching money is a moment when you could think 'actually, no, I don't want to do that.' This is not what fundraisers want to happen. Why do you think so many TV ads end with the words 'do it now'? Don't think, just give.

These are common retail lessons that many charities seem unable, or unwilling to learn. But it seems foolish when it could make the difference between sink or swim for them. It seems crazy, when so many of us live on our phones, that charities are not taking advantage of new fundraising opportunities.

Paul De Gregario, head of mobile at Open Fundraising, an agency that works with some of the biggest charities out there, makes the point loud and clear:

We need to make the act of giving as frictionless as possible. The future of fundraising and technology is firmly embedded in our phones and how we use them.”

The story behind the charity, meanwhile, can be as important as the method by which we donate to them. The growth in vignettes that Comic Relief does so well, those mini-stories that focus on the people behind the appeals, bring the reason to donate home to people. Using YouTube and video apps to tug at the heartstrings, with a clickable link to a donation site at the right moment, is a powerful way to get the public donating. None of it is tricky to do. All it needs is a board of trustees willing to take a punt on new methods.

And this is just the start. Gamification of charitable donation could be the next big thing. The news this week has been full of stories about the newest Pokemon game, which gets people out on the streets to catch their favourite beasties using Augmented Reality. Imagine a situation where you could do the same with a charity game, winning prizes that drop micro-donations to a chosen charity. It's proven that gamers are more than happy to spend real money on virtual wares. Why shouldn't a tiny percentage of that cash go towards good causes?

Our View: It's an exciting time to be working on new methods of charity giving. A little imagination and the willingness to make the process a fun one could level, or even reverse the plunge in donation levels.

Monday 11 July 2016

Forget The Euros: Here's The Homeless World Cup!

For the next five days, Princes Square in Glasgow is home to a remarkable and inspiring event. This week, the Homeless World Cup has come to Scotland, as over 500 players from across the globe unite using the universal language: football.

Homelessness is a dreadful situation that affects millions of people across the globe. Its effects are more far-reaching and debilitating than you might think. It's not just about shelter. It's about the stability and sense of identity that comes from having your own space. It's about knowing that, whatever else happens, there's a place where you can feel safe.

Without that security, homelessness can force people into isolation, which affects their ability to share, communicate their thoughts, and work with others. It's a dreadful downward spiral, which is shockingly easy to fall into.

So how can football help? Pretty simple, really. You see, the whole point to The Beautiful Game is that it's something you can't play by yourself. When a homeless person gets involved in football, they build relationships; they become teammates who learn to trust and share. They have a responsibility to attend training sessions and games, to be on time, and to be prepared to participate. They feel that they are part of something larger than themselves.

This brings on a sense of empowerment, and with that the strength to see that there's a way forward, and just maybe, a way out.

The Homeless World Cup has become a huge success since its foundation in 2011. With 73 National Partners involved in social welfare programs working in over 420 cities across the globe, the Homeless World Cup Foundation has become a real force for good.

The World Cup in Glasgow is bringing together teams from street football programmes all over the world. This July, homeless people who would normally be invisible are set to become heroes on the pitch, finding new conserves of inner strength, determination and the will to succeed. The games are fast-paced 15-minute matches, and although there are seperate men and women's team trophies, women can compete on male teams.

The Homeless World Cup is an amazing example of how something as simple and universally understood as a game of football can help to transform lives. Why not check out the games and become a supporter?


Friday 8 July 2016

Spread The Light With Harry Potter

There's been a lot of grim news around lately, so it's time to spread a little light. If you're a Harry Potter fan (I hear there are a few of you out there) this will be of interest.

Spread The Light is a meeting of minds and hearts, as twenty different Potter fan sites and YouTube channels are joining forces to raise funds for the Anne Rowling Clinic. This was set up by author JK Rowling in memory of her mother, who died at the tragically young age of 45 from multiple sclerosis.

Set up by Michaella Katz of Always JK Rowling and Pedro Martins of Potterish, the notion of Spread The Light is simple. The campaign invites fans to become an inspiration in the same way that JK was to them.

For many people, fandom is more than an appreciation of a book, film or series. It's a way of connecting with like minds, and building friendships that reach across generations and continents. Fandom is a powerful force and, when harnessed for good, can work miracles.

Michaella explains:

I don’t think I truly realised the extent to which the Harry Potter fandom had become my home until I began to work on Spread the Light. As I worked day in and day out creating it with dear friends from all around the world, it became clear that that this magical fandom held more than just words and movies. It also made me look at J.K. Rowling in a whole new way. Rowling and her books have given us the magic to help others and find a home together as Potterheads. From our hard working fundraising team to the wonderful people supporting our fundraiser, I can now say, without a doubt, magic exists and I am so honoured to be a part of it!

So far Spread The Light has raised money for Rowling's own charity, Lumos, which helps kids in orphanages. This summer, they're starting a fresh campaign for the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic, based at Edinburgh University. The clinic researches all sorts of neurological diseases like MS, working towards a way to slow the progression of an unpredictable disorder that can cause everything from dizzy spells to blindness.

The new campaign, boosted by the renewed interest in Potter that comes from the new West End play Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, has a number of cool prizes on offer. Signed DVD box sets, photos and books are up for grabs in a prize draw. If you're a fan, this is a great way to spread a little light in a world where darkness seems to be gathering on the horizon.


For more information, hop on a broomstick and head over to the Spread The Light website:

Wednesday 6 July 2016

Broken Rainbow

It looks like 2016 has its Kid's Company moment. LGBT domestic abuse charity Broken Rainbow went into administration on June 3rd. Running a helpline which was the only one of its kind in the country, the small charity worked using a handful of staff and volunteers. Nonetheless it punched well above its weight, earning endorsements from major figures like Sir Ian McKellen, and received hundreds of thousands of pounds in grants from public funds.

But, as BuzzFeed News reveals, Broken Rainbow was frequently down to coppers in the bank account, and often dropped into the red. The charity owed thousands in back taxes, struggling to cover basic expenses like salaries.

Despite this, CEO Jo Harvey Barringer lived the life of a high-flying executive, travelling first-class to Edinburgh from the charity's London offices, and claiming the fares back on expenses. This on top of a salary that, although part-paid by another charitable foundation, still totalled thousands of pounds a month. Many charges seemed to have little to do with the running costs of Broken Rainbow: everything from razors to birthday cards was claimed back. And grants from major beneficiaries like Comic Relief were spent within days–sometimes within 24 hours of landing in the charity's account.

Accusations fly from ex-employees of Broken Rainbow of a culture of bullying and intimidation, which at one point led to Harvey Berringer's suspension. But, according to them, the blame lies as squarely with the trustees of the charity as the divisive head. A damning indictment from one employee:

"the trustees didn’t really understand what they were doing”.

An inability to control spending led to an almost laughable situation where Broken Rainbow were operating out of serviced offices at costs running up to £2,500 per month and merrily throwing cash on catered lunches and meals out while being unable to pay tax bills. Donations that were supposed to be spent on the core aim–keeping the helpline afloat–were diverted into train fares and expensive gifts. When, as one employee claims, a pot of pennies from school kids was used to help pay for yet another trip to Edinburgh, the writing was on the wall for Broken Rainbow. The charity was running on fumes. Soon, it stalled completely.

The comparisons with Kid's Company are undeniably persuasive. A strong and charismatic CEO, a weak board, no sense of financial oversight. And of course, government money thrown into the pot with no questions asked on how it was being spent. This is a terrible example of good cash thrown after bad. In an environment where charities are trusted less and less, the last thing the sector needs is another organisation crashing in the same way, and leaving the people that need it so desperately in the lurch, as Kid's Company. Broken Rainbow's helpline is being folded into another LGBT organisation, but serious questions need to be asked about how one of the UK's most unique charities managed to fall apart so needlessly.


Monday 4 July 2016

The Most Vital Weapon Against Fast Fashion: Education!

It's all too easy to make noise about ethical fashion, but we live in a noisy world. Shouting is one thing, but education is a much smarter way to make sure that future generations understand that the current fashion model is broken. And that there's a lot they can do about it.

Let's talk about the kids. They've grown up in a world where fast fashion is the norm. Many school-age kids have never known a time without Primark or Zara. But they've also been born into an age where information is available at any time, whenever they need it. And they know how to communicate. People my age think Facebook and Twitter are the nuts, but for the so-called millenials these vectors are like rotary-dial telephones. They're smart, and super-connected.

Which means that kids today have a lot of power when it comes to influencing the future of fashion, as creators and consumers. But how do we educate them to be the thoughtful, informed citizens of the fashion-verse that we'd like to see?

An article earlier this year on The Note Passer has a ton of great tips and resources to help us all give school-age kids the information they need to make the right choices. A couple of examples:

The appearance of documentaries on different aspects of fast fashion mean that there's great materials out there to watch and discuss afterwards. The big one, of course, is The True Cost, easily available on Netflix. It provides a solid overview of the whole scene, and asks some serious questions. But films such as Udita! which follows the rise of garment worker activism in Bangladesh, or Unravel which explores how we have come to discard millions of tons of perfectly usable clothes every year are really useful as well.

It's also important to look at the culture of materialism through which fast fashion has found a solid foundation from which to grow. Kids are swamped by adverts, taught how to "bargain-hunt" and encouraged to spend whether or not they actually need the clothes they're buying. By unpacking the message and the manipulation, we're able to give kids the tools to be able to make more informed choices, and even to walk away with their money still in their pockets.

All of this is vital, but one point that The Note Passer makes is key. In order to educate our kids, we have to know what we're talking about. They'll be full of questions, and can sniff out bull at a hundred paces. So it's vital that we educate ourselves as well. If we're serious about giving our kids the tools they need to navigate a complicated issue, we should know how to use them as well. Honesty is important though: it's ok to say you don't know. In fact, sometimes it's better to find out about the important issues together.