Monday 30 January 2017

The True Cost Of Britain's Cheap Clothes

It's easy to look at the abuses of garment workers in developing economies and shake our heads, blaming the problems on cultural differences and misunderstandings over the average wage packet. It's not right, but it's easy.

However, when those same abuses are happening on our own doorstep, it's much more difficult to shrug and turn away.

We've all seen the stories that crop up every Christmas, of the big online retailers treating their employees and temp staff like cattle or machines during the festive crunch. Amazon always gets a kicking in the press in December. But we're starting to see poor or downright dangerous working conditions, forced overtime and low pay migrating to many UK-based brand names, such as Sports Direct.

An exposé in Channel 4's documentary stream Dispatches shows that worryingly, this trend is growing. Undercover footage in factories that were producing garments for high street stores like New Look and online brands like Missguided and Boohoo both showed worryingly lax safety standards and a decidedly cavalier approach towards the National Living Wage.

Belal, an undercover reporter for Dispatches, was paid a mere £3 per hour to label and barcode clothes for Fashion Square, a factory producing clothes for River Island–£4.20 less than the advised minimum. When he challenged the owner of the factory, the response was surprising...

Boss: How much do you get paid in London?
Belal: It depends where you’re working.
Boss: That’s why I’ve asked to see you. You won’t get paid as much as that for the work you’re doing here.
Belal: I spoke to, and he said he’ll let me know how much he’ll pay me after he’s seen my work.
Boss: Yes, yes. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. What were you paid in London?
Belal: I got at least £7.20.
Boss: You won’t get that here. That’s what I’m telling you. We don’t get paid much for our clothes, and we need to compete with China and Bangladesh.They can get it cheap there. How will they get it made cheaper here? If we pay everyone £10 or £6 then we will make a loss.
Belal: You are comparing it with Bangladesh and places like that?
Boss: Yes, yes, yes. This is the situation.

Belal also ran shifts at United Creations Ltd, a factory contracted to make clothes for online retailers BooHoo and Missguided. Here again, he was paid less than £4 per hour. More worryingly, the working conditions were considered incredibly dangerous by safety expert Richard Lloyd. Flammable materials were stacked close to hot machinery, and there was even footage of a worker smoking on the factory floor. Lloyd said:

“What people don’t appreciate is that fires happen very very rapidly, there’s a smoke build up, there’s a low ceiling, the people are partly panicking and the doors open the wrong way anyway.”

The show is a terrifying eye-opener to the conditions to which garment workers are exposed in the rush for fast fashion profit. It's becoming clear that abuses of a vulnerable workforce are not confined to the developing world–they're happening on our streets too.

The second show in the strand is screening tonight at 8pm on Channel Four. This first episode is available to stream or download via catch-up services, or through

Monday 23 January 2017

Living Lagom with Hubbub!

Exciting news from our pals at Hubbub, who are taking a leap into the unknown. They're launching a vlogging channel that will deal with all things sustainable–and they need your help!
The new channel, fronted by Sarah Duvall, will be looking at the way simple changes can bring you closer to a sustainable lifestyle. This has extra benefits, of course–not least saving money, which is something I think we can all get behind in these cold dark weeks before the February payday.
The keyword for the blog is lagom–another one of those Swedish terms that we seem to be falling for. It means 'just enough'. In practice, the lagom life entails finding a balance between too much and not enough. Obvious, and surprisingly easy to achieve by making small lifestyle changes. Like making your own lunches from extra portions of dinner, or changing your lights over to energy-saving LEDs. Marginal gains that over the course of a year can save you hundreds of pounds, and make you happier and healthier as well!
So where do you come in? Well, as I said, this is a new venture, and the Hubbub guys need all the feedback they can get. If there's a story they should be covering, or if the approach doesn't quite fit, they'd like to know. So why not subscribe, join in the conversation and get involved? Check out the first video below, and see how lagom can work for you.

Friday 13 January 2017

Growing The Skills For Organic Farming In India

The move towards organic farming of textile crops has to be applauded, but so far it has been a slow process. The problem, particularly in the cotton fields of India, is in retraining farmers that only know how to grow using pesticides.

Education, as ever, is the key. So it's heartening to see the C&A Foundation focussing on empowerment of organic farming in the heartlands of the discipline - the state of Madhya Pradesh. Here, over a quarter of the world's organic cotton is grown. It makes sense, then, that educators should be based here.

In November 2015, a new chapter was unveiled in the history of one of India's premier agriculture universities - the Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya. A three month programme aims to give educators the skills they need to pass on to the farmers of Madhya Pradesh the ability to change over to organic cultivation. The course integrates practical and theoretical modules, as well as industry exposure.

Ipshita Sinha, of C&A Foundation, says:
“We've found a great champion in the university, which is putting in some serious effort in driving this course, as well as a great champion in the state government, which is very keen on developing organic farming in the region."

Putting the focus on organic farming in India is a slow process, but it's great to see industry, government and NGOs working together to make it happen. Today Madhya Pradesh, tomorrow the world?

Thursday 12 January 2017

The Six Items Challenge - Join The Fashion Fast!

You know how it is. You have a wardrobe absolutely stuffed with clothes and yet somehow you always end up wearing the same stuff. Those go-to items that fit and feel the way you like. Your signature look.

What if that situation was a pledge you could make to help out other people? Could you, if it absolutely came down to it, spend six weeks in just six items of clothing?

That's the challenge that Labour Behind The Label are issuing to raise funds this spring, while kicking back at the demon of fast fashion. We're consuming more and more, while paying less and less. Cheap clothing promotes waste and enables the exploitation of the workers who are forced to work to punishing deadlines. By choosing to not buy clothes we don't need, we can make a stand. The Six Item Challenge is a fashion fast against fast fashion.

Now, don't panic. A pair of shoes is not going to constitute two items. Undies, accessories and footwear are exempt, as is active and sporting wear. This is not the Sack-Cloth And Ashes Challenge. Labour Behind The Label are asking you to think carefully about a capsule wardrobe, and how the same item can be used in different settings - from work to play to party. Which, to be frank, is a useful skill to learn.

Are you game? If so, hit up the link below to sign up. The Challenge will take place during Lent (that's March 1st to 24th April for you non-churchy types) so you have plenty of time to sort out your super six items.

Go lean with your clothing choices this spring. It might just train your brain into new ways of looking at your wardrobe.

Wednesday 11 January 2017

A Sustainable New Year From Selfridges

You may recall that this time last year Selfridge's flagship London store gave over its iconic window display to sustainable fashion. The Bright New Things promotion sought to highlight emerging designers and the work they were doing to support sustainability.

For 2017, they're at it again, with a whole new range of designers–and a clever hook to show just how broad a church the field has become. Material World takes eight different fibres and fabrics, and presents designers that are doing fascinating and innovative work with them.

For example, leather is represented by Swedish brand Deadwood. They specialise in recycling, taking inspiration from vintage styles to come up with a new take on an old classic: the leather jacket. Showing respect for the material while exploring the possibilities of its durability are good, strong ticks against a sustainability checklist.

On the subject of thinking laterally, Tengri, representing luxury fibres, have come up with a new twist on the usual suspects. Cashmere and angora have come under fire over the past few years with accusations of animal cruelty and over-farming of pastureland. Instead, founder Nancy Johnston has discovered the incredibly soft fibres of the Mongolian yak pelt have a decidedly luxurious feel. She calls the resultant fabric yakshmere, and it needs to be felt to be believed.

Material World is all about taking on the challenges we face in using the world's most popular fabrics and fibres, treating them with respect and finding innovative new ways that are less cruel, greedy or polluting. There are some really interesting ideas on display in the windows of Selfridges right now until the end of March. If you're in the area, go and check them out.

Or just have a look at the collection via the Selfridges Material World site here.

Friday 6 January 2017

How Chuck Gave It All Away

We spoke yesterday about Ken Townsley, businessman and philanthropist who has dropped a fair chunk of his fortune on deserving causes in his home town of Blackpool. We've all heard stories of powerful figures bestowing their largesse on the needy, for reasons that run from common goodness to the need to appear generous while enjoying the tax benefits that charitable donations bring.

But up until very recently, the most generous donor of them all remained resolutely anonymous, choosing to let his money do the talking. Now, as The New York Times reports, Charles F. Feeney has finally come out of the shadows. The reason? His work is done. He's given away all but the tiniest fraction of a considerable fortune.

Charles' history reads like a slightly overheated airport blockbuster. A New Jersey boy, he served in the Air Force during WW2, before setting up a duty-free business to airports in 1960. That business would make him a billionaire. But Charles was never one for expensive living. As he put it, "you can only wear one pair of pants at a time." His tastes ran to burgers and a beer at his local pub, rather than fine dining in gilded restaurants.

And from the beginning, he knew what he wanted to do with his fortune. Consider: over the last forty years he has paid for over 1,000 buildings across five continents, including schools, hospitals and scientific research establishments. His network of charitable foundations has done an extraordinary amount of good, and given away an extraordinary amount of money. Charles F. Feeney is down to his last couple of million dollars, handing over a fortune–$8billion.

For Feeney, it was a no-brainer. That fortune, born from shrewd investments in scrappy little tech startups like Facebook, was there to do some good. His influence spreads far and wide. He advocated for legislation that would help to bring the Affordable Care Act into being, and secretly met with Northern Irish paramilitary groups, encouraging them to move towards peaceful means of discourse. His one key demand: that his name was kept quiet. He had no interest in the publicity, just the end game.

Now 85, Charles lives in a rented apartment in San Francisco with his wife. It's a quiet end to a remarkable life, and shows how philanthropy, when engaged in whole-heartedly, can make one hell of a difference.

Thursday 5 January 2017

How Ken Gave Back To His Home Town

We're all nervously looking up the line, worrying about the news that 2017 will deliver. Here at The Pier, we choose to view things positively. Therefore, we're entering our 11th year (we opened for business in December 2007–good grief!) with a little shot of happy news, to show that there is still good in the world.

Meet Ken Townsley. The 71 year old is a former airline baggage handler from Blackpool, who took the news of redundancy in the late sixties as an opportunity. With his payoff, he set up his own holiday business, Trident Travel. The company, based in his home town, went from strength to strength, eventually employing 700 people locally. He sold it to Thomas Cook, trousering over £80million into the bargain.

Good for Ken. You could be excused for thinking that he'd take the money, whizz off to Florida and live the high life. And you'd be right. But Ken was at heart a Blackpool lad, and he pledged to do right by the place.

So he's set up the Kentown Wizard Foundation, which is dropping large cheques onto good causes based in the area. Hospices and children's charities have benefitted with donations adding up to several hundred thousand pounds, given with very little warning. Fund boss Margaret Ingham sums up Kentown's freewheeling approach:

“Quite often they are very surprised to hear from us because they have not applied. We just ask if they want some money!”

Len Curtis of Donna's Dream House, a charity which offers holidays for children in need, confirms that it doesn't take much work to get onto Ken's radar:

“We got a letter saying we would be considered, but it didn’t have much information other than they wanted to come and talk to us. Then it came to a couple of meetings. It was only revealed on Wednesday the extent of the help they wanted to give.”

That help, in case you're wondering, is a complete refurbishment of the charity's premises, work that would have been completely out of the question before Ken's intervention.

You hear a lot about philanthropy and charitable donations from the rich, but Ken's local and slightly eccentric focus does our weary old ventricles a bit of good. We're happy to see a Blackpool lad giving back so solidly to his old community. More news like this in the New Year, please!