Annandale brick in the wall…

I’m a fan of live music. I am a musician and count on venues to remain viable as an outlet for my artistic expression. The Annandale is a long-running venue in Sydney’s inner-west. I’ve played there, and seen countless great gigs there. It would be a great shame to see it close, especially so to make way for residential apartments.

The Annandale recently launched a “buy a brick” campaign, where fans of the venue can contribute $20–250 to get their name on a plaque at the venue. This is to help reduce debt and upgrade facilities.

At face value, this seems like a great thing to contribute to — a way of supporting live music into the future. Especially important with venues like the Hopetoun having shutdown some months ago and there being very few venues around in the inner-city continuing to support live music.

But… I have a doubt. As the FasterLouder article (linked above) notes, the venue has been under the same management for 10 years. There is no indication anywhere in the article, nor the Annandale’s campaign page, is how the Rule brothers intend on actually turning around the fortunes of the hotel (e.g. get it out of debt and into a sustainable, viable ongoing concern).

I assume (though it’s not clear) that the “membership” system is one of renewing annual membership. It’s not clear how much money the scheme is intended to raise. There’s no indication as to the level of debt that needs to be cleared, or how much the upgrades are going to cost and thus how much the scheme will likely assist in achieving this goal. While I’m sure it was a last ditch effort to avoid foreclosure, selling the poker machines has devalued the venue and removed an important revenue stream — this seems like a very short-sighted and ultimately detrimental decision.

I want to support this initiative. But I want to know my money is going to actually create the desired outcome — a vibrant, ongoing, sustainable Annandale hotel. Unfortunately, based on the information provided to date it’s hard to say whether this would be a worthwhile thing to put my money into. Not because I don’t care, but because I don’t know if it would actually work/help.

This is the second crowdsourcing project that I’ve seen that has suffered from this problem. NewMatilda.com also put the call out to supporters to bankroll it for a year, with promises of “bold plans” for becoming an ongoing, sustainable journalistic enterprise. These bold plans never materialised (unless the odd sponsorship/prize draw are the extent). Promises of a new site design and mobile tools never seemed to come about. A year rolled by and NewMatilda were again asking for support. Without any sense that the organisation is self-sustaining on the basis of anything but an annual membership drive makes it a harder to support.

If you’re going to enlist the support of the “crowd”, you really need to communicate your plans and increase your transparency so that we can make an informed judgement. Be honest about what your plans are, and honest when you aren’t able to deliver on them.

I will be keeping an eye on the Annandale project — I do hope that more details come to light so that I can count myself among their supporter/membership base. But until then, my contribution will be limited to being an interested bystander…

The benefits of certification

Originally posted on the Green Loves Gold blog.

When I was thinking about starting a sustainable business one of the things I looked into fairly early on was certification standards. In the clothing business there are a growing number of standards and certification programmes that need to be considered.

Standards in the textile industry

In the industry that I’m entering with Arketype, there are a number of potentially applicable standards – to name just a few:

  • Fairtrade Cotton – Fairtrade certification for the raw fibre and textiles production
  • Certified organic cotton schemes, such as USDA National Organic Program or EU 834/2007 (which takes effect in Jan 2009) – covering raw fibre production using methods that are much less impacting on the environment
  • Oeko-Tex – testing and certification to limit use of certain chemicals
  • Homeworkers Code of Practice – an Australian programme that accredits garment manufacturing as “No Sweatshop” (which is part of the Fairtrade cotton standard for garments manufactured in Australia)
  • NoC02 – programme for auditing, reducing and offsetting carbon emissions

Of course there are many standards and logos which can be quite overwhelming for business owners and customers alike. The good folks at Eco-Textile News have produced an excellent guide for the TCF industry that outlines the major standards for that industry.

Even so, businesses can’t carry out all of these certifications, especially so during the start-up phase where capital (and time) are often limited. So the challenge is to be discerning about which programs we engage in.

Of course, we can also incorporate the principles of the various other programs into our practice, even if we’re not in a position to carry out certification against those standards.

Certification counter-acts the tyrrany of distance

I attended a talk recently by a member of a local food co-op and talk turned to “certified organic” produce. Many of the local growers are using organic methods, but not all are seeking certification.

In discussing this, the member explained that one of the aims of the co-op was to connect local growers with their customers directly. In breaking down this distance – creating a direct, personal connection – he argued that the need for certification is greatly reduced as a relationship is built up and trust develops.

If customers can talk directly to the farmer about their methods, perhaps even visit the farm etc., the farmer is less likely to break that trust as their customers are people they know.

In other words, it’s when distance is introduced – when the supply chain gets between the customer and the producer – that certification becomes increasingly important. The longer the supply chain, the more important certification becomes. I find it a thought-provoking alternative “approach” to achieve the same goal as certification.

For example, at a recent event held by my primary supplier, Rise Up Productions, the makers of our products were there at the event, and were introduced to us. Bronwyn Darlington, Rise Up’s founder, often visits the manufacturers and suppliers of our textiles in India – she has a personal connection to the producers – radically reducing the distance between producer and customer.

This builds confidence in me (the customer) that Rise Up are doing the right thing.

Why should we certify?

Interestingly, though, Rise Up are provide certified organic and Fairtrade cotton products, and are accredited under the Homeworkers Code of Practice. So why, given her close connection to producers, is Rise Up going through the certification process?

I can’t speak for Bronwyn and her team, but for me, certification is still important even under this circumstance for one reason: customer confidence.

Thanks to the effects of greenwashing – essentially an abuse of trust by companies who do more talking than walking – certification is essential to build confidence that what we’re doing is not just a marketing pitch and that our claims have been verified by an independent third party.

Without it, we risk being tainted with the same brush as other companies that aren’t as committed to social and environmental outcomes, but are trying to jump on the bandwagon of growing consumer interest in sustainability.

Arketype update

Just a quick update on Arketype, given I’ve been quiet on that front of late around these parts. (For new blog readers – a bit of background here.)

Today I’m heading down to Rise Up to pick up our second fit sample – the dress shirt. The t-shirt fit sample was good, but we’re refining it further and that’s currently with the pattern maker.

I’ve been speaking to Sonny and Biddy at We Buy Your Kids (WBYK) about creating the designs for the initial range of tees. I’ve also been talking further with sustainable fashion designer Timo Rissanen about working together. So far our discussions and the ideas being generated have been very promising.

(As an aside, be sure to head down to Incu at The Galleries Victoria and check out WBYK’s instore displays – v. cool!)

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking on the business plan (especially in light the current economic climate) and have been doing some more market research. I’ve come to a point, though, where I could really use the help of someone with solid retail management experience involved in the project.

So if you happen to know someone (in Australia, pref. Sydney) who’s working in fashion retail as a manager (or store owner) – i.e. someone who has managed a store or perhaps is interested in starting their own fashion retail business, who has experience in the area and knowledge about volumes etc. – that you think might be interested in engaging on the project, please feel free to pass on my details or let me know.

Further thoughts on “Reboot economics”

A couple of other thoughts popped into my head after writing that last post.

In no particular order:

  • I wonder if the lack of credit available is a result of foreign governments, such as China, basically decided to stop propping up the US spending spree? If so, this looks a lot like the scenario George Monbiot outlined in his book Age of Consent.
  • Given that the market has decided that these loans are too risky, why on Earth does it make sense for the public to underwrite risky investments like this?
  • I wonder if now is the time for the public (and US politicians) to get behind the Code of Corporate Citizenship – does this crisis open a window of opportunity to push this through?

Stepping outside the forest

It’s been a little while since I wrote about the label. That’s in part because, while a lot has happened, I’ve experienced a bit of a setback.

Recently the designer that has been working on the project became unavailable due to other work commitments. While we’ve made significant progress on the designs, there is still a lot to do – selecting fabrics and finalising the patterns among them.

My initial response was one of disappointment. This possibly (probably?) means that I won’t have a range ready for the Summer 09/10 selling season in February.

Although it’s a fair way away, the combination of this being the label’s first collection, ethical manufacturing lead times, and just generally the fact that I’m not on the project full time, mean that the delay in finding and engaging a new designer, and pattern maker (as the pattern maker was of close relation to Susan) means that we just won’t be ready in time.

However, after that initial sense of disappointment, I’ve come to realise that perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise.

In stepping back, outside the forest as it were, and re-assessing things I’ve realised that, in my rush to meet a deadline, I’ve lost sight of some of the initial vision that I had for the business.

I was, to an extent, falling into the trap of doing things because “it’s the way it’s done” rather than being true to my original vision for the label. I was also trying, I think, to force some things, rather than letting them unfold in a more authentic and organic way.

So I’ve decided to “ship when it’s ready” rather than trying to meet some arbitrary deadline. Of course, I’ll still need to take into consideration the realities of selling into a wholesale market, but I want to do things differently, and I’ll need to learn to be patient (not one of my strong points, I must admit) and let it unfold, rather than pushing things through for the sake of it.

Anyways… I’m currently working on doing a merchandising project for Mars Hill Cafe, and I’m catching up with Timo Rissanen, a PhD candidate at UTS who’s sustainable menswear exhibition “Bad Dogs” I caught last week, to see if there’s some way we might be able to work together.

So, in other words, keeping busy and keeping moving things along 🙂

Basecamp woes

We use Basecamp pretty extensively at work, and were quite annoyed to find the other day that the system was down for almost 2 hours for scheduled maintenance, without any form of notice.

I’m sure they thought it was fine and all given it was in the evening in the States, but over here, we were in the middle of a delivery. Very frustrating.

How hard would it be to delay launch 24 hours and send all customers an email? Or to put a notice up on the site for that time so that when we sign in we know it’s going to go down?

I know from reading their book that the 37signals guys play pretty fast and loose, but this is a paid service that becomes mission critical when you use it as heavily as we do.

The good news is that the update revamped the permissions model they had in place that was downright dumb in it’s implementation around todos. So in the end we would have been happy with the update had we received some kind of notice.

It’s simply not good enough to drop the system without notice like they do pretty regularly. (I figure there’s no point posting this to the forum because there’ll be no reasonable response – another thing that 37signals are not very good at…)

A brief history

This post is a bit of background about the reason I’m embarking on the ethical clothing project again. It’s far from definitive, but I hope it sets the scene for posts to come.

A couple of years ago I had a crazy idea of starting what I called a “fair trade fashion label”. The basic idea was simple: producing fashionable clothing using environmentally friendly materials ensuring that manufacturing was carried out ethically – “from seed to sale” was a bit of a tag line. After initially dubbing the group FWV – “Fashion Without Victims” – eventually we settled on “Huméco”, a made up word reflecting the environmental and social values we were aiming to uphold.

At the time I mentioned the idea to a few friends and we started researching the idea – we were talking to a designer, researching fabrics, looking into the No Sweatshop label. I left the business I was working for to pursue the venture but then stumbled upon the opportunity to work for WWF-Australia which was too good to pass up.

A few months later work and other life commitments meant that I wasn’t able to focus enough on the project to work through some of the challenges we faced, so I reluctantly disbanded the group to focus on other things.

Fast forward a few years. The market for organic clothing is beginning to explode. As an avid reader of Treehugger, it seems that every day a new label is entering the “green” space – and well known designers are jumping on the “green” bandwagon by the minute. Reading Fast Company highlighted Nau – joining Patagonia in doing very interesting things in the performance wear space.

(As an aside: I’m a big fan of both companies – be sure to check out Nau’s Grey Matters and Patagonia’s The Footprint Chronicles for some of the challenges running an ethical business in this space.)

While the internet technically makes many of these labels available here in Australia, and even though there are even some great folks in Australia creating ethical clothing, none are quite the style I’m into and very few are available local to where I live; on the clothing strips where I shop, the options simply aren’t there.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of purchasing over the net – I like to try things on, check them out, get a feel for the fabric and the cut.

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking very hard about my future direction – what really makes my heart sing? What am I passionate about enough to get me through “The Dip“, as Seth Godin calls it.

I’m a big fan of sustainable (in the broad sense of that word – environment, social, financial) business, and am bullish on the impact that good design can have creating a sustainable future. I’ve read Cradle to Cradle and I’m a convert.

And then Anita Roddick passed.

Anita was a huge inspiration to me – and her passing really got me thinking about what I was doing with my life – what impact was I actually having…

I brainstormed a bunch of business ideas and the one that stuck in my mind, that wouldn’t let go of my imagination, was the ethical clothing idea. This is not new – I’m far from the first and likely (hopefully) to be far from the last. But I feel it important to give it a shot – to try and make this happen – and I hope I have a few innovative ideas about how to make the business work.

I’m the type of person who doesn’t like talking – I prefer to do. So early next year I have arranged a change in work arrangements to free up 1-2 days per week to apply to this goal.

The label will likely be starting in an obvious place – t-shirts. I’m a big fan of Threadless, band merch and I’ve become a bit of a “t-shirt snob” – so it is fitting that I should start there. But I hope to link up with like-minded people that want to participate in building a business like this to expand the range and ideas that we can explore – focusing on smart-casual mens wear. Stuff you can wear to work and then to a pub or a club.

Although ethical and social concerns will be a major part of the business – the focus will be on great designs that people will want to wear first and foremost. As fashion designer Gary Harvey says:

“The future of Eco fashion depends on designers concentrating on great design and not letting the Eco cause become the only component…after all people wear clothes not causes.”

I know I can’t do this alone, nor do I want to. For those of you that don’t already know me – if you happen across this blog and are interested, please get in touch. If you do know me already and you know someone you think might be interested, please do the same.

I’ll be using this blog to record the journey, a place to share what I learn as I work towards this goal (regardless of the outcome). My hope that sharing my thoughts as I learn and explore might provide value to others.

Next year’s plans

I’ve got some news relating to work and my plans for the coming year. From Jan 1 I’ll be working 4 days per week with my current employer, Digital Eskimo, until March/April, at which point I’ll be doing the freelance thing.

The primary reason for the move is a desire on my part to set up a new business producing and retailing ethical clothing (more on that here) – that is clothes that use environmentally sustainable materials (like organic cotton, hemp and bamboo) and that are sweatshop free.

Some of you may remember that I started down this path some years ago while I was still working at NETaccounts (now Saasu). Well, although in some ways the industry has come a long way (even Target now offers organic cotton options) there’s still a long way to go. I want to work towards that goal.

The move from Digital Eskimo was tough – the team that I’ve had the privilege to work with since May this year is exceptional, and it was a really hard decision to make (and I hope to continue working with them on projects in the future).

But through some soul searching, in part prompted by working through The Artist’s Way with some friends earlier this year, but also the passing of Anita Roddick, lead me to the conclusion that I needed to pursue this dream (that just hasn’t let go).

So, anyway, this blog is probably going to be a little more active as I post about the business and ideas surrounding it, but also just generally about ethical business.

In the freelance side of things I’ll be hopefully doing a variety of web development projects – I hope with a focus on non-profits and progressive organisations, social media and web standards – but I’ll speak more on that in the new year as I start to get things in place to make the leap.