There's been a bit of chatter about microplastics in the last year, particularly since David Attenborough got everyone suddenly fired up about plastic pollution with Blue Planet 2. I wrote about Safia Minney talking about microfibres back in February's blog. I've been thinking about the implications of them on Lost Shapes' decisions on and off since.
But this week the big guys have weighed in: The Institute of Mechanical Engineers have published a report on the sustainability of the fashion industry, nicely summarised here by My Green Pod. It estimates that 'each time an item of clothing is washed, up to 700,000 microscopic fibres make their way into our oceans'. These microscopic fibres come off all our clothes that contain plastic - that's anything with polyester, nylon, acrylic, and many more new fabrics - are too small for water treatment facilities to catch, so end up in water systems, rivers, seas, and eventually fish.
Also this week, Friends of the Earth have launched a petition urging retailers to take action on microplastics in clothes, specifically asking them to:
1. Identify the worst-offending materials in their clothing.
2. Find alternatives that don't harm people and the environment.
As a consumer, I'm all behind this, and look optimistically forward to seeing a whole lot less plastic in clothing options, but as Lost Shapes - well, you need to know what I'm thinking:
Before we knew about microplastics, recycling seemed like a good solution to the unwanted single-use plastic around. On the basis of this, and in good faith, I have printed some of the Lost Shapes range on sweatshirts made from a mix of organic cotton off-cuts, and recycled plastic bottles - the Salvage range. It seemed a perfect solution. I've also more reluctantly used sweatshirts that, while predominantly made from organic cotton, had a small amount of polyester for strength.
Trying to do the best for the environment is tricky, and it's just that - TRYING. There's always balance, and I'd be very suspicious of any brand that said it has sustainability all sorted. It would be easy to just say that I'll no longer sell anything with polyester in, and if I made a big deal of that, it would be quite good for marketing. But the truth is, I have a fair amount of those sweatshirts still in stock, we've heard plenty about brands like Burberry and H+M burning unwanted stock, and that's clearly much worse than fibres from a small percentage of polyester coming out in the wash...
So here's the policy I've been working to for the last few months:
1. Continue to sell garments already in stock that contain small amounts of polyester.
2. Don't buy any more polyester/ acrylic/ nylon etc.
3. Source alternatives that are made solely from organic cotton, or blended with natural fibres such as tencel.
In the meantime, while we wait for big brands to respond to this challenge, Friends of the Earth have some great tips to minimise the impact of the clothes you have here. I'd love to hear your thoughts, and how other brands respond.
Something that's been really interesting to see during Fashion Revolution week, is people sharing their story of their ethical fashion awakening - the point that they realised that their clothes also had a story, and it generally wasn't a good one. For some it was the full on epiphany moment, often after watching The True Cost movie (more on this later), for me it's much more gradual, and it's very much entwined with my faith.
For the majority of my customers who probably aren't Christians, I realise your 'religious nutter: prepare to unfollow' alarms might be going off now, but bear with me. In previous blog posts I've written about my student slippery slope from 2nd hand clothes to fairtrade activism, and how I never intended to start an ethical clothing company, but there's a moral bottom line that I take as a given - or, as I put it then, 'I wouldn't kick a tramp or mug a child'. But I haven't really spoken about what's behind that.
In my church at the moment we're looking at the New Testament book of James - it's a book that really resonates with me because it's all about the hollowness of a faith that isn't echoed by actions. I don't think you need much of a Christian education to know how central the command to love your neighbour is, but James takes it further as he challenges those early believers to go beyond words into real deeds (and you thought the Suffragettes started the Deeds Not Words thing!). I was looking at this a couple of years ago in preparation for a talk about ethical fashion I was doing in a church, trying to find an appropriate quote about looking after widows and orphans. Instead I was socked in the stomach by this one:
"Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence... You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you."*
I don't know how someone living nearly 2000 years ago managed to forecast so well the model that our 21st century clothing industry would be built on, but I see a lot of truth in this. We might not feel like we live in luxury and indulgence, but the reality for most of us is that we have more than we need, and we have been able to have this because we have failed to pay the workers what they deserved. We probably don't feel that we murdered the innocent one, but we only have to look at the Rana Plaza disaster to see 1130 innocent people who did die from this messed up system.
This isn't supposed to be a preach - although I'd love to challenge those who do share my faith but haven't yet made the connection with the way they consume, to look at these words less abstractly. But it's part of my WHY - why, although I only really set out to print nice designs on clothes, ethical principles have become so absolutely essential to the way Lost Shapes is run, and how I live out my faith.
If you live near Frome, Somerset, join Fairtrade Frome and me for a free viewing of The True Cost film this Wednesday 2nd May at Frome Town Hall. Doors open 7pm.
*The Bible, James 5 v4-6.
Do we need role models? I saw this question on twitter this week and it got me thinking about how I'm quite independent and don't really need people - male or female - to look up to. At least that's what I THOUGHT I thought.
But after that initial reaction, amazing women who have definitely inspired me kept coming to mind, and I started to appreciate how key they have been to my development as a strong woman who believes she can make a difference.
For International Women's Day, then, a few of my favourite inspiring women:
Anita Roddick, Founder of the Body Shop and environmental and social activist.
Growing up in the 80s, Body Shop's container re-use, refusal to test on animals, fair sourcing of ingredients, and strident support of contentious campaigns was exciting and eye-opening. Later Anita's book 'Take It Personally: How to make Conscious Choices to Change The World' was enough to make me start to see that I had power - and responsibility - in the way I lived my daily life. In 2004 I heard her speak at Greenbelt Festival, and came away with her challenge that simply boycotting companies that exploited their workers wasn't enough - you need to tell them you are, and why.
Danielle Strickland, Speaker, Author, Social Justice Advocate. I've heard Danielle speak of amazing things from wisdom gained through working with Salvation Army for 22 years, but the thing that really struck recently was a story from her teens of her mum saying she needed more balance. She looked at Jesus, at church history, and recent history, and realised everyone who had ever done anything meaningful was unbalanced! As someone who occasionally puts too much store in the vagueness of balance and contentment, this set me alight!
My 'Auntie' Jo, nurse, midwife, health visitor in Brazil, Sudan, Somerset and elsewhere. Okay, Jo Sully wasn't famous (though her funeral showed just how many people she'd inspired), but as a child she showed me how much a tough woman could do, even in the 1960s. Single all her life, she meant I never felt I needed a man to complete me. A church leader before anyone had quite worked out if that was okay, because who could doubt the leadership gifting of someone who's delivered babies miles up the Amazon as a young woman?
There are many more - I feel like every time I read the biography of an inspiring man from the past there's an intelligent fiery mum behind the story!
I asked my kids last night who their famous Female Role Model would be and was really relieved that neither boy questioned why they would need a female one (look at Twitter if you're wondering if men really still do have issues with honouring Women's Day). Here's what they said:
Joe, 15: Emma Watson and Michelle Obama - both don't have elected political positions, but they've used their fame and their position to speak out and make a difference. He's quoting both of them in the first 'Speakers Corner' in his school library this week.
Bo, 14: Emma Watson, and if you're allowed a fictional character, Kamala Khan/ Ms Marvel, his number one favourite comic hero . Still grateful to the comic shop owner in Nottingham who suggested Ms Marvel a few years ago when Bo asked for recommendations for Marvel comics that didn't have 'women in inappropriate clothes' after we'd accidentally bought some pretty horrific vintage comics.
Eliza, 10: Also Ms Marvel, and Mae Jemison, astronaut. This is all thanks to the Lego Women of Nasa set, and Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, which Eliza has completely devoured despite finding reading hard. I'm struck by how clearly this shows the importance of real women's stories being shared in toys and books, and slightly relieved she didn't say a really irritating YouTuber!
See how Lost Shapes supplier Stanley/Stella is working with factories in Bangladesh to protect female workers from sexual harassment here.
Picture credits: 1. Anna Brindle, badge from The Frome Independent; 2. Rex Features; 3. Akio Nakamura; 4. DanielleStrickland.com; 5. UN; 6. Marvel; 7. lego.
You know I'd be pretty keen to see an exhibition dedicated to t-shirts, whatever the situation. T-shirts are my thing. But when it's in London's Fashion and Textile Museum, and it features two Lost Shapes designs, then it's hands-down unmissable. Even TimeOut included it in their 8 museum exhibitions we can't wait to see in 2018, and they're not biased like I am!
T-shirt: Cult - Culture - Subversion launched last Thursday, 'charting the history, culture and subversion of the most affordable and popular item of clothing on the planet'.
Featuring big names in fashion like Vivienne Westwood and Katharine Hamnett, and iconic band and political t-shirts from the last few decades and new digital technology, being picked out for the exhibition felt a bit like suddenly being allowed to play with the big boys. And along with the great reassurance that not only did others GET the designs, they valued them too (the two designs featured were my favourites from last year, but at the design stage I couldn't work out whether people would love them like I did), came the inevitable Imposter Syndrome - Did they mean to ask me? Do they know I'm not a real fashion designer?
Sometimes (okay, this might be the only time) the best way to get over yourself is just to put it out there and wear it on a t-shirt. So a couple of days before the private view I printed myself my new favourite tee. It worked pretty well in the first class train carriage too.
Carefully and imaginatively curated by the Fashion and Textile Museum in partnership with the Barnsley Civic, the exhibition is less a systematic history of the t-shirt than a rowdy celebration of its many forms. Although a timeline t-shirt rail gives a potted history - did you know that US underwear makers Hanes started producing the t-shirt in 1935, but they were a commercial failure? - it is the thematic organisation that makes it really interesting. Media coverage is inevitably focusing on the big names, with a whole slot in Newsnight interviewing Katharine Hamnett and visiting the exhibition, but I loved the democracy of the display. Indie designers like Lost Shapes are displayed alongside work from the Vivienne Westwood collection, and mass-produced commercial pieces such as the Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt. And the heat-sensitive Global Hypercolor t-shirt from the early 90s, of course - that would have been a serious omission...
The Over Optimistic t-shirt is displayed in the environmental section, amongst t-shirts and placards from Vivienne Westwood's Climate Revolution campaign and 'Single Use Plastic is Never Fantastic' slogan tees from Henry Holland. The power of the protest slogan forms a key part of the exhibition's political section, and especially Katharine Hamnett's 'Demand a Second Referendum' themed t-shirts and speech. "If you want to get the message out there, you should print it in giant letters on a T-shirt."
The Last Words section - 'the T-shirt's most resounding arguments and unanswerable questions', finishes by sandwiching 'We're All Doomed' between Vivienne Westwood's 'Up Green Europe' and Philip Normal's 'What Other People Think Of You Is None Of Your Business' in a bizarrely eclectic collections of statements.
You need to see the exhibition yourself if you're any kind of t-shirt fan, but my last words are a quote from curator Jenna Rossi-Camus, 'Wearing t-shirts is an intervention in public space - choose well and wisely!'.
Safia Minney is one of the true pioneers of the Fairtrade movement and a leading light in ethical fashion. So when I heard she was speaking at the Oxford Fairtrade Coalition AGM about her experiences of founding a Fair Trade Fashion Company on Monday I thought it was definitely time to pay my Oxford-based sister-in-law a visit. Other fellow fans who couldn't make it asked if I could share any insights, so this is less a cleverly crafted blog post or interview and more a summary of my notes - complete with omissions, misinterpretations and listener's bias!
Safia's background is covered on her own website, but she's best known for founding ethical clothing company People Tree over 25 years ago and her current role as Managing Director of ethical shoe company Po-Zu. She's also the author of several books including Slow Fashion and more recently Slave to Fashion, and she played a big part in the development of the True Cost Movie, which I've gone on about before, and will continue to go on about.
I was quietly pleased to hear her Fairtrade journey started with Oxfam shops, much as I described in a post last year. She undersells the massive drive and determination that must have taken her on from that point to travelling around the world setting up supply chains that honoured and supported workers and their skills; 'Surely economics could do better? We have an international mandate to deliver [ethical trade]'.
Her research for Slave to Fashion revealed children of twelve are still working as bonded or indentured labour in India, with women having to move on from factories frequently to escape sexual harassment and threat of rape. Research has also shown that very few high st brands are not involved in some way with unfair labour. There are glimmers of hope though - simple, cheaper smartphones have made them affordable for female garment workers, making it easier for them to report violations of labour or building standards.
In both the main talk and answers to questions she spoke about responding to the interest of the market. In the early days of People Tree, potential customers in Japan were more excited about craft, materials and sustainability than the human rights aspect, so she used this area of interest to draw them in, whilst ensuring it was also Fairtrade. When asked about trying to get quality indigenous textiles into a British market she pointed out the difficulties in a country where textiles are not highly valued. Asked where consumers are at now, she was enthusiastic about the eco-concept store to do ethical products justice, where aesthetics are well considered, stories behind brands told, and wider 'lifestyle opportunities' on offer. Storytelling came through repeatedly as key for brands to successfully convey the social impact of what they do. Brands should also look at collaboration, she says, speaking of the success of People Tree Japan's collaboration with Vogue and high end designers, People Tree's line designed by Emma Watson, and Po-Zu's breakthrough Star Wars collaboration (have you seen the Porg high tops??!) that continues to raise their profile.
Questions and answers also frequently touched different points of the enormous subject of what 'ethical' - a term that she says she initially avoided as it felt like a watering down of Fairtrade - means: When is it green-washing?; how do you choose between Fairtrade and sustainability when sourcing?; how do we keep Fairtrade pure as companies like Sainsburys develop their own accreditation?; how do you measure impact? These discussions could probably fill a blog or two, but Safia points to the importance of good grass roots organisations like the Fairtrade Foundation or Fashion Revolution to keep setting the standard and challenging companies, and encourages those of us committed to Fairtrade to keep buying from the pioneers like Traidcraft.
The final question from the audience was 'What next?', and while she may have given some hints (and we may have all interpreted them in different ways to suit our hopes!), I think we're going to have to wait and see. I'm just grateful that someone with that level of drive, stamina and skills uses it to break ground for human rights and make a way for the rest of us.
Read a new interview with Safia Minney about plastic micro-fibres in tap water here.
That's it now until Jan 2nd. If you're new to Lost Shapes because you were given something for Christmas - hello and welcome to the home of Lost Shapes' hand printed ethical clothing. On the questions page you'll see a sign up form for the mailing list - emails don't appear very frequently, but when they do you get first dibs on sales and special offers, so I recommend signing up now, ready for the January sale...
It's two weeks since we launched the 'Keep on Asking' slogan t-shirt, and now I'm asking: Why? What difference are our questions making? Are big brands even listening?
It was fantastic to see actress Lauren McCrostie (Miss Peregrine's School for Peculiar Children, Falling) wearing Keep On Asking this week, and prompting her fans to ask 'investigative and inquisitive' questions about the clothes they buy and where they came from.
Meanwhile, on her blog, Tolly Dolly Posh gave us 10 Simple Ways to Keep on Asking, including using your voice in the places you can be heard, and how to avoid being greenwashed.
So, what do we hope to gain from these questions, beyond a right-on feeling of being conscious and the fun of being a rebel?
Does change ever happen from ordinary people making a bit of noise?
I'm feeling optimistic. Here's why.
How I became a tea addict
Way back in the 1990s I was off to university with the beginning of an awareness of ethical trade - having dressed in Oxfam's finest for a few years due to lack of funds and a generally scruffy grunge style, I had also discovered their Fairtrade dark chocolate. And like drugs, one thing was leading to the next, and I was considering moving onto the hard stuff: Fairtrade tea. Fairtrade was pretty niche then, but it seemed to be a good way to show how mature and principled I was now my 'End Apartheid' poster wasn't relevant. So I bought a box of Fairtrade tea from Oxfam, and that lasted my the whole first year, as I didn't actually drink tea. However, sometime early in the second year that changed, I developed the tea addiction that still rules my life now, and I promptly dropped the Fairtrade for something cheap that I could buy easily in Asda.
Jump 20+ years, I'm firmly back on the Fairtrade mark, and most supermarkets sell a choice of Fairtrade products, including their own branded teas. Universities, offices and even towns (thanks, Devizes Fairtrade Group!) have become 'Fairtrade' due to their commitment to buying fair for their coffee breaks, and almost one in three bananas sold in the UK is Fairtrade.
How did this change happen? Because customers asked them to. While the pioneering work ensuring fair supply and workers premium was done by the Fairtrade Foundation, the shops sell what customers will buy. And enough of us pestered and then bought the stuff for it to go mainstream. I see a lot of encouragement in that.
What about clothes?
There's been progress there in the last year or so too. Ethical Consumer Magazine's August report covers fashion, and they note big leaps forward in the reporting and transparency of the big mainstream clothing brands. We did that! Okay, not just us, but one of the reasons is thought to be the increase in consumer pressure - after factory disasters and news of the horrific conditions of garment workers, customers and pressure groups have asked questions: 'Were your products made there? Are your workers treated well?' and they simply can't answer without a clear idea of their supply chain. Ethical Consumer write: 'We were surprised to find that over half of the high-street retail brands investigated scored an Ethical Consumer best for their supply chain management rating. This was a huge improvement from 2011 when it was around 20%.'
The Fashion Revolution 2017 report shows a similar story, with a big increase in brands responding to their #whomademyclothes campaign. The big brands are listening to us, because they're nothing without good PR and loyal customers.
So are we done with the questions?
Does that mean all these big brands are fine now, and we don't have to worry about ethical clothes any more?
Ooh no no no no... here's why we're gonna Keep On Asking:
1. Publishing your policies is a very small step - it makes it easier for us to check what's going on, but it doesn't guarantee they actually comply with their aims. Read this investigative report on Zara, H+M and Gap in China, for example.
2. If it's about pleasing customers/ good PR, we can't let them think it doesn't matter now.
3. We haven't even started on sustainability and pollution...
"As citizens, we have more power than we think. Our questions, our voices, and our shopping habits can have the power to help change the industry for the better. United we are even stronger ...
The more people who ask #whomademyclothes the more brands will listen."
You can buy your own Keep on Asking t-shirt just here.
We've been having fun with a bit of anticipation building on social media, but today is finally release day for the Lost Shapes x Tolly Dolly Posh collab range.
Tolly is a teen fashion blogger with a strong passion for responsible fashion and ambitions to become an ethical and sustainable fashion designer spreading the word about conscious consumption. Here's where it starts!
I first came across Tolly just over a year ago, when I was researching a blog post about whether it was possible to dress teenagers ethically. Then I was recommending her for fashion loving teenagers, but her posts on the struggles and triumphs of dressing ethically, nuanced and insightful thoughts about the industry, interviews with designers and actors, positive attitude to body confidence and great styling have meant her blog is now one of my favourites. (I'll link to it in a minute, but I don't want you to run straight off and forget about me!)
We started talking about working together during Fashion Revolution week last April, and developed the range through skype, sketchbooks, and hundreds of emails. Tolly wanted something that would promote questions about supply chain and who made the clothes, whilst being fun and appealing in their own right. We worked through colour schemes, what works well with screen printing, what people tend to buy. We discarded loads of great ideas along the way too (who knows, maybe we'll come back to some), and we spent a lot of time deliberating on levels of transparency of colours when it came to test prints. I'll let Tolly explain the ideas behind the two designs over on her blog, but the transparency was key: for a great screen print effect of layering colours, and for what it represents in the murky world of fashion.
We're both really pleased with the results - 'Keep On Asking' and 'Many Questions' - two beautifully coloured unisex designs with a retro feel, important message and, of course, great ethics:
'Keep on Asking' is hand printed in the UK with eco-friendly inks onto organic, fairtrade cotton sewn together in Fair Wear 'leader' rated conditions. It is part of the award winning Fair Share scheme, which means I pay an extra premium per t-shirt which goes directly to the workers;
'Many Questions' is hand printed in the UK with eco-friendly inks onto organic cotton sewn together in Fair Wear 'leader' rated conditions. It is 'Climate Neutral' as it is manufactured solely using renewable green energy from wind and solar power.
You can buy the t-shirts here, and read Tolly's side of the story here. We'd love to see how and where you style your tops, so tag #lsxtdp on social media. Enjoy!
This week has been Fashion Revolution week. Across twitter, by postcard and letter, on instagram people have been taking photos of the label in their clothes, and asking the brands 'Who Made My Clothes?'. It's come from a response to the terrible tragedies in Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, that I've blogged about in the past. But what do we expect to gain from this?
It's not actually about naming individual workers - that would be sweet, but probably score higher on gimmick levels than efficiency. It's about transparency. If the spokesperson for a brand can't start to answer then they're probably so far removed from the making of the clothing that they don't even know what country the clothes are made in. And they certainly have no idea what the conditions are like in the factories. And everything we know about the garment industry suggest that if you're not checking, then they're probably cutting corners, and those cut corners are wrecking people's lives.
So I drew some little doodles to explain why it matters, and what the differences are between the big brands that can't answer this simple question, and ethical brands like Lost Shapes.
Yeah, I'll stick with screen printing, but they make the point:
First, how the BIG BRANDS work:
And Lost Shapes:
And that's why Lost Shapes customers are so happy to say 'I Know Who Made My Clothes'!
NB. There are companies bigger than Lost Shapes that do it even more directly - established ethical pioneers like People Tree, who visit factories themselves and directly help development in the area, or small businesses who have built up from meeting artisans directly and importing their products. But we all share the same principles - our style should never be the expense of others.
Sometimes things just work together, and sometimes you can tell from the beginning that they're going to. So even though it was a busy December when Jamie from Glen Lyon Coffee phoned to ask about working on a t-shirt for them, and I don't often take on commissions, I caught enough of their vision from the conversation to come back to it after Christmas.
Glen Lyon are speciality coffee roasters based in the Scottish Highlands. One of the surprising similarities between clothing and coffee is transparency of supply - both are industries known for exploiting the people at the source of the product, but both offer the opportunity to rise above this. I love the fact that Glen Lyon know which farmer produced their beans, and they pay them premium prices. The coffee tastes really good too.
Keen explorers of the Highlands where they're based, they wanted a t-shirt to sell along with their coffees, featuring mountains and the John Muir quote 'The Mountains Are Calling' in the hand cut stencil style that they'd seen on other Lost Shapes designs. When we talked some more it felt important that it featured Schiehallion, a mountain not far from their roastery, so I studied images of this, and worked them into a sketch. Once approved and details perfected (I didn't share the version where I accidentally wrote the wrong phrase underneath...) I carefully cut it out of stencil film, and then printed onto gorgeous garment-dyed army green organic t-shirts - you can get a glimpse of the printing here on instagram.
The t-shirts are available from the Glen Lyon Coffee shop and online store only, and I suggest you get some good coffee while you're there.
Don't know much about John Muir? Jamie's journal this week gave me a real appetite to find out more about him, as well as explore the mountains he loved so much.
And finally, what reminded me I was going to blog about this project: Stravaiging Around Scotland shared this image to mark John Muir's birthday. Beer, coffee and t-shirts - now that is a nice combination.
NO MORE BLOGGING
I stopped writing this blog a while ago - social media just seems a more responsive way to share ideas these days (plus I never got 'round to it!). I'll leave these posts up for now for anyone who wants to get a bit more of a sense of what's behind what I do.