The Affair

I was chatting to a friend of mine a little while back about my plans to start a label, and they mentioned that a friend of theirs was putting together a tshirt label with some cool designs.

I’ve also been wanting to find some more obscure tshirt labels since Threadless tees are seemingly popping up everywhere nowadays. Plus I wanted a bit of a change, given most of my tees are Threadless already.

In watching my Facebook news feed I saw they’d become a fan of the-affair, figuring that was the label they were talking about, and sure enough it was them.

I checked out the website and subscribed to the blog. I dig the tees and the branding, and the other week took the plunge and purchased two tees.

More about my impressions of the tees and American Apparel over the jump…

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Fashion Exposed

Last weekend I went to the Fashion Exposed exhibition at Darling Harbour. The last time I attended the event was in Melbourne 4 years ago. If nothing else, this year’s event was a firm indicator of how little has changed.

Granted, there were a few booths with organic cotton, hemp or bamboo offerings. Bamboo Body were there, along with Eco Wear and Pure Pod – but there were probably less than a dozen offerings in the full exhibition center area, and of those only one had menswear (tshirts).

The organisers claimed that there was an “eco-fashion” precinct – but this turned out to be 6 stalls, one of which was linen, and the other was Drizabone – included because they use Australian sheep which is a “natural fibre” (supposedly we’re meant to overlook the immense damage sheep grazing causes on the environment.)

I spoke to a couple of merchandising and shop-fitout suppliers at the show, and it seems that they haven’t yet received word that “green is the new black”. Not one could answer even the most basic questions about eco-friendly shop fittings – they had none. One at least made an attempt, claiming their mannequins were recyclable, but I’ve yet to find evidence to back up that claim.

There were two paper bag companies I spoke to – one responded to my question about recycled bags with “you’d want to look at our natural finished product”. When I asked about the recycled content of the bags, he acknowledged there was none!

Paper Pak, on the other hand, seemed to have a good range of blended recycled material with sustainably managed virgin pulp – and the sales rep didn’t try to bullshit me. He explained that they used water based inks, improving the enviro credentials, but that the adhesives were problematic from a biodegradability standpoint. Still more research to go, but a good start at least on that front.

Overall it was worth the visit to review – but not overly inspiring. I’m currently also reading Eco Chic which serves as a stark reminder as to why I got into this game in the first place. But more on the broken-ness of the system in another post…

Work/life update

I’ve been a bit quiet around blog-land of late due to general busy-ness in life and work (including a presentation I did for the Investor Weekly Branding conference last week.)

Consulting biz: Zumio

Preparations for my consulting biz are going well – the name is Zumio, and I’ve started a blog (of course!) covering work related stuff – esp. posts on social media and networking, with a bit of emphasis on non-profit/social change.

I was waiting until I’d created the site design etc. that reflects the Zumio visual ID etc., but it might be a couple of weeks before that’s done, so worth making mention of it now…

I’ve got a few bookings already post my departure from working as an employee at Digital Eskimo. (Happily I’ll be continuing working with the eskimos as a freelancer on some projects into the future.)

Menswear label: Soko Loko

The menswear label has a “working title”: Soko Loko – I call it “working title” because I’m still working on sourcing a designer and developing the business plan, so I’m not 100% sure the name will stick.

I’ve been busy attending another series of courses at Sydney Community College covering a lot of the practicalities of starting your own label in NSW. Susan Goodwin, who designs and runs street-wear label Rocket Fuel, as well as freelancing for some more well known labels, is running the courses. She’s been an invaluable source of hard-won information about the industry, how it ticks, and how we can make our own label succeed. (Further courses are planned in May – keep an eye on the college’s site if you’re interested.)

Over the next month or two I should have a bit more to talk about in that regard (as much of my time has been focused on establishing the consulting gigs). Suffice to say that so far things have been progressing well.

Fuzu

My band Fuzu have been on a little bit of a self-imposed hiatus as we search for a keyboardist (we’d been jamming with someone who’s unfortunately moving to Melbourne) and finalise the artwork. Toby has come up with some promising photos that may become the cover art, so hopefully it won’t be too much longer…

In related news, we’re no longer the only Fuzu in town – seems a certain gorilla at Toronga Zoo liked the name, which apparently means “to graduate”.

Strange, but true…

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.

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…

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…

Threadless

Threadless.com are now producing their own tees. They claim they’re “sweatshop free” (though no indication of any accreditation or auditing scheme) and that they’re a blend of the two different types of tees they’ve used in the past – which sounds tops (the American Apparel ones were too thin, the Fruit of the Loom were too boxy).

My favourite t-shirt company just got better 🙂