Tuesday 29 November 2016

Time To Give Back On #GivingTuesday

We've finally got through Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Both of these 'holidays' are unadulterated celebrations of greed, as we're encouraged to spend, spend spend. All this on the run-up to Christmas, which is the most commercialised holiday of them all. The message seems clear. The holiday season is all about conspicuous consumption.

One small ray of hope is the beacon of Giving Tuesday. It's a chance for you to ease your guilt at the excesses of the weekend just gone, and those to come, by offering up something that can't easily be bought or sold... your precious time.

The idea is simple. Pick a cause. Offer to volunteer for a set time. A few hours can make a real difference. There's no time limit, or cut-off date. Donate what time you can, and volunteer when you like. Just show up, and find how simple and fulfilling giving back can be.

Last year, last year people from 12 countries came together to donate over 3,500 hours to important causes including refugee empowerment, education and freedom of expression. Let's see if we can improve on that this year. Let's face it, 2016 has been a tough one for all of us. It's little gestures like this that can help us find our way back to the light.

If you'd like to join in, look up #GivingTuesday on social media, or head to bitly.com/GivingHours to pledge directly.

Friday 25 November 2016

Why Is It Taking So Long To Make Bangladeshi Garment Factories Safe?

Three years after the Rana Plaza disaster, a regulatory body in charge of implementing root-and-branch safety changes in Bangladeshi factories is not doing its job. Worse, it's passing factories as safe when work has yet to be completed.

The Guardian has revealed that an independent survey into the factories used by the Alliance consortium, an organisation of retailers that include Gap and Walmart, shows that nearly two-thirds are still not up to code. 62% of factories surveyed have neither working fire alarms or proper fire doors. Nearly half have major structural issues that have not been corrected.

The Alliance Consortium has now pushed back a self-imposed deadline to complete the work needed on these factories to 2018–which just happens to coincide with the end of their agreement to carry out that work. There's also contention as to what constitutes completed safety work. The independent survey, undertaken by a group of observers that include the International Labour Rights Forum, the Worker Rights Consortium, the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Maquila Solidarity Network, consider that of the 107 factories considered to be "on track", an astonishing 99 were still falling over on at least one aspect of safety.

The authors of the report note:

“The Alliance has never offered any justification for the decision to ignore its own safety deadlines. Nor has the Alliance explained why it is responsible to allow factories four years to carry out life-saving renovations that should have been completed in less than one, while still labeling those factories as ‘On Track’.”

For their own part, the Alliance dispute the findings. Director of the Consortium James Moriarty was bullish on progress:

“We in the Alliance are doing something that has never been done before. We are taking an existing industry that is seriously flawed and trying to correct it from scratch. The assertion that we could get all this done in one year is frankly ludicrous to anyone who has an engineering or safety background and understands the past state or the current state of the industry.”

James does have a point here. The Bangladeshi garment industry is one built quickly on highly questionable safety standards. It's unsurprising that those standards are so low, and building something that will ensure there's no repeat of Rana Plaza should not be cobbled together. Nevertheless, everyone wants results. Should we be concerned that the Alliance seems to be dragging its heels? Or do we take it on faith that doing a good job will take longer than originally anticipated?

Sadly, I guess we'll have to wait and see. But as ever, scrutiny and transparency can only help to keep those in charge of worker safety in the Bangladeshi garment industry on their toes and, at least nominally, on schedule.

Thursday 24 November 2016

Patagonia Does Black Friday Right

A fascinating sidebar to our earlier post about Black Friday alternatives also ties into concerns about the President-elect of the United States and his views on climate change (although these, like so many of his pre-election stances, seem to be changing by the day).

Outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia has been a long-time warrior in the fight against global warming. So they knew that the fight was really on once they heard the news that climate change skeptic Donald Trump was heading for the White House.

This Black Friday, Patagonia are taking a stand. They will donate all of their sales generated on that day to grassroots environmental groups. Over 800 organisations across the US are set to benefit from the gesture. And this is not chump change–Patagonia expects to clear over $2million in sales on Black Friday through their 80 stores and online.

Corley Kenner, global communications director for Patagonia, said:

"Following the election, the idea was generated internally as a way to demonstrate our deep commitment to environmental issues."

Meanwhile, a statement released on Patagonia's website draws a line in the sand:

"During a difficult and divisive time, we felt it was important to go further and connect more of our customers, who love wild places, with those who are fighting tirelessly to protect them."

Patagonia's stance can only be applauded, and other companies are already starting to follow suit. These are dangerous times, and it's important that everyone, from the business community to the conscious consumer, makes it clear that Trump's values are not ours. This Black Friday seems like the perfect time to start.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Step Away From The Black This Friday

One of the few American-style celebrations that hasn't made it across the Atlantic kicks off this week. Understandable, really, when you consider what Thanksgiving commemorates. However, the immediate aftermath of the big November holiday–the commercial gotterdammerung known as Black Friday, has started to gain traction here in the UK.

Now, there is an argument that Black Friday deals are a handy money-saver for Christmas presents. But for the most part, it's more a moment for untrammelled consumerist overkill. And frankly, the deals just aren't that great.

An increasing number of sustainable retailers and awareness groups are taking a stand against Black Friday, and putting their own twist on proceedings. They're taking the onus off taking, and back onto giving.

For example, outdoor eco-retailer United By Blue are launching Blue Friday, and inviting people to use the day wisely–by clearing a pound of trash from shorelines and waterways. By taking a few minutes to fill a trash bag, you'll be doing your bit to help keep the world a slightly more beautiful place. It's also a great way to work off some of that post-turkey bloat. Check out United By Blue's website for more deets on how to contribute, and maybe win a free mug!

United By Blue's Blue Friday

Meanwhile, Brighton is the place to be for Bright Friday, a day of events and fun that show how the consumerist message can be sidestepped in favour of something a little more sustainable. From textile workshops to a comedy showcase, there really is something for everyone.

Bright Friday also marks the launch of Faux, the world's first satirical fashion magazine. This will be rolling out nationwide. Keep an eye on #BrightFriday on all your favourite social media vectors for more info.

It's all too easy at this time of year to fall into the consumerist coma and spend, spend, spend... often needlessly. It's worth taking on the advice of Bright Friday and rolling it into your future relationships with the shopping fairies.

1. Resist the pressure of buying things you don't want or even need. Remember, the best bargain is not buying stuff you didn't want in the first place.

2. Rekindle love for what you already have.

3. Create memories rather than buying them by trying something you've always wanted to do.

I don't know about you, but that sounds like a fun blueprint for the retail-heavy weeks ahead.

Friday 18 November 2016

You Can't Compost Clothing

A fascinating article in Magnifeco takes a stern line over an innocuous term - biodegradable. It turns out that the idea of natural materials easily breaking down when returned to the environment is not always the case.

A prime example is that of ancient relics, such as a 5,500 year-old shoe found in Armenia in 2010. Made from leather and stuffed with grass, the item is completely organic. Yet here it is, millennia after it was made, still recognisable as a man-made item. They knew how to make 'em to last in those days.

When it comes to landfill, things get even more complex. They are specifically designed to keep out the air, water and bacteria that are conducive to biodegradability. In short, it's a great way to stop the process in its tracks. Which means that no matter what your rubbish is made of, in landfill it will stay in good condition for many hundreds of years. Sounds counterintuitive, right? But 'entombing' your trash keeps some of the nasty toxic byproducts of decomposition, a delightful cocktail that scientists call 'leachate', out of groundwater. Everything stays in suspended animation. Safe, but a huge waste of valuable land resources.

In short, throwing away clothing is a sure way to keep it in the ecosystem for longer. Always consider recycling or donating, and let your charity of choice decide the best way forward for your unwanted garms. And don't forget, if you follow the Pier mantra of Buy Less, Spend More, Choose Wisely, then you'll be hitting the recycling bins less often anyway.

Thursday 17 November 2016

Is Trump An Environmental Nightmare?

It's been a week since the shocking rise to the one of the most powerful offices in the world by former reality star and four-time bankrupt Donald Trump. There's a lot of worried people out there that wonder just what shake-ups are in store from the Orange One.

No group has more cause to be worried than the environmental lobby. Trump is a well-known climate change denier, claiming that global warming is a conspiracy started by the Chinese. A key promise that got him elected was the pledge to get coal mining restarted in poor rural areas. One of his first moves was to appoint Myron Ewell, a notable contrarian on the issue, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Hardly the actions of a man who believes that clean energy is the way forward.

How concerned should we be? In the Guardian, Michael Liebreich picks apart the rhetoric, and makes it clear that much of what Trump has claimed is going to happen simply can't.

For example, coal is on the decline in the States largely because of the threat from shale gas, which is nearly unlimited and considerably cheaper to extract. As coal reserves become harder to find, we look for alternatives. It's simple economic sense... which as a businessman Trump should be able to understand.

Regardless of his views on the EPA (he's referred to the Agency as "a disaster") he can't get rid of it without an Act of Congress, and he simply doesn't have the support there he needs to do that, despite the Republican control of both sides of the house.

With regards to clean energy–it's coming, whether Trump and Ewell like it or not. The technology is improving and becoming cheaper year by year. We're already seeing reports of the UK running completely on sustainable power for a few days earlier this year, and this trend is only likely to continue and grow. That growth may be slower without the US leading the way, but there's little he can do to clamp down on it. And of course, there are sound economic reasons for supporting clean renewable energy, regardless of his views on climate change.

There's an element of 'wait and see' around the Trump administration, as he comes to realise that promises made on the campaign trail do not automatically translate into policy. We should also note that Donald is not afraid of changing his mind on big issues–as recently as 2009 he co-signed a letter to President Obama extolling the virtues of clean energy. I wonder what's happened to change his mind... and what can be done to change it back.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

A Europe-Wide Plan For Sustainable Change

We need to get a handle on waste and sustainability in the fashion industry. Recent figures show that we throw away the equivalent of seven tonnes of unwanted clothing in the UK every ten minutes. The sector takes up five per cent of our carbon and water footprints, and is a massive hog on resources. We need a plan.

The thing is, we may just have one. The Waste And Resources Action Plan, better known to us as WRAP, have just signed five major clothing manufacturers to ECAP (European Clothing Action Plan), a Europe-wide initiative to reduce waste and work towards a more sustainable future. One name in particular stands out in the list of participants: Primark.

There are four main points to ECAP: designing and specifying products for longer life and closed-loop production; ensuring that less clothing goes to incineration and landfill; encouraging customers to buy less clothing and use it for longer; and improving innovation in resource-efficient design and service models to encourage business growth in the sector. All of these are fairly basic tenets in sustainable fashion. How long have we been talking about Buy Less, Choose Wisely?

The plan is for ECAP participants to divert 90,000 tonnes of clothing waste from landfill and incineration, save 1.6 million tons of CO2e, and make 588 million cubic metres of water savings. Help will come in the form of education into the current impact of their business models, and aid in development of new products using more sustainable resources.

Sarah Clayton of WRAP says:

“As the first participants of ECAP, these organisations are championing sustainable clothing across Europe. The wheels are in motion, but more can be done – we are looking to welcome and involve more brands, retailers, manufacturers, reuse and recycling organisations, charities and consumers in the plan to drive greater sustainability of clothing across Europe.”

ECAP aims to build on the success of WRAP's UK-based Sustainable Action Clothing Plan (SCAP2020), which has 82 signatories all working to reduce the environmental impact of the clothing industry. That plan has already had some astonishing successes–in the first year of operation, there was a 12.5% reduction in water impacts, and a 3% drop in carbon emissions.

Involving big names in an ambitious plan is great news, of course, but it remains to be seen how much of a success ECAP will be. But the will and enthusiasm to change from both business and government does seem to be in place. And that can only be a good thing.

Friday 11 November 2016

So Long, Lenny.

You'll forgive me, I hope, if I take a side-turning today. This tumultuous week has been capped off with the sad news of the passing of Leonard Cohen. A poet, author and song-writer of extraordinary ability, his work inspired romantics, dreamers and beautiful losers for decades. I include myself amongst that throng.

His work was, rich, layered and moving, of course. But there was a wry sense of humour there as well. When, in Tower Of Song, he growled "I was born with the gift of a golden voice", you knew this was a man who could never take himself too seriously.

Ah, that voice. It's strange listening to early recordings, when he sang in a pleasing contralto. We're more used to later Lenny, when his delivery deepened and sweetly roughened into an instrument of rare, dark gravity. It's almost tactile, the deep bass frequencies washing over you in warm, insistent waves. You can't help but be hypnotised.

His songwriting abilities will be forever lauded, but he had a way of using the most unassuming of instruments–cheap keyboards with tinny presets left untouched–to deliver music of true and lasting power. In other hands this would have been laughable. But Lenny always knew what he was doing. The instrumentation is not the song.

I was lucky enough to see him in concert once, on one of the tours he undertook after his retirement in a Buddhist enclave in California was ended with the news that his manager had embezzled away his songwriting fortune. What could have been a dreadful chore for all involved was, instead, a truly joyful evening. Lenny was energised, powered by an adoring crowd into a three-hour set that became increasingly the norm. He was in his late seventies at the time, performing with the stamina of a man half his age.

I've always said when I grow up that I want to be Leonard Cohen. Now he's gone, I realise what a foolish notion that is. No-one else could be who he was, or do what he did. He was tenacious enough to hold on and deliver one last album, a meditation on mortality called You Want It Darker. One last gift for us. But then, he was always a gentleman that way.

So long, Lenny.

Thursday 10 November 2016

From Threat To Thread

I've talked a lot over the past couple of months about ocean plastic, and how it's a great untapped resource waiting to happen. As new technologies develop around fibres and fabrics made from recycled petrochemical products, it becomes clearer that the island of junk floating somewhere in the Pacific could soon have miners descending on it like vultures.

The starting shot for that race might just have been fired. Sportswear giant Adidas, have, as I reported a few months back, teamed up with environmental initiative Parley For The Oceans to create a new shoe sourced almost entirely from ocean plastics. The uppers, normally made with synthetic fibres, have instead been woven from recycled plastic yarn. Meanwhile the midsoles have been 3-D printed from recycled fishing nets, one of the biggest problems in the creation of ocean junk.

All of which would be admirable. However, this is no limited edition vanity rollout, designed to make Adidas look good. The AdidasxParley shoe is reported to have a million-pair manufacture cycle. The plan is to get these shoes onto as many feet as possible, and prove that scaled-up sustainable fashion manufacture can work and be profitable. More importantly, that the shoes look good and feel comfortable. That shouldn't be too tricky. Let's face it–athletic footwear is mostly plastic these days anyway. Who cares where it comes from?

In a clever move, Adidas and Parley are also aiming to make ocean plastic-derived athletic wear a desirable item. They've launched football jerseys for AC Milan and Bayern Munich made from the stuff, that will be featured in special upcoming matches. That's going to get fans salivating, and spike up demand.

This is smart marketing, and really good news for the future exploitation of ocean plastics. Passionate football supporters will want these shirts, and will be prepared to listen to the story behind them. I think AdidasxParley may have just played a blinder.

For more, head to the Adidas site.

Wednesday 9 November 2016

Soaking Up The Jellyfish Boom

I'm never less than amazed by the bounty we receive from the oceans, or the innovative ways in which we find use for the most unassuming of resources. We'll talk more about ocean plastics tomorrow, but today I want to highlight a fantastic example of lateral thinking.

Jellyfish are becoming a real problem along some American shorelines, as populations rise, driven by pollution and rising ocean temperatures. They're unpleasant to be around, but jellyfish are also a risk to undersea infrastructure, particularly the cooling systems of nuclear power plants. In some areas of New Mexican coastline, colonies can reach for a hundred miles and be so dense that there are more jellyfish than water in some small inlets.

Research into ways to stem that growth have led to some fascinating discoveries. As with ocean plastics, one group of scientists have found a way to turn a problem into something useful.

An Israeli startup, Cine'al, has been looking into the water-absorbent properties of jellyfish flesh. When broken down into a material that they call 'hydromash', it is incredibly hygroscopic, able to soak up astonishingly high volumes of liquid. The Cine'al team realised that hydromash could be used in medical dressings, sponges, nappies and tampons.

In America alone, over 40 million nappies are used daily, and 43 million women use tampons every month. Most of this material ends up in landfill, and could take hundreds of years to break down. Hydrogel-derived products, however, take less than 30 days to break down–a clear and obvious environmental benefit. Nor Davidson of Cine'al says:

“If these products go mainstream, they can revolutionize the market and make an environmentally noticeable difference.”

Products like nappies and tampons are invisible yet essential parts of our everyday life, seen for the most part as one-use, disposable items. Any innovation that gets the truckfuls of these materials out of landfill more quickly has to be celebrated. If at the same time it makes our shorelines a little safer and more pleasurable, than so much the better.

For more on Cine'al's innovative approach, hit up their website.

Friday 4 November 2016

A Big Step Forward On The War Against Modern Slavery

After yesterday's piece on Syrian refugees toiling for next-to-nothing in factories that supply Marks And Spencer, you could be forgiven for taking a bleak view on how we treat the workers that make our clothes. Child labour and slavery don't seem to be going away, and there seems to be little political will to do anything about it.

Ah, but that's where you're wrong. In fact, the signing into law of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 has had a big impact in the commercial sector. In fact, there's been a huge uptick in big brands and companies that have become actively involved in addressing slavery in the global supply chain since last year.

The benefits, according to a survey led by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) on the first anniversary of the Bill coming into force, are clear. 97% of interviewees see the reputational risk of finding modern slavery in the supply chain as the biggest driver for change. 86% see corporate action on human rights as a critical business responsibility, whether or not it's seen as a problem for their image. There's a clear and consistent desire to keep the taint of slavery out of the modern workplace.

But there are challenges, which the interviewees also highlighted. Sheer scale is an issue, as are the organisational mountains to climb in simply getting these practices written, formalised and into place. There's a reason so few companies have explicit anti-slavery policies in place–no-one likes to feel that there should be a need for them in the 21st century.

The biggest driver behind success in eradicating modern slavery in the developing world is one of the simplest–good, clear communication with your workforce. Due diligence on core labour standards is vitally important, as are close ties with relevant government agencies and NGOs. But all respondents agreed that one of the most effective interventions is involving workers directly in managing and mitigating the risks of modern slavery. There's still some wariness in the management class in dealing with trade unions, however, with only a third of interviewees agreeing that they are an important part of the picture.

Most importantly, the survey reveals a significant change in both viewpoint and sense of responsibility. In short, the respondents are no longer looking at modern slavery as someone else's problem. This is a massive step forward in combatting workplace slavery. It's still early days, and no-one is pretending that there isn't a great deal of hard work ahead. But the will is there, and that's what will get things moving.

The last word goes to Cindy Berman of the ETI, who sums up the report like this:

“At the strategic level, senior leaders in progressive companies are stepping up to the plate and recognising their responsibilities. But even for these companies, their journey to tackle endemic human rights risks in their businesses is just beginning, and none can confidently say they have cracked the problem. We were pleased to see a recognition by companies that in addition to getting their own house in order, they need to work with others, engage with governments, and call on independent advice and expertise.”

You can read the whole report here.

Thursday 3 November 2016

M&S Tripped Up Over Child Labour In Turkey

Shocking news came out last week which conflated two of the big issues of our age: child labour and Syrian refugees. More worryingly, it also concerned one of most beloved, and supposedly ethical retailers–Marks And Sparks.

A Panorama investigation that screened last week on BBC1 claimed to show that factories in Turkey were using Syrian children in garment factories that were making clothes for both Marks and online retailer Asos. The refugees were paid less than a pound an hour–well under the Turkish minimum wage–and were paid in cash on the street by a middleman. The show also alleged ill-treatment of the illegal workforce. One interviewee said:

“If anything happens to a Syrian, they will throw him away like a piece of cloth.”

M&S responded to the allegations by saying:

“Ethical trading is fundamental to M&S. We are acutely aware of the complexity surrounding Syrian refugees in Turkey. We have a local team on the ground in Turkey who have visited all of our suppliers there. They have also run supplier workshops on the Syrian refugee crisis highlighting the change in labour law and how to legally employ Syrian workers.

“We had previously found no evidence of Syrian workers employed in factories that supply us, so we were very disappointed by these findings, which are extremely serious and are unacceptable to M&S. We are working closely with this supplier to take remedial action, including offering permanent legal employment, in support of any Syrian daily worker who has been employed in this factory.”

The issue with a global supply chain is the difficulty in successfully monitoring and policing it. If a big order comes into a factory that urgently needs to be filled, it's easy to see how a factory owner might use all resources available to get the job done, however unethical it might be. Turning a blind eye as to where their agency labour is coming from could be seen as a necessary evil. It's a worry that the big brands seem to find it so difficult to ensure that this sort of behaviour does not happen in their factories. However, short of constant, unannounced inspections, it's tough to see how they can maintain the standards set out in their fair working practices handbooks.

Sadly, unethical labour has always been a part of the rag trade, and globalisation makes fair trade all the more difficult to develop and protect. Despite their best efforts, no-one is spotlessly clean in this game. As M&S have found out, an ethical standpoint often collapses when it comes to closer investigation.

For more on the story, check out this piece in The Independent.

Wednesday 2 November 2016

The Big Knitathon

With Halloween behind us, I think we can really feel the weather deepening into autumn. There's a properly frosty chill in the air. All of a sudden, the warm clothes are starting to move to the front of the wardrobe.

It's a great time of year to get knitting, if you have the skill–or even if you feel now it's time to learn. If you need a new pair of gloves or a nice scarf, or know someone that could do with them, then the inspiration is right there outside your window.

The Big Issue are hoping to tap into some of that creative energy this November, as they launch The Big Knitathon. They hope to raise funds from crafty folk to help out their vendors, who need to keep warm as the temperature drops.

Over the next month, you can set up events like knit-ins, or simply form a knitting circle to sell or raffle off goods. The Big Issue have a pack to help you get going, including knitting patterns, a collection box and even balloons!

They're also teaming up with Hobbycraft, who will be opening up their stores across the country on November 12th for a huge event day. It's going to be a big one!

If you're not a knitter, there's no need to feel left out. The Big Issue are happy to let crochet, cross-stitch and even paper-crafters in on the fun. If you have the yen to create and fancy helping out a really good cause this November, then this is the one for you. Louise and friends, who contributed last year, had this to say on the Big Issue Blog about their experiences:

"We found every free minute was taken up with knitting and the more we did it the more our passion for knitting was re-ignited. It was brilliant how much our nearest and dearest embraced our knitted goods and we were able to witness first hand the joy and warmth that handmade goods can give to others. We hope the money raised will go a little way to bring warmth to others."

For more information on the Big Knitathon, and to register for the Hobbycraft event on the 12th, get over to the Big Issue website. Needles at the ready, folks. Let's warm things up this November!