Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Have you been looking over your shoulder wondering if that credit crunch has hit support for eco fashion? Then worry not. Good news comes in two forms from key opinion forming organizations.

A GlobeScan survey on Fairtrade support, commissioned by Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) and ahead of celebrations for World Fair Trade Day 2009 on 9 May suggests Fairtrade certified cotton clothing is far from doom and gloom. Among the sample surveyed across fifteen counties, three quarters of shoppers still feel that companies should be going that one step further and ‘actively support community development in developing countries’ with nine out of ten people trusting the labels of the FAIRTRADE Certification Mark or North American Fair Trade Certified™. Despite the economy, 2008 sales overall were on the increase too, from 10% in the US to a whopping 75% in Sweden.

Binod Mohan, Chairman of the Network of Asian Producers and member of the FLO Board says, ‘We in Asia have faith in the consumer and their loyalty to buying Fairtrade products. For the shopper these are staple products; for the farmer in the developing world the purchase of Fairtrade makes a big difference and we know consumers realize this.’

Recent organic market reports from the UK’s Soil Association showed that the sales of organic certified textiles are also softening the blow of the recession. Sales forecasts are suggested to rise three times over by 2012, and sales exceeded a monumental mark of £100 million in 2008, with high street retailers M&S and New Look alone selling 3.4 million organic items.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Wearing the Talk about Ethical Fashion

After graduating from Duke in 2007, Rachel Weeks went to Sri Lanka on a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue her interest in ethical fashion, a subject she explored in her Women’s Studies senior honors thesis, “The Wonder Bra: Theorizing Globalization, Women’s Labor, and Consumption for Twenty-First Century Feminism,” a study of the intersections between fashion and academic feminism. But her interest in the topic wasn’t just academic.

While researching socially responsible apparel manufacturing in Sri Lanka, Rachel founded School House, LLC, a “people friendly” fashion collegiate apparel brand. The Fulbrighter joined forces with fashion designer Colleen McCann over the Internet, and together they are now launching a 54-product collection at a number of U.S. universities—beginning with Duke. School House’s factory partner, JK Apparel, is the first living wage factory initiative in Sri Lanka and is supported directly through the sale of School House products.

Rachel felt the first stirrings of what became School House when she and classmate Haley Hoffman were planning DukePlays: the Party, which the Duke Libraries hosted in February 2007. Rachel said, “…absolutely, the idea definitely came to me as a result of the DukePlays party.”

Working with the theme “tradition never looked so good,” Rachel and Haley mounted an exhibit for the party of iconic Duke images drawn from University Archives and created an array of party favors that also paid tribute to campus life through the decades. Even Rachel’s party dress was inspired by the “tradition” theme. She said,

The reaction to my vintage Duke t-shirt dress from both current students and alumni made me start thinking about the collegiate market and the opportunities there were to improve design, product range, etc. Our “Green House” collection dresses are inspired by that first dress—each one is crafted from “recycled” Duke t-shirts…

Models wearing School House clothesPhotos by C. Stephen Hurst

The School House line will be introduced at Duke in a trunk show on Reunions Weekend. The trunk show will give fashionistas—and anyone loyal to Duke—an opportunity to learn more about the factory in Sri Lanka and the women who work there and see and buy School House clothes.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

'Fair trade is a slow process'

Safia Minney

What is ethical fashion? It's a confusing term. Sometimes it's easier to define by what it isn't – and unfortunately that is most of what can be found on the high street. Unethical fashion means very very little transparency, accountability and knowledge of the supply chain. It means demands of very quick lead times and production turnaround. It means producers played off against each other. It means a wage that doesn't even afford the worker an adequate salary for two meals a day.

In spite of this, I'm a bit sceptical about the term ethical fashion. There's a tendency for people to include brands that are doing small initiatives but haven't necessarily embraced transparency or meeting genuine ethical standards and environment standards across their supply base. A company might be a member of the ETI – the Ethical Trading Initiative – but the ETI really lacks the teeth to ensure clothing for the high street is made in decent working conditions.

At People Tree we position ourselves as a fair trade fashion pioneer brand. I've always wanted to wear fair trade fashion, but when I started work at 17 everything was horrible! I used to buy pieces and try and make them beautiful on my sewing machine but it really was difficult. So I started working with a designer in Tokyo, and gradually built up skills from different women's organisations in Bangladesh, India, Zimbabwe, Nepal and Kenya.

It was when I started trying to produce clothing that was made in a 100% fair trade way that I started asking the question – what is fair trade fairer than? Through working with activists who were looking at labour rights issues for garment factory workers in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, we realized just how awful the working conditions really were. In India at the time child labour was still being used and often environmental pollution was completely undermining the basic human rights of the people who lived in these areas. Consequently we joined the activists in campaigning for change, looking for solutions and to trying to create a voice for those people whose rights were being undermined by the fashion industry.

It's a slow process. We work on building a supply chain through incredibly small disadvantaged groups. These are people with fantastic traditional skills like weaving or block printing, but no access to the market. They deserve that access, and they deserve a living wage. So we give them technical assistance and support to bring their products to the market.

Working in a truly fair trade way means no short turnarounds – it takes a minimum of six months to bring a product from design to market. In mainstream fashion, producers don't get paid until they deliver. Small groups just don't have the financial resources to work like this – and in larger factories the producers will be exploited, working at a lower wage to create the working capital for that particular factory. Paying a fair trade wage means paying half up front, and paying more for the product itself.

Fair trade production isn't easy. The biggest problem is cash flow – although we're held up as a very successful model it took us eight years to break even in Japan and we haven't yet in Britain. Because we make advance payments there is a huge financial burden on the company, and despite lots of talk, there just isn't yet the 'patient capital' (investors looking for a long-term return - both morally and financially) to invest in companies like People Tree. The technical assistance and training we provide is also a financial burden. It's an integral part of what we do, but we have to pay those people a salary!

One of our proudest projects is Swallows in North Bangladesh. This is a women's group of 200 artisans ranging from weavers to tailors. The last 18 months have seen an increase in their incomes by 50% due to expanded product development and design using their traditional skills. We've taken them to visit other tailoring units and even bought some of their producers over to the UK to meet customers. In rural Bangladesh it's hard for people to understand fully what the average 32 year old in London wants to wear, how she lives. They've learned why fitted clothes are important, and seen how fashion retail looks in London – quite different, obviously, to Bangladesh.

It has given them the tools to really become part of the fashion industry and to feel that they are very much in control of the traditional process. That is what's really important.

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