Humanistic Capital Links Producer to Consumer through Fashion Brand Runa

Production and consumption, once so closely interconnected in our daily lives, now sit as binary opposites in modern consumer culture. Whilst our ancestors would have been a dab hand with needle and thread, it is virtually impossible for us to know where our clothing has come from and who has made it – we just walk into a store and buy what we need instantly.

Humanistic Capital aims to change this. It’s an umbrella concept founded by Alex Probodziak, final year Oxford student and Head of Internal Relations at Oxford Entrepreneurs, to house a new fashion brand – Runa (meaning person, putting the ‘human’ back into the production process). Probodziak was inspired to create the fair-trade fashion brand, Runa, because he was aware that whilst trade and manufacture can do a lot of good, workers in developing countries particularly are often exploited and long, complex supply chains creates a disconnect between producer and consumer. Focusing on Colombia, Alex seeks to tackle the situation in which workers are underpaid and exploited. The project will pay textile workers a fair-wage, and allow the buyers of the fashion items to see exactly how the money spent goes towards goals of the workers, using a web 2.0, infographic style internet platform. The workers’ goals are continuously updated. This not only immediately impacts the lives of the workers in a positive way, but also creates and nurtures a new, dynamic relationship between consumer and producer.

Alex and the team intend to start a crowdfunding campaign later this month and they are currently developing the first six fashion pieces for Runa in their Columbian workshop. If all goes to plan the first full Runa collection will launch for SS14, aimed at the ‘confident, vibrant young professional’. I certainly look forward to seeing what they come up with!

Check out their website for more information on the project and find out how to contribute to their crowdfunding campaign. Further down the line Runa will have its own website where you can buy their beautiful pieces and track the impact of your purchases.

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Bangladesh Factory Collapse – News and Comment Round-up

Nearly two weeks after the collapse of the Bangladeshi factory complex the story continues to dominate the news. Some 3000 workers were inside the Rana Plaza, an 8 storey illegally constructed factory complex in Dhaka, 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. The death toll has now reached 550, including children who were in the crèche facilities. Some lay under the rubble half alive for days, others are still missing.

When I first heard about this, my primary emotion (perhaps surprisingly) wasn’t sadness, but anger. As the death toll rose and I watched footage on the TV, the anger dissipated to deep sadness and despair. It isn’t the first disaster in a Bangladeshi clothing factory, in the last eight years alone 1000 people have died in similar incidents and fires, but it is the worst to date. My only hope is that the disaster acts as a wake-up call for the industry, and for western consumers. It’s all too easy to detach yourself from where your clothes are made, but the truth is any one of us could have clothing in our wardrobes made and touched by the hand of someone who died that day. I certainly don’t want to have blood on my hands.

I’m glad the press have taken to this story, I mean of course they would, it’s world news, it would have been pretty hard for the British public to have missed it. The Financial Times challenged the world’s retailers to start using their ‘economic muscle’ to fight for change for properly enforced safety standards in factories, although, as pointed out by The New York Times, this isn’t easy when 10% of the parliamentary seats in Bangladesh are held by factory owners and their families. The retailers involved in sourcing from the Rana Plaza complex have been named and shamed by the press, after coming forward themselves with statements. Benetton had had an order completed by one of the factories housed there some weeks before, stating in a press release that it had be subcontracted out to the factory by one of its other suppliers.

Subcontracting is a massive problem. Often the factories visited by UK buyers and merchandisers are nice enough, like the one below visited by my colleague Ellie Tighe (read Ellie’s comment to ITV news here). It’s when orders are outsourced that the greatest problems occur, and whilst this isn’t the retailers fault per say, they do have a responsibility to fully audit and trace their supply chains. Retailers can’t continue to shift the blame to subcontractors; they should know what each supplier’s capacity is and what their workload is.

Dhaka Clothing Factory Copyright: Ellie Tighe

Dhaka Clothing Factory Copyright: Ellie Tighe

What can consumers do?

So what can we do? I hope a number of people are contemplating this very question in light of the tragic events. Should we boycott clothes made in Bangladesh? Personally, I have certainly tried to avoid anything made in Bangladesh for the last couple of years, and I do boycott Primark for promotion of fast fashion, but avoiding the high street all together is tough. David Blair, commenting in The Telegraph advocates a boycott of Primark and its owners, Associated British Foods, placing the responsibility firmly with the consumer.

But Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of clothing in the world, if we stop buying it, what will happen to those workers? The working conditions and wages may seem anything from less than favourable to utterly appalling from our standards, but things are slowly improving in many instances. Clearly, less developed countries have a different measuring stick to us; what I have a problem with is Western retailers and consumers exploiting this for their own gain. We do not need this cheap, fast fashion. We are well clothed. People should not be dying so that we can buy a little t-shirt for the same price as a large frothy coffee.

Labour Behind the Label have a quick and easy guide to shopping more ethically here.

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House of Lords: Baroness Young of Hornsey ‘Ethics and Sustainability in the Fashion Industry’

On Tuesday 19th March 2013 Baroness Young of Hornsey opened the second debate on ethics and sustainability in fashion at the House of Lords. It was great timing for me, as I had just organised a workshop day on ethical fashion and was about to present the outcomes of this during Multidisciplinary Research Week at the University of Southampton. One of my suggestions during these talks was that we need greater Government involvement and intervention so it was fantastic to see this debate going ahead. Government intervention will help change progress quicker, either with greater regulation, tighter controls or tax breaks for ethical and sustainable clothing.

WhoMadeYourPants? provide jobs to marginalised women to produce pants in the UK

WhoMadeYourPants? provide jobs to marginalised women to produce pants in the UK

You can catch up with the debate yourself at or read the transcription here. I made some notes, which I will just list in bullet points:

• Fashion is global and local
• Cheaper to dump dye affluent than clean and reuse it
• 400 people died in factory fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan in last 6 months
• Should have better traceability measures & country of origin labelling
• Horse meat equivalent in fashion industry = cotton as it is often impossible to know where it’s from
• Need for leadership from government to support change makers, ethical initiatives and work in partnership to educate consumers, investing in sustainable fashion SMEs
• We have the moral incentives to act and we have talent in the UK
• Role DFID Responsible and Accountable Garment Sector (RAGS) Challenge Fund
• Government can support ethical clothing through purchase of public sector uniforms
• Many ETI members are engaged in practices which attempt to integrate human rights across the supply chain
• Business secretariat efforts to support UK textile manufacturing
• 20 years after first child labour scandals in our high street chains, we still face same problems. Audit procedures are failing, retailers rely too much on cheap, bribable inspectors
• Need more opportunities to showcase best practice, like Estethica at LFW
• £140m of used clothing going to landfill each year we need to urgently address the issue of reuse, exchange and disposal of clothes
• Govt’s consultation on waste prevention last week identifies clothing as one of priority areas for action
• 95% of Brits would never wear real fur
• Green is not just the new black – it is not a trend
• Industry should discourage image of thin models
• Uzbek cotton = 10% of world’s harvest & 20% of their GDP
• Labour behind the label – calls for improvements in wages and health and safety
• Western companies must be more vigilant of the supply chain and take personal responsibility for supply chains
• Human society’s obsessive circle of creation and destruction
• We need ethical production in UK too, sweatshops do exist
• Consumer’s don’t understand the skills, resources and effort taken to make garments
• Can’t wait for retailers to put voluntary codes in place, we need to create laws for their compliance.
• Need – Reinvestment in UK textile industry, transparency of brands so people can make informed choices, legislation
• World market leaders in fashion
• Barbour makes all of waxed coats in UK – gives money to charity
• Scandinavian’s in lead with most sustainable issues
• Lord Giddens commends Vivienne Westwood for her work on climate change
• Buy less and wear it more – at the heart of how we change consumer behaviour, we are addicted to shopping.
• Benefits of clothes hiring services, retailers offering a mending/alterations service, buy back, clothing exchange events amongst consumers
• 2011, nearly 18000 students registered on fashion and textile course in the UK – influence there, need ethics and sustainability embedded into educational programmes

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Ethical Fashion Futures Workshop: Changing Habits in Retail

Back in the summer of 2012, fellow PhD retail researcher Ellie Tighe and I decided that there was something of a gap in the ethical fashion conversation. There was quite a lot going on in London; a number of ethical fashion events, but not academically or student centred. We came up with an idea to put on a small ethical fashion workshop, bringing together a number of academic fields (bearing in mind we are based in human geography) to try and debate the key issues and work towards some possible, practical(ish) solutions.

Ellie then went off to Dhaka, Bangladesh for a few weeks to continue her research and on her return we picked up the idea once again. Before we knew it, we’d been granted a small sum of funding from the faculty and there was no going back! As it was, it was one of the best things both of us have ever done. The workshop/conference day went ahead on Saturday 9th March, in the School of Geography, University of Southampton. It was great for networking and we had a really enjoyable day full of presentations and discussion. We had around 25 attendees including fashion, management and geography students, academics, and a couple of people with their own businesses. Charlie Ross, founder and director of the Offset Warehouse kicked things off by going to the start of the supply chain with a thoroughly engaging presentation on ethical and sustainable fabrics (with samples to touch and feel!).

First to admit that labelling a fabric as entirely ethical is a tricky business, Charlie talked us through some of the main problems in sourcing fabrics and what alternatives are available. Cotton for example, is heavily reliant on chemical pesticides and vast amounts of water. Organic and Fairtrade cotton is the obvious option, but other more unusual fibres are available to us including bamboo, banana and even milk fibre! One of Offset Warehouse’s ethical fabrics was recently taken on by Comme des Garçons for their high fashion collection. We later heard from Jeff Bray that sales of organic cotton have actually decreased, not a trend experienced by Charlie, whose business is growing year on year.

I spoke next, fusing my PhD research interests on second-hand stuff with fashion, I posed the question ‘Is vintage fashion elitist second-hand clothing?’ What is the distinction, and has the trend for vintage improved the street cred of second-hand clothing from charity shops and the like? The point in part was to shift our thoughts to the end of the product life cycle; to debate the view that if we are discussing ethics and sustainability, the best thing we can do is actually make the most of what we have. To consume less, and get the most use out of every single product. Simple really, but we like shopping. So if we can’t help ourselves from buying, and the retailers can’t help themselves from selling, who can step in?

For our third speaker, Tania Phipps-Rufus, that other influence comes from the Government. Tania, a law lecturer at Hertfordshire University raised concerns over the terminology used in the fashion industry as commonly used terms like ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ have no clear definition in a legal framework and are therefore open to misuse. Tania offered a fairly unique opportunity to get a legal perspective on the issues as she presented us part of an on-going project on eco-fashion, culture and law.

After lunch, we turned to social development issues with presentations by Dr Kanchana Ruwanpura of the University of Southampton, Dionne Harrison, Business and Capability Director at Impactt, and Ellie Tighe, PhD candidate at Southampton who is researching the Bangladeshi garment industry. All three speakers have seen the garment factories for themselves and spoken to garment workers and factory managers. These are the people with ground-level insights into the industry and labour practices. Dr Ruwanpura presented results of an ethnographic study in Sri Lanka and Pakistan where she had interviewed factory managers and workers on code of conduct awareness and compliance issues. In Sri Lanka, workers don’t earn a living wage and, as found in this study, workers thought that codes were violated nearly 40% of the time. You can follow up Dr Ruwanpura’s publications here.

It was fantastic to have Dionne from Impactt speak next. Impactt is a leading consultancy specialising in ethical trade, human rights, labour standards, gender and international development. Working with major brands, retailers, governments, academics and NGOs they strive to maximise the positive impacts of global trade. It is interesting to note that they are a business, not a non-profit enterprise and they have a wealth of knowledge and experience having worked with a diverse range of clients with offices in the UK, China, Bangladesh, India, Spain and Australia and a wide network of Impactt associates across Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Poland, Romania, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Thailand and Vietnam. I was quite surprised to hear Dionne talk of a labour skills shortage particularly in China, if this is the case why don’t wages get pushed up as a result of demand? Whilst an increasing number of brands are hiring in-house ethical trade teams, many prefer to call on Impactt for complex issues and/or to get a third party perspective.

Ellie’s presentation shifted focus to Bangladesh where she had carried out six months’ ethnographic work and interviewing. Ellie found that the main problems cited by garment workers were production demands (ie. It is a high-pressured job) and communication (general disrespect between management and workers), wages were cited as a third concern, whilst hours worked fell into the least discussed category. Outsourcing of orders is a serious problem, as these are the factories which fall under the radar and out of the retailer’s ‘selective’ vision.

Dr. Jeoffrey Bray led a fabulous end to the day with, in his words, a ‘controversial’ summary of discussions. A retailer by background, he came to the subject of ethical consumption due to academic curiosity rather than a desire to elicit change. He posed the common question, is ethical fashion an oxymoron? This needs a post of its own. We spent the day talking about clothing; ethical fashion has come to be the recognised vocab for these issues, I don’t see a need to get fastidious! Jeff brought a new dimension to the table, stating that sweatshops are fundamental to development. A job is better than no job.

The consumer should lead, the brands will follow. Do M&S care about ethics? – Jeff questioned – no, but they think their customers do. It is a shame that we didn’t have a high street retailer there to give their side of the story. A speaker had been lined up from a major young high street clothing chain, but couldn’t make it at the last minute. If we are to get into the mind of the shopper, we are very underequipped to understand ethical consumer behaviour. Studies to date have focused on a sample of already ethically-conscious consumers. Jeff’s recently completed PhD study aimed to add to this literature by surveying the general public, sending out questionnaires to 3000 households. Look out for future publications currently in review.

And a final point, many of us buy free range eggs, even students, so why not free range (ethical) clothing? Do we need a Jamie Oliver type figure of the fashion world to bring the issue to the mainstream? I pointed to Livia Firth and Emma Watson, but was reminded that outside of my ethical bubble and my desire to sniff out anything ethical fashion related, the average consumer is not confronted with these issues on a regular basis.

Follow up the day’s presentation slides here.

Proof that the day happened! I was too busy to remember to take photographs

Proof that the day happened! I was too busy to remember to take photographs

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A Peace Treaty: Ethical Fashion Spawned from a Jewish/Muslim Partnership

A Peace Treaty was founded in 2008 by Dana Arbib and Farah Malik to create ethically minded, artisan level fashion accessories and clothing for the luxury marketplace. I was so intrigued by their ideas and in love with their products, that I thought I would find out more . . .

1. How did A Peace Treaty come about?

Inspired by the hand-crafting cultures of the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and Africa, A PEACE TREATY was first conceived when Dana Arbib and Farah Malik met while living in Rome. The two discovered that they shared both a love of high fashion and a desire to increase awareness of ancient, disappearing crafting traditions from places typically seen only negatively through the media lens. Ultimately all of our designs are connected to our own traditions and heritage, and we draw inspiration from the places of our ancestry.

As a rare Jewish/Muslim partnership, Farah and Dana wanted to acknowledge the historical tension between their cultures as well as their commitment to bridging the gap in their own small way. And though there is an obvious political divide, APT’s aim isn’t solely to facilitate reparations through an unlikely business partnership, but also to highlight the many historical and aesthetic traditions that these cultures share. A Peace Treaty is a personal pact between two business partners, but we hope that ethos pervades every aspect of our business – from working with the artisans who create our collections to finding loving homes for each of our handcrafted pieces.

A Peace Treaty Necklace

2. Who is the A Peace Treaty customer?

Our customers are conscientious about what they consume across all categories – food, fashion, home goods, art, culture… They are not trend focused, but rather drawn to pieces they will treasure for years and years. They like to know the story behind the things they own – where they came from and who made them. They understand that “luxury” means something that is made by hand with love and care, regardless of the name on the label.

Nothing feels better to us than finding a loving home for one of our scarves or pieces of jewellery. When our customers are able to appreciate all that went into the making of each piece, we really feel the APT circle is completed.

3. What is your favourite piece in the current collection and why?

It is always hard to choose a favourite, but the VATURI scarf is one of the most personally meaningful pieces we’ve made. The print was inspired by the ceiling of The Great Synagogue of Rome (Tempio Maggiore di Roma) where Dana’s brother was married. The entire Spring 2013 collection was based upon her father’s upbringing in the Italian occupied Tripoli, and this synagogue holds significance to many Libyan Jews of that era.

4. I was interested to read your blog post on Nepal and maternal health. With the sad statistic that one woman dies every four hours in Nepal from pregnancy and childbirth related issues, can fashion actually make a difference?

YES! We are in the process of collaborating with a network of Dalit women’s cooperatives. Dalit women are of the most oppressed in Nepal, and truly of the world, since they have virtually no status in the country, leading to horrible health and human rights conditions, no economic mobility, and illiteracy. These cooperatives have, over the past few years, worked to foster education, health, women’s empowerment, and economic independence within small groups of about 20 women. Up until this point however, the collectives have not had a sustainable way of generating income and have been forced to rely on subsistence farming and often times unreliable husbands working abroad. When women are able to gain their own economic independence, they can afford enough food to feed the family, send their children to school, and pay for adequate healthcare. Little by little, the cycle of poverty is halted.

We are currently working to establish a traditional cashmere weaving co-operative, which would be fully owned and operated by members of the collective. The co-op provides a breadth of opportunities for women beyond a sustainable means of earning income, empowerment and skills sharing – it gives them elevated status within the larger Nepalese community. Furthermore, the global fashion audience garners an appreciation not only for the aesthetic of the product, but for the artisans behind it, bringing Dalit women into the public eye. Thus, fashion, when approached from an ethical standpoint, truly has the power to sustainably improve lives of marginalized communities.

A Peace Treaty Scarf

5. You’ve designed two scarf collections for Ralph Lauren, can you tell me about that collaboration.

Very soon after we launched, we received a call from the design team at Ralph Lauren asking us to come in for a meeting. After a successful collaboration with TOMs, they were looking for more socially conscience brands with which to partner. The collection that resulted was based upon their seasonal colour story, but the aesthetic had a decidedly APT feel. The pieces were inspired by regional tartan weaving and were hand-loomed by small family textile makers across 8 different villages and towns in Pakistan.

6. What does the rest of 2013 have in store for A Peace Treaty?

We are always looking to expand into new and different regions and to collaborate with brands and artists we love. We have always wanted to do projects in Africa and have been exploring different handcrafting cooperatives in Ghana and Nigeria. We are also hoping to include new accessory categories and potentially apparel. It’s going to be a big big year!

APT is available at Rtister

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Fashion’s Dirty Secrets Exhibition by Ms Wandas

As part of the 2012 E17 Art Trail, Ester Freeman, aka Ms Wandas, curated an exhibition of photography showing the dirty secrets of the fashion industry. I popped along in the week to see the images up close and visit the Ms Wandas pop up shop which was raising money for the non-profit organisations that had donated the photographs. If you missed it, you can still see the ten images online and read the stories behind the pictures.

The images were donated by Greenpeace, Traid, Action Aid and Anti-Slavery International. The river in China is polluted by factory waste so hazardous that it peels off skin. There is the story of a young boy, made to work 12 hour shifts in a cotton mill in Tamil Nadu, India with little food and rest. Images of young women in a Sri Lankan factory referenced with quotes such as “The security men in the factory stopped my parents and brothers from visiting me. When I refused to do over time, I got shouted at. It was worse than prison.” Anagha, 20.

Copyright: Qui Bo/Greenpeace

If you would like to see the exhibition in full, there is still time tomorrow evening to join in the fun at the Rose & Crown pub in Walthamstow. As well as the exhibition they’ll be music, drinks, cakes, raffles and more. See the Art Trail website for more info.

Copyright: Anti-Slavery

See the images online here

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