Is it all unethical?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the term “ethical” in relation to my clothing business. When I was writing this post the other day, I was thinking – how amazing is it that we kind of accept that the fashion industry operates unethically.

I thought, how hard must it be to turn up to work knowing that you’re contributing to sweatshop labour and environmental damage just so you can do your day job? That by accepting working in the industry, you are effectively accepting unethical work practices.

Having spoken to a few folks since, however, I’ve started to work out that there are a lot of folks working in the industry that are, in fact, wanting and trying to do the right thing – it’s not as clear cut as I once thought.

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The stories we tell

Around the launch of his book, All Marketers Are Liars, Seth Godin wrote a lot about stories – the stories businesses tell when selling their products, and the ones that we, as customers, tell ourselves about products and companies.

I’ve been thinking a little about this over the past few weeks, thinking about what sort of story the (yet to be named) clothing label will tell, and also looking at what sort of stories existing ethical labels are telling.

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Fabric printing

After making my decision to make the change at work, I decided to have a quick look at what relevant community college courses might be around next year. I found this fabric printing course and decided, on a whim, to give it a go.

Although I don’t see myself actually doing the printing, I wanted to learn about the concepts. I also thought it might be a good way to meet other people doing interesting stuff, but also just to have a bit of fun and to feel like I’m actually moving forward on this idea, even though I can’t really do a whole lot until early next year.

One thing I’ve worked out pretty quickly is that there doesn’t really seem to be an environmentally sound method of printing. Even though you can use water-based inks, which manufacturers claim are non-toxic and can be washed into our waterways (a claim I’m yet to fully examine), the process of creating the screens seems to be either using plastic sheeting (Ezycut – for short runs) or photo emulsion, which uses photographic chemicals – neither of which is environmentally sound.

One of my hopes for the products is that perhaps, some day – when we have the money and resources to do so – to get our clothing Cradle to cradle certified. I can’t really see a way, unless we can properly recycle the chemicals or find an alternative method of creating the screens, to achieve that goal while using these printing techniques.

I’m also pretty sure that the C2C review will find all sorts of issues with printing ink, despite the general view that it’s “safe”, that make it unsuitable for C2C certification. And this doesn’t even venture into the world of fabric dyes, either, which are likely to have even more impacts!

In either case, that’s a longer-term goal – and there’s a lot of ways to be much more environmentally friendly than most manufacturers without getting to this level of detail. But I do want to ensure that our design process takes these things into consideration from day one – looking for alternatives and designing these kind of problems out of our products.

For example, if we design shirts that don’t require printing we remove one potential problem from the production process. And if we find clever ways to use undyed fabric, even better. (I should be clear that I’m not talking the “natural hippy” look here – just using natural fabric in clever ways within a fashion context.)

Certification and greenwashing

One of the things I’m very keen on is for my new venture to be an authentic company – one that is really doing the right thing and not just “greenwashing”.

It always bugs me when I see fallacious claims from the latest “we’re on the bandwagon” company that’s joined the green brigade. And as a “consumer” it’s usually (though not always) easy to pick the real deal.

It seems, though, that regulators such as the ACCC are starting to take an interest, with plans to crack down on greenwashing. Such moves make it all the more important to truly walk the walk.

It strikes me that one of the best ways to do that is to participate in independently verified certification schemes that support any claims made.

There are plenty of schemes out there, from using certified organic cotton to the Fairwear “No Sweatshop” label to the Fair Trade standards and Clean clothes codes of conduct.

All of these certifications does have a cost associated with it, and many are “compatible” with each other – and as the business progresses I’ll be looking into many of these in further detail (there’s already some discussion and review on the old blog as a starting point).

On that front I was interested to read this week a news report about the Green Pages’ “Principles of Sustainable Fashion” and the related Eco Runway Show.

From the press release:

Katie Patrick, CEO and founder of Green Pages,
points out that whilst a range of international environmental standards exist along with Australia’s own Good Environmental Choice standard, not one fashion brand in Australia has adopted a comprehensive environmental standard.

The Eco Runway Show will highlight designs from Akira, Gorman, Vixen, Sara Victoria, India Flint, Romance-was-Born, Rachael Cassar, Camilla, Nudie Jeans, and more, that comply with the Principles.

The principles are a “starting point”, calling on designers to create products:

  • Being made of at least 50% organic cotton or wool, hemp, silk or bamboo fibres.
  • Incorporating dyes and pigments that are vegetable-based.
  • Incorporating recycled or reclaimed materials.
  • Incorporating materials with Fair Trade Certification.
  • Incorporating recycled synthetic fibres.

As a purely environmental standard, the principles don’t include labour standards (I don’t believe you can separate the two issues, but I’ll talk more on that another time) – but they are indeed a good starting point.

The PDF media release (PDF 130 KB) highlights a number of standards and bodies working on the environmental impact of textiles – and form the basis of the Green Pages’ broader call for fashion labels to take account of their entire footprint (incl. carbon and waste) rather than just in the materials they use.

I’ll certainly be looking into these further over time, as it seems to me this kind of standard would be a good thing for our label to support.

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 🙂

ProgressWear

ProgressWear – cool tees with a message [via Zeldman]. This is a direction I was thinking about for huméco some time ago (along with Justin), but we swayed away from it (and in the end imploded) so I’m really glad to see someone putting out some cool “progressive” messages. Couldn’t find any info on the site about sourcing though – not sure if the product is ethically produced. This one’s my fave so far…