“Dead White Man’s Clothes”

Did you see the ‘Secret Life of Your Clothes’ last night? The BBC2 This World documentary followed the fate of your charity shop donations, showing that most of your old clothes don’t end up on the rails of your local Oxfam at all, but thousands of miles away in Africa. This has never been something charities wanted to admit but it is a massive business. It’s also something I had mixed feelings about – charity shop prices aren’t that cheap anymore, they always seem to be begging for donations, and to think that they have all this surplus that they are shipping out to the poorest countries of the world not in aid but to sell to them (the bales are always tightly packed and wrapped so it’s pot luck what traders end up buying).

In the programme Ade Adepitan follows the trail to Ghana, the biggest importer of our castoffs. One million pounds’ worth of our old clothes arrive here every week. Ade meets the people who making a living from our old castoffs, from wholesalers and markets traders to the importers raking in a staggering £25,000 a day. They call them ‘dead white man’s clothes’. The documentary really did show a story of two-halves. On the one hand, people are building businesses selling second-hand clothes (the size of the markets were astonishing) and trade is booming; but on the other hand, local traditional textile businesses are struggling to compete on the low prices of second-hand fast fashion. The second-hand clothes are simply much cheaper, and not only that but many young Ghanaians want to wear Western clothing. It shows that they ‘know what’s out there’.

I think we’ve actually become used to seeing Africans wear Western clothing, haven’t we? Where did we think they came from? At one point Ade visits a professional factory that have specialised in uniforms and exporting garments to the US. The factory manager describes how Africa has become a dumping ground for stuff – ‘when will it end?’ she says. I understand her frustrations but it’s hard to deny that the second-hand economy is thriving and these are clothes that still have plenty of life left in them. Yes we should be consuming more sustainably in the West but part of me is pleased that these clothes can be loved and used after we’ve discarded them.

Ade makes the point that these clothes go full circle – from being manufactured by some of the poorest people in the world they come back to some of the poorest people in the world, via a few months in our UK wardrobes. In Ghana it’s so difficult for their own factories to stay afloat they have to specialise (funeral wear was the example they gave) and/or export. In the UK we import African-produced products via fair trade groups and Western-based social enterprises/businesses who sell their wears to the middle-class ethics conscious consumer looking to divert from the fast fashion mainstream. These networks of trade are astonishing, clothing perhaps more than any other product really do link the world together within this evitable thing we call globalisation.

You can catch up with the show here.
If you are interested in the academic debates on this topic I recommend the work of Dr Andrew Brooks.

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My New Job! Supermarket service design for elderly consumers

EmpressWalk supermarket

I’ve been in my new (postdoc) job for six weeks now and am really enjoying it. Getting a position, either academic or non-academic, post-PhD is real worry for most doctoral students. Just as there are too many undergraduates passing through university for not enough graduate-level jobs, we get constantly bombarded with the fact that there are too many doctoral students chasing a handful of academic posts. Whilst you become highly qualified as a doctoral student, your area of expertise is always extremely specific. To give yourself the best chance of getting an academic job, you’re expected to have a brilliant PhD thesis, journal papers, teaching experience, admin experience and evidence of outreach work. Ideally, all within 3 years.

To be honest, I never bought into the pessimistic outlook. Whilst competition is tough, I knew I’d done everything I could do to improve my chances (although I never saw it that way – I just like going to conferences, teaching, tweeting etc) and a good PhD from a Russell Group university. Plus watching fellow doctoral students go before me, it always seemed to work out for people in the end. Luckily, it worked out for me very quickly and I got offered a great research fellow job at Winchester School of Art (part of the University of Southampton still, but under the business faculty) to start the day after my doctoral funding ended. The post is for 18 months working on an ESRC project. It is a perfect match for my multi-disciplinary social science/design background and uses the same methods as my PhD work but working on a different problem.

The project I’ve joined is called ‘Silver Shoppers: Designing a better supermarket service for the older customer’ with Dr Yuanyuan Yin and a research team at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The aim of the project is to investigate the problems older shoppers face when grocery shopping and to come up with some new design solutions. Some examples of previous design ideas can be found on the project exhibition website. The ESRC funding creates the opportunity to expand the research across the UK and across China, so we’ll be running a parallel study out there next year. My main role is to assist with the shopping-with-consumer observational research and conduct face-to-face interviews. The Chinese team will conduct the research in China but I’ll be over there for three months next year to oversee the process and ensure the methods we use match up. Exiciting! After the qualitatative research has been completed and data analysed we will be designing a large quantitative postal survey with shoppers aged 65+.

Whilst the project is predominately design-focused, I’m really interested in the social side of the story. Already in the focus groups, respondents have talked about the supermarket as the ‘community hub’ – the place where they bump into friends, get to know the staff and stop for coffee in the café. There is also a strong co-shopping theme, where the older but still very able respondents shop for their friends and neighbours, or give them a lift to the supermarket. With an aging population this research is timely and much needed, hopefully the ‘inclusive design’ outputs will be of benefit to all shoppers. I’ll try to provide project updates here as the research progresses and will be developing the project website in due course as well.

Image: “EmpressWalkLoblaws” by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine – Own work

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Diverse Economies and Alternative Channels of Consumption

A couple of months ago I went to a fascinating conference/workshop organised by the Geography department at the University of Leicester. It was called ‘Diverse Alternatives: living, working and playing differently in the capitalist mainstream’ and followed the department’s distinguished annual lecture by Professor Katherine Gibson (of J-K Gibson Graham) which was held the previous evening. J.K. Gibson-Graham is a pen name shared by feminist economic geographers – Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham. Their first book ‘The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy’ was published in 1996 and I read it last year – much of it over a fieldwork weekend in Newcastle, sat very contently in various coffee shops around the city.

My discovery of J-K Gibson Graham came at the perfect time as I’d be struggling to conceptualise what second-hand shopping (specifically the nearly new sales I study for my PhD) was. Was it an alternative form of consumption? Informal consumption? Inconspicuous consumption? Ordinary consumption? Whilst shopping as an activity and economic action has been studied now extensively by academics, second-hand consumption had been studied only a little. It had been pushed aside, yet it’s so common (isn’t it?). It’s fairly ordinary, yet so complex – perhaps that is what made it difficult to study. J-K Gibson Graham came to the rescue with their map of the diverse economy, the concept of which inspired the workshop I presented at in Leicester.

Gibson-Graham argue that whilst capitalist firms, wage labour, and market-oriented production produce the dominant discourse of the economy, a whole host of hidden labours and systems of exchange construct everyday life. The iceberg economy visualised here makes visible all other economic relations beyond wage labour and economic exchange.

The Iceberg Economy reproduced from Graham, J. (2001) Imagining and Enacting Noncapitalist Futures. Socialist Review, 28 (3 + 4): 93-135.

The Iceberg Economy reproduced from Graham, J. (2001) Imagining and Enacting Noncapitalist Futures. Socialist Review, 28 (3 + 4): 93-135.

So much work goes into maintaining the capitalist economy and it often goes unrecognised. The work of Gibson-Graham calls for a new way to look at the economy – everyday people in everyday places can be part of re-thinking and re-enacting economies. A diverse economy might be a voluntary run community cafe, a car sharing website or clothes swapping parties. Second-hand shopping or the general procuring of used goods is often considered ‘alternative’. How though, I ask, is the daily provisioning of a mother for her family ‘alternative’? And how is people passing on used clothes ‘alternative’ when we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years? If we’re talking about what’s novel historically, going to the shops every Saturday to buy a new dress would have been impossible for most people just a century ago. Shopping should be seen as ‘alternative’. Calling such diverse economies alternative (like second-hand stuff) just means they are alternative to the capitalist system. And capitalism is just that – a system, or an institution. It’s not life, it’s not the only way, it’s just one way. For this reason I really like the term diverse; it’s less loaded than alternative. The nearly new sales I study are a diverse economy.

Renowned geographer David Harvey has published a new book ‘Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism’. In it he says ‘the economic engine of capitalism is plainly in much difficulty.’ I haven’t read it yet but there is a section entitled ‘capitalism as a process or thing?’ and he calls for the need of an open forum ‘a global assembly, as it were — to consider where capital is, where it might be going and what should be done about it.’ Can anything be done about it? I don’t know. I’m not anti-capitalism, I just don’t think it should rule, but where capitalism is no other alternative gets a real look in. We just need to regain control of it as a system, not a way of life.

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In Search of Sustainable School Uniform

Website_ecooutfitters
A few weeks ago I was in the FAIR shop, Brighton, chatting to owner Siobhan about the perils of kid’s school uniforms. Manufactured in their masses and worn five days a week by children in the UK they are a significant part of the clothes economy. Parents also have little control over what they must buy as most schools have designated suppliers, and certainly regulations on colour and style. Most suppliers focus on price and practicality, resulting in cheap synthetic materials which might wash well but could be uncomfortable and unhealthy to wear, and manufactured with little ethical regard for people and planet.

Just days after this chat I heard from Ecooutfitters, the first independent school uniform brand. Ecooutfitters school uniforms are made of ethically sourced, 100% organic cotton certified by the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS), ensuring that production meets rigorous environmental and social standards. Thus an Ecooutfitter uniform cares for every individual in the chain not least the children that wear them. The entrepreneurs behind the brand, Marina and Irina, are both mothers themselves and were inspired by the desire to dress their young boys in natural, healthy fibres every single day, not just at the weekends. They said ““When you consider that our children are forced to wear these harmful fabrics for some 36.5 hours a week, running around all day, getting hot, sweaty and agitated, at a vital stage of their development, we knew something had to be done and Ecooutfitters was born.”

The British Skin Foundation has reported a dramatic rise in the number of children in the UK suffering from irritable skin conditions, with at least 10% of children suspected to suffer from eczema during their childhood. Many items of children’s clothing is Teflon coated to repel stains but such chemicals can irritate delicate skin and detrimental long term effects on health aren’t really known. Whilst Marina and Irina were motivated by the desire to banish such chemicals from their children’s wardrobes, they quickly learnt about the hugely devastating effects of the non-organic cotton industry on the communities and the environment around the world.

ecooutfitters shorts

Production of a single cotton T-shirt requires a third of a pound of dangerously toxic pesticides, the effects of which result in 77 million cases of poisoning recorded every year, 20,000 of which result in death. These revelations put ethical production at the heart of the Ecooutfitters mission and since organic cotton doesn’t use dangerous pesticides, protecting farmers’ lives and the environment, it became an obvious choice. “Our uniforms are not only healthier, comfortable and ethical, but competitively priced, durable and practical, disproving the widely held belief that cotton uniform cannot withstand the playground test.”

For more information, to buy or to nominate your school to offer the Ecooutfitters uniform, go to www.ecooutfitters.co.uk

For more information on the concerns about chemicals found in children’s wear, take a look at Greenpeace’s Little Monster campaign

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Book Review: Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

stitchedupbook

You can’t have missed the media coverage marking the one year anniversary of the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse. Some 3000 workers were inside the Rana Plaza, an 8 storey illegally constructed factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when it collapsed at around 9am on Wednesday 24th April 2013. The factories produced clothing for major Western fashion brands including Primark, Matalan, Bon Marche and Mango. 1,138 people died; a heart-breaking consequence of the West’s addiction to cheap, fast fashion.

This is just one, albeit horrific example of the dark side to fashion; an industry built on the image of glamour, wealth and beauty. A new book aims to draw all that’s bad about the fashion industry together into one hard-hitting, brutally honest volume. Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion was written by Tansy Hoskins, the writer, journalist and activist. Case-by-case Hoskins dissects the industry we all love to hate by investigating the plight of the garment workers, the insatiable want of consumers, and the manipulative nature of the media industry. This book surpassed my expectations. There are many books on ethical fashion out there, some more wishy-washy than others. Hoskins attempt is admirable and a credit to her top-notch investigative journalism skills alongside her genuine passion for the topic. If you liked Lucy Siegle’s To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World? you’ll devour Stitched Up much like I did.

“There is no difference between a knight and any other man except what he wears”

This apparent quote from Robin Hood is Hoskins choice of opener. I’m not sure I would have opted to quote folklore whilst arguing for a realist shift in thinking about a multi-billion pound industry but nevertheless Hood makes an important point. Clothing is the most visible way we have to express our identity, status and values. Fashion is a global industry that we all take part in and Hoskins’ book helps us to take a more critical stance on it.

Each chapter looks at a different issue, from the cotton farmers at the start of the supply chain to the models showing off the final product and all of the sizest, racist taunts surrounding them. She delves straight into the politics and doesn’t shy away from an academic treatment of the subject, in fact, she loves Karl Marx, whose rules of labour and capital are called upon in virtually every chapter. Her key message is that capitalism is the root cause of all that’s bad in the fashion industry and individual action alone cannot reform it. Instead, we need a complete transformation of society, a new way of living and working to foster equality and quash class hierarchies. This she discusses in the final two chapters ‘Reforming Fashion’ and ‘Revolutionising Fashion’.

My only problem with the book is this disregard for the individual. Hoskins does a great job of building up a picture of a rotten industry, built on exploitation and greed, but it leaves the reader feeling helpless. Her concluding suggestions for a revolution are, in her own words, a “distant possibility”. I like to dream with the best of them, but I can’t envision a non-capitalist future unless something really terrible happens and we revert back to subsistence living out of necessity – it certainly won’t be an idealistic utopian society.

At one point she says, “As disappointing as it may be to hear this, there are no ethical clothes for sale”. I disagree. She destroys the likes of TOMS, who she says turned “poverty into a marketing ploy” and disregards CSR and ethical sourcing attempts of high street retailers as little more than greenwash. She gives the impression that as consumers we can do nothing right, we have no power (so therefore we might as well just shop?!). But I think there are ethical retailers, People Tree for example, who work with small fair trade groups and sustainable materials, are they not intrinsically a good?

As I hinted at before, this is a book for educated readers. It’s well researched, as evidenced by the extensive notes section and bibliography. It’s not a coffee table fashion book; although it does has some wonderful illustrations inside. It’s a must-read for students studying fashion, media, business, human geography or retail, along with inquisitive souls with a desire to know more about what exactly they have in their wardrobe. If I could make it law for everybody to read this book, and others like it, I would, because it’s important, and real, and something we can all play a part in to create change. I think Hoskins has succeeded in setting out what she hoped to do.

You can buy Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion direct from Pluto Press for £13.50. Don’t go to Amazon!

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Crafted Leather Bags and Accessories: Review and Q&A with Gusti Leather

gustibag
Gusti Leather produce beautiful leather bags and accessories in Germany and have recently launched on ASOS Marketplace. I’ve been lusting after a satchel bag for quite some time now so I was thrilled when I saw the range they offer, and at half the price of another well-known UK satchel company! Gusti kindly sent me a bag to review and answered my concerns on ethics and sustainability. I am definitely a fan of leather, but when I recently learnt that the water footprint of leather is huge, however otherwise ethically it is produced and processed, I started to have second thoughts. I’m confident that Gusti Leather is as ethical as it gets and I will be proudly using my bag as much as possible. I strongly believe that the most sustainable thing to do is to consume less, and with my Gusti bag I don’t plan on buying a new bag for a very long time indeed. If you want a well designed, beautifully crafted bag that will last for years to come I’d strongly recommend checking out their products.

The M7 satchel arrived with a small pot of leather polish to treat the material and keep it clean and supple. The leather is gorgeously soft and has a vintage look I love. Beautifully hand-crafted, this is a top quality bag and the perfect size for daily use (it fits A4 paper inside, has separate compartments and a zipped section). Gusti have a wide range of products from rucksacks and travel bags to laptop bags and jewellery. They also have a workshop in Germany offering an efficient repair service, and the opportunity to customise your own unique bag. For more information on Gusti check out the interview below.

baggustibrighton2

1. When was Gusti Leather established and what prompted the launch of the business?

Karys: The original German business, Gusti Leder was established in 2011 by my current boss, Mr. Christian Pietsch. He studied Business Studies here at the University of Rostock and opened his first small shop towards the end of his studies. The reason behind choosing to sell leather products stems from simply noticing leather products on his short holidays to India and Morocco. He began meeting with family-run production firms and created working relations which led to the direct delivery of leather bags to us here in Rostock.

Christian regularly sends new designs and ideas to the producers, in addition to making spontaneous visits to keep check that they are following regulations on fair working conditions and fair payment- this is something that we really are very strict on.

2. What’s the difference between goat hide and cow hide?

The initial difference is the animal from which the hide, or the coat, originates. However, when the leather is worked into an end-product, such as a handbag or purse for example, you can really tell the difference from the thickness of the leather. Goatskin is slightly thinner and therefore a more flexible material. Cowhide is thicker and because it doesn´t wrinkle or fold/bend so easily, it is a lot smoother.

3. How do you ensure the production process is as environmentally friendly as possible?

The vast majority of our products are tanned and dyed with vegetable based solutions- completely without the use of chemicals. The leather is dunked in a form of water-based solution containing various tree barks (for example, Mimosa bark), indigo, saffron, and poppy and left for around two weeks; it is then sun-dried to give it a lovely golden brown tone. This also adds to the natural look of each item, and makes each one unique- no two pieces of leather look the same.

4. How can you claim that your products are ethical and sustainable, when they are made of leather?

Many people will probably think that “leather” and “sustainable” or “ethical” don´t belong in the same sentence, which is completely understandable. We try to assert that our products are sustainable because we believe in the high quality of them. Even though all of our products are unique and individual- as is always the case with leather- we are proud that they are all created to the highest standards possible. When a customer purchases an item from us, we offer the guarantee that that item is well crafted and will therefore last a lifetime: this is reflected in our prices. Our items are one-off purchases and can also be seen as investments. We do not expect that our products will need to be thrown away after one-year of use, and for this reason we consider ourselves to be able to offer sustainable products.

Regarding the issue of “ethics”, all of our leather is a by-product from meat slaughter. We in no way support nor advocate the slaughter of animals purely for their fur or skin. We use the hides from animals which are slaughtered for Halal meat production, which, when you consider the amount of useable meat and the bones/innards from each one, amounts to only around 4% of the total animal.

5. What’s the best way to care for our lovely Gusti leather?

Each and every one of our products is delivered with a small pot of colourless leather balsam derived from plants, such as castor oil and rice bran. We recommend that this balm be applied to the leather product as often as required in order to boost its shine, or simply to cover any scuffs or scratches.

6. What are your plans for the future?

We are currently expanding our business into the UK, France, Spain and Italy. We already sell via eBay and Amazon to these countries, but our new website is designed to be a lot more user friendly, and the option to change between languages will make buying from us a whole lot easier, particularly for those with little German knowledge!

We are also really proud to offer Custom Made bags- the customer can choose any bag from our range and send us a sketch or photo of a design that they would like to have incorporated onto the bag. We have a team of seamstresses here in Rostock that is responsible for creating these unique, individual items. And this is something that we definitely want to push as a unique selling point in the near future.

See www.gusti-leather.co.uk or buy at ASOS Marketplace

BagGustiBrighton

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