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.

BP’s friendly face

I’ve been seeing advertising around the city touting BP’s “green credentials” – paraphrased, the ad says “We committed to reducing our emissions to 1990 levels by 2010. We did it by 2001.”

I find these ads mildly offensive, because BP are still making massive profits – $4.21 billion in one quarter (and this is considered a “bad” quarter) – from their primary busines – selling petrol. Of course, this is one of the major contributors to global warming, so the company’s claims seemed to me to be a bit disingenuous, to say the least.

But, what is even worse still is that while BP are out touting their “green-ness”, they have paid $1.1 billion in fines in the US alone for environment-related violations.

BP are one of the most forward thinking of the Big Oil companies (not that that says much). They have announced an investment, globally, $1.8 billion over 3 years. Working this out another way, that equates to $0.15 billion per quarter – or around 3% of profit.

Don’t get me wrong: $1.8 billion is a big investment in anyone’s language, but it’s a tiny fraction compared to the damage their main business does.

Mostly, though, I reckon that BP should spend less money on advertising how green they are, and more money on actually doing the right thing…

EthiCool

I received an email the other day from Suzanne at EthiCool – she’s a member of ActNow and she’s started up an ethical clothing label.

The EthiCool range is primarily organic cotton tees and shopping bags, both featuring Suzanne’s graphic illustrations. All of the products are sweatshop free – the EthiCool site has a page that features the producers of the items, including edun, Ali Hewson and Bono’s famous brand. (It seems that edun have launched a blank t-shirt service).

It’s really cool to see more options, especially Australian-run, coming onto the market. And props to Suzanne for getting this off the ground – speaking from experience, that’s not small feat…

In honour of Anita

If Anita can whip up an empire, you can too

I heard the news about Anita Roddick’s passing last night on JJJ’s Hack program. I have to admit I was quite shocked to hear it – in fact emotionally touched and saddened… still am.

As Dave so eloquently put it “She left the planet and it’s inhabitants with a much better chance of survival than if she had not been born…”

Anita was absolute hero of mine. I first heard about the Body Shop’s “different” way of doing things, and thought I’d read Anita’s semi-biography “Business as unusual“. It was tremendously inspiring to read about Anita’s journey from the small shop recycling bottles because she had to, to the spread of the Body Shop internationally.

Through the Body Shop she was a pioneer of what was to become known as Fair Trade, took an activist stance on animal testing and women’s rights, all the while building a successful international business. Proof positive that profits do not have to trump people and the environment – they can happily work together.

Throughout her life she was a passionate human rights and environmental activist, who really was alone for many, many years in her role as ethical business-woman. (Business-woman period, for that matter.) Her later books were a call to action for us all to take a stand, to “take it personally”, and to make our voices heard and our actions count.

I found myself quite emotionally low last night. I feel I personally owe her a debt of gratitude, even though I’ve never met her in person.

But I think about what her advice might be – I think (I hope) it would be “keep fighting the fight and make whatever difference you can, in work and life”. Hopefully I can do that sentiment justice…

To paraphrase Augie March: Anita, thanks for the memes. Your life is an inspiration.

Anita Roddick

P.S. both images on this post were taken from the home page of AnitaRoddick.com, Anita’s personal website. Check it out and help Anita’s legacy live on…

Update: Philippa over at ActNow posted a great opinion piece on Anita. “However, the loss of this figure should not bring us to look hopelessly at the sky but requires consumer’s attention to be cast on other businesses and their actual intentions towards their stakeholders.”

Cradle to Cradle

After having a late night coffee, I sat up last night and finished reading Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

I’d heard good things about this book, especially from the folks at work, and given I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where I want to go professionally, and eco-design being a big part of that thinking, I thought I’d borrow a copy and have a read.

It’s a fantastic book for anyone interested in eco-design (in the broadest sense of “design”, but especially product design). Although some of the core ideas are now finding wider acceptance (I first heard about the Cradle to Cradle approach through Worldchanging, and further via Joel Makower and Gil Friend) there are still many insights, ideas, methods and examples throughout the book that make it well worth the effort.

McDonough and Braungart’s vision is a compelling one. The basic gist of it (and I certainly can’t do it justice in a short review) is that we have an opportunity to rethink the way we design things – from architecture to products to systems – that work in harmony with nature, rather than just doing “less damage”. Not just doing “less bad”, but actually playing a restorative role – or moving from “sustainable” to “nurturing”.

They use the metaphor of a cherry blossom tree, and how in the tree and surrounding ecosystem – there is not concept of waste in nature. The “waste”, as it were, become nutrients to the earth and organisms around the tree.

They invisage a design thinking that creates products that become nutrients for both biological (e.g. can be safely buried) and/or technical systems (re-used in original form for industry etc.). They imagine buildings acting like a tree – cleansing water, purifying the air, creating habitat for local species (including humans). And if we have buildings that act like trees, they extend the metaphor to imagine a city acting like a forest.

As the book progresses they introduce additional tools and insight into how we might make this shift in thinking – from “eco-efficient” (less bad) to “eco-effective” (nurturing).

The book is not a “how-to” guide – it is very much putting forward the Cradle to Cradle. The examples serve to show that, in fact, it can be done – factories that clean the water that they use, that are net positive in terms of energy consumption (i.e. they collect more energy than they consume) – rather than demonstrating how it can be done.

Overall I was really inspired by the book and got a lot out of it. Even though some of the concepts were already familiar, reading them “first hand” really cemented some of the ideas much more solidly – I feel I now have a better sense of the nuance in the argument, rather than just the broad brushstrokes I had previously.

I’d highly recommend it – 5/5 stars – I really can’t think anything that could be improved…

Ethical investment review

Choice magazine has a great review of ethical investment (also known as socially responsible investment) funds in Australia.

My long-time fave, Australian Ethical is the only one that has stayed out of all of the so-called “sin stocks” of alcohol, tobacco, weapons (euphemistically labeled “defence” in Choice’s comparison) and uranium.

If you’re considering ethical investment as an option, perhaps for your superannuation, the review is well worth a look.

On a related note, Choice recently announced their sustainability policy. Hits a lot of the right notes…

Ethical footwear

So, I’m getting close to needing a new pair of shoes for work. The last pair I bought are starting to get a bit ragged and worse for wear. So I’ve started to do a little bit of research into ethical footwear, to see where things are at on that front.

SA8000 and K-Swiss

My first thought was to check out K-Swiss who were SA8000 accredited last time I checked. SA8000 was intended as an independently verified standard for labour rights. I can’t seem to find any reference to SA8000 related to K-Swiss now, so I can only assume they’ve slipped off the wagon.

The information I found last time I checked (about 3 years ago) was hard to find, and the Social Accountability International website remains pretty much useless to actually find out consumer-beneficial information about accredited companies and/or products.

In the time since I last spent time researching these things I’ve also heard and read some bad things about SA8000 – along the lines of ‘nice idea, but didn’t quite hit the mark’. So no luck there…

So I checked out some other popular footwear brands I like such as Merrell and Salomon. Neither of these companies has any information about their CSR policy that I could find, nor could I find any reliable research or information via Google (except for this little tidbit related to Salomon about shoe companies disclosing their audits.)

Worn Again and No Sweat sneakers

So I started looking around. Dave at work pointed me to Worn Again, a UK company that makes shoes from 99% recycled materials, including seat belts and firemens uniforms.

They have a limited range that look kinda cool, but it’s very hard to tell without seeing the product in real life (a difficult proposition in Australia). They’re also very expensive – around $200 (incl. shipping) for a style of shoe that usually goes for between $50 and $100 less than that.

I also recalled the No Sweat sneakers which are union made and a styled after the popular (though decidedly un-ethical) Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. I’m not exactly a fashion victim, but Chuck Taylors have never really suited me, so I’m not so keen on the No Sweat offering.

What about Nike?

I remembered that Nike had done some interesting stuff with their Considered products – significantly reducing waste and chemical use, as well as experimenting with recycled materials. I saw the Humara at a store in Sydney and I wanted to find out more.

I also recalled hearing somewhere that after the successful campaign against the treatment of workers who produced products for Nike (among others) that Nike had actually made good progress to improve their track record. So I did a bit of research and found Nike’s corporate sustainability report for the 05-06 financial year.

It’s an interesting read, with clear targets for carbon emissions (carbon neutral for Nike owned facilities and business travel by 2011), environmentally friendly production (17% reduction in footwear waste by 2011 and 30% reduction in packagin) and supply chain auditing – for working conditions (eliminate excessive overtime in all contract factories by 2011 and 30% of their supply chain being properly audited).

What’s interesting about Nike’s statement is they acknowledge that monitoring alone isn’t working and that to change practices the entire industry needs to engage. So they’ve publicly published the details of all their factories and called on other companies to do the same so they can work together to improve conditions.

They also claim that the Considered ethos is being brought into their general operations, rather than continuing as a distinct product line. I think this is positive and negative: positive because it means their entire product range will (eventually) become more environmentally friendly, and that it recognises the principle that environmentally friendly can improve their bottom line; negative because it will become harder for the conscious consumer to determine which products are good for the environment, and which ones aren’t.

I also think it’s a shame because it means it’s harder to “vote with your dollars” – at least with the Considered line, a purchase pretty clearly indicates that you care about the environmental benefits of the product. If I buy the next Air Zoom Affinity, am I buying it because I want the next Air Zoom Affinity, or because I care about the environment?

In steps the cynic

For a giant like Nike to be developing an agenda that, on the surface at least, is very promising and progressive is great to see. But that’s when my cynicism kicks in. How real is all of this? How much of this is just marketing spin, and how much is real progress? Why will it take a whole 5 years to clean up just 30% of the supply chain? And so on…

The Clean Clothes Campaign includes this tidbit in their press release relating to Oxfam’s Offside! report:

Sportswear is big business and brands like Nike, Reebok, adidas, Puma, ASICS and FILA make big profits and spend hundreds of millions of Euro on marketing and sponsorship of big-name athletes. Meanwhile, the Asian workers who make the sneakers and sports gear are doing it tough. They struggle to meet their families’ basic needs and many are unable to form or join unions without discrimination, dismissal or violence.

Makes you wonder what would happen if they funneled a few percent of their sponsorship budgets towards solving the issue – would we see faster progress?

What to do?

So I’m left with a dilemma. Do I go for a pair of shoes I don’t like but know their ethically OK? Do I risk $200 on a pair of shoes I can’t try on or check out? Or do I give Nike the benefit of the doubt and support their efforts to clean up their act?

I’m still undecided. If you have any thoughts, I’d be interested to hear them…

P.S. as some of you know I’ve been interested in ethical clothing and footwear for some time. In my reading travels I’ve recently found Nau – I read about them in Fast Company. Very cool – worth checking out. I’d really like to try on their cleanline jacket and courier windshirt. If only they had a store in oz…