Thursday, 13 March 2014

There's more to a label than size and make - or is there?

Last week, I met Edwina at the event - Transforming Ourselves, Transforming the System - here she showed me her article on sustainability and the fashion industry. What follows, is a short introduction and then her article. 

I am a student of textiles at Norwich University of Arts and a Member of Bury St Edmunds Meeting. My work combines tradition with new technology, natural dyes with digital print, hand stitch with resist and foil. Sustainability is an important aspect of my practice and my inspiration is often the forest that surrounds my home. The dyes are extracted from the plants and trees and my drawings are developed into designs for digital print technology. The Kimono is proving to be a good context for my work and while respecting its history I have developed a range of designs which are intended for use as screens or hangings but can always be worn and enjoyed. My research for this degree investigated the ethical practice and sustainability of the Fashion Industry and part of the research was to write an article for Quakers about the importance of understanding what lies behind the label.

Edwina Hughes


The Clerk’s notes on the Canterbury Commitment asks individual Friends ‘to keep informed about the work being done locally, centrally and throughout the Quaker world and to educate themselves’  (Religious Society of Friends 2011)  ) about our commitment to conserve the earth’s resources and be responsible for one another. We have used the Sustainability Toolkit to learn, to evaluate and to take action so that our buildings, energy consumption, water usage, travel, product consumption and waste are low carbon and sustainable. There is practical information for the investment and use of our money but there are many everyday purchases where we do not have the information to make the best choice for the Earth. Clothing constitutes a regular purchase for many people. In most cases the label provides the main information but shows the brand, the size and possibly country of origin but little else. By being informed the label CAN tell us more!

Garment labels became the focus of the world’s attention after the Rana Plaza fire as they provided indisputable truth about the brands who were using this factory

The tragedy has forced apparel retailers and brands to take a closer look at how, and where, their products are made. There were discussions about making the label more informative but little action. The Ethical trading Initiative (ETI) were involved and this organisation aims to ensure that all products for the UK market meet international standards for ethical practice. Members include M&S, Monsoon, River Island and John Lewis and the full list of members can be accessed on their web site The Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF) set up in 2006 works in the same way but targets the fashion industry and provides a ‘Global Platform for a Sustainable Fashion Toolkit’ (Ethical fashion Forum 2012)  offering its members an in-depth evaluation of best practice to achieve sustainable fashion. The attention of the media often results in consumer pressure for ethical change.

Sustainability is an aspect of the fashion industry targeted by the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) and there are 10 principals that members have to adhere to achieve full membership. WFTO does provide the customer with a search engine to access the list of members who have a ‘commitment to eradicate poverty through sustainable economic development’ (World Fair Trade Organisation 2013). The FAIRTRADE Mark is known for its guarantee of sustainability which means that clothing with this label (see fig 8) is made with 100% cotton grown and produced where ethical and sustainable development are the central focus of trade. Their research shows that in 2011 ‘7 in 10 UK households purchased a product carrying the FAIRTRADE Mark’ (Fair Trade Foundation 2012) and since the UK launch in 2005 the sale of garments rose to 20 million in 2011. This seems to indicate a growing awareness by the public of the importance of sustainability and there is a growing trend to make the Fair Trade label available on the High Street.

Fig 8 Fair Trade label

The People Tree label have developed their brand and have taken the ideals of the FAIRTRADE Mark a step further for the customer by developing the first supply chain for organic cotton from farm to final retail product. They have been working with Fair trade farmers to provide a ‘new kind of sustainable fashion’ (People Tree 2001) where the customer is guaranteed that all aspects of the garment have been produced sustainably not just the cotton. Recent initiatives have led to designers becoming involved resulting in People Tree labelled clothing being available in the High Street stores of Laura Ashley and the Oxford Street branch of Topshop. For the customer understanding the brand policy behind the product is crucial to recognising labels which offer sustainable clothing.

The results of the questionnaire (Appendix 2) into clothing showed that the most used purchase mode across all groups is the High Street stores. A majority of Quakers chose Marks & Spencer as their first choice. But High Street stores do not always offer background information about their garments as I found out when I visited some of the more popular shops. In Debenhams, Gap and River Island the staff did not know if their garments had been made ethically or anything about their policy on sustainability. In fact it was only the staff in Topshop who were able to show me their organic range, their Made in the UK range (see Fig 9) and were informative about their policy for ethical standards. This first hand approach takes time but there are other ways to discover retailers’ credibility.

Fig 9. Topshop Made in UK label

Organisations who evaluate the trading of retailers and make that information available to the customer can be found online. My research has enabled me to use these web sites and identify those large retailers who are working towards a supply chain where ethical practice is inherent and sustainability traceable from seed to product. Smaller traders who have these ideals inherent in their business often rely on an online trading. Many of them are listed on the web site of Style with Heart.  ‘While there are many companies on the high street working hard to catch up with the green and ethical agenda, the companies you will find listed here were created with strong values from their inception’ (Style with Heart 2014). One of the most impressive brands on the list, who opened their first shop in 2013, is Rapanui in Sandown, Isle of Wight. All their leisure clothing and products are 100% traceable in other words the customer can access detailed information from seed to manufacture to shop and the labels (see Fig 10) they use grade the garment from organic, ethical and sustainable through seven levels. But it does prove that online information is vital for informed shopping.

Fig 10 Rapanui label with grades

Labour behind the Label (LbL) is the most active organisation to address the level of ethical practice in the fashion industry. Their Annual Report Let’s Clean Up Fashion (Label behind the Label 2013) produced since 2006 looks at and identifies retailers who are working to improve ethical practice in their supply chains. They name brands such as Debenhams who declined to give any information, retailers George at Asda, Clarks, Debenhams, John Lewis, Laura Ashley and Sainsbury’s who ‘had not provided concrete information about any plans to address the living wage issue’ (Label behind the Label 2011) and Next, Monsoon and Marks & Spencer for their projects which do address working conditions in their supply chains. The report also recognise the improvements made by the retailer but overall they state that progress with all retailers has been slow. This Report is an interesting source of information for the customer who wants to know more about the ethical concerns of the High Street fashion retailers.

The lack of information available to the customer on most labels in the fashion industry must be addressed if we want to continue our quest to conserve the earth’s resources and be responsible for one another. At Made in a Free World they believe that ‘changing the world takes everyone … individuals, groups, and businesses working together to disrupt slavery and make freedom go viral; … to get slavery out of our system’ (Made in a Free World 2011). Ethical practice and sustainability is embedded in our Testimonies and continually referred to in Quaker Faith and Practice so buying from the fashion industry needs our attention. If the label does not help us to achieve this then the onus is on the individual to take action by educating ourselves, by making a choice where we shop and by understanding that there is more to a label than brand, size and make.


Tuesday, 18 February 2014

UK Floods: This changes everything

This post comes from Tim Gee - a link to his regular blog is at the bottom of this post. 

UK Floods: This changes everything. 

This changes everything. Or at least it should. Perhaps it should have done long before, when the hurricane hit Haiti, or when a report revealed 400,000 people a year dying due to climate change, or even when the first major UK campaign on climate change kicked off back in 1989. But we don’t live in the world as it should be. If we did, the floods wouldn't be happening in the way they are, and our climate would be stabilising.

Nestled behind the temporary safety of the Thames Barrier, my house didn't flood last week. But reading the reports of the countryside underwater, my heart sank, turning to anger at the pictures of politicians in wellington boots, trying their best to look concerned in the midst of the problem they collectively failed to solve and contributed to creating. 

They say that when you drown your life flashes before your eyes. It may well be true, because even reading about the floods made 15 years of climate activism flash before mine. From the first inklings of environmental consciousness on the residents’ march against the second runway at Manchester Airport to the present fight against fracking. Every struggle has been about facing down different ills – noise, harm to nature, local pollution. But sitting above them all is the recognition that more dirty infrastructure leads to more climate change, which in turn leads to the kinds of extreme weather events we're beginning to see now. 

Of course, the pedants can argue that it's difficult to prove that this flood here was because of that pollution there. But that fact remains that the scientists have consistently warned that more climate change will lead to more extreme weather. It's a message we'll need to repeat again and again.

As the memories keep flooding back, most of all I'm taken back to a conversation with a stranger on a bus in Copenhagen on the final day of the 2009 climate talks there. My arm in a sling - having been beaten by a police officer the previous day – the stranger asked what we would do if the politicians failed to stop climate change and the effects got worse. It wasn't a question I'd considered before. I responded that we'd work for justice with the worst affected communities, to stop the effects from hitting them so hard, and keep working to stop the process of climate change intensifying. With the news this month - and especially the many unreported tragedies outside of the wealthy South East - it feels as though that time may now be up on us.

Like me, my grandfather was a lifetime activist, although his work was principally for peace. But when the world descended into war, he didn't just step aside. As many other Quakers did, he joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, committing to practical tending of casualties on the ground. Some pacifists were critical, calling it a process of clearing up the mess rather than tackling the causes, and even seeing it as counterproductive, as it involved liaising with various armies. But the experience served to strengthen - rather than water down – his pacifist convictions, and the project was a factor in the Quakers being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a few years later. Many commentators have called our current crisis a world war moment. If it is, then those of us skeptical of authoritarian solutions need to ask what a transformative response should be.

And that's why this changes everything, not for the media and politicians who will continue to focus on the concerns of the rich, but for us. It is clear that the onset of climate change even further demonstrates need for a radically different form of politics and economics, but it also suggests the need for us – the activists – to ask ourselves some difficult questions about how we get there: 

Some of us have learned how to work with our communities against site-based dirty infrastructure, but how do we work differently when the effects are dispersed? Some of us have learned how to block roads, but do we know how to unblock drains? Some of us have suffered at the hands of the police, but can we reach an understanding with the emergency services so that the maximum number of people can be helped? And reflecting on the emotional distress that most people encounter in the context of site-battles, how can we prepare ourselves inwardly – even spiritually - for situations still more intense? And perhaps most importantly of all, how can we work with people affected by extreme weather to stand against the process of climate change which is magnifying the scale of the weather events in the first place? 

These and more are questions we'll need to answer as a movement in the coming days and weeks. No doubt the weather will drop from the headlines at some point, but if the scientists are right - as they seem to have been so far – the climate has already begun to change. Perhaps it is time for us to do so too.

I blog here 

Monday, 4 November 2013

Divestment Campaign

Last week I was at Birmingham University for the Fossil Free Tour - put together by, People and Planet and Operation Noah. The Fossil Free Tour is travelling the world spreading the word to divest from fossil free companies.

I went for a few reasons,

- I went because of the recent decision by Quakers in Britain to divest from fossil fuels.

- I went because to be honest, I hadn't been to an event of this kind for a while and I wanted to hear more about the campaign and to see who else was there.

- I went because I wanted to be inspired.

Bill Mckibben was the draw, the headline speaker, the inspiration. He spoke about the international campaign to divest from fossil fuels. He spoke about 'doing the math'. That the share prices of fossil fuel companies are based on fuel that should never, can never be allowed to be extracted. To extract this fuel goes against even the most conservative of estimates.

Bill Mckibben's words describe it far more eloquently.

'The divestment campaign is based on the belief that if we are to stay below 2°C of warming, we cannot emit more than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide in the future. Fossil fuel companies have more than five times that amount in coal, oil and gas reserves.'

A short trailer has been produced which can be seen here  Bill Mckibben - Do the Math

What we need, Bill Mckibben said, was Energy Companies - not Fossil Fuel companies. And to this end we must divest, take away their financial and political power. As a Quaker I could feel the saying 'Speak Truth to Power' singing through my veins. He spoke about those who have already taken this step and as he mentioned Quakers in Britain - it felt to me like we were beginning to live up to our commitment to become a low carbon sustainable community. Bill McKibben said Quakers in Britain 'had put their money where their mouths are' I hope others will divest and that this campaign continues to build momentum.

He showed a number of images during the presentation, these are the two that have stayed with me. These photos are from the 350 flickr photostream. (Join the Dots)
This first picture from Haiti was one that Bill McKibben made special mention to. The words on the paper say 'Your actions affect me'  He repeated these words 'Your actions affect me'.

I can only hope that these words come true for the Divestment campaign. I hope our actions affect the Fossil Fuel companies.

We must remember this is not the first time divestment has been used, and we were reminded of these examples on the night. From groups who have divested to make a difference, and they did! (Join the Dots)
This second image is the one I can't stop thinking about, and its because just as it came on screen, Bill Mckibben said something like, 'you'd have thought they have other things on their minds'. I think that statement could be true for everyone. I am lucky in my personal circumstances however I still manage to fill my mind with all sorts of worries and thoughts but the dangers of climate change are ever present, I am constantly thinking about the future of our planet and of humanity. This campaign provides a focus, an opportunity for an effective international campaign. We must all take responsibility for our own lives and actions - but we must also speak truth to power. This is one way to do just that!

Monday, 14 October 2013

Quakers to disinvest from fossil fuels

It has been a while since I posted, I apologise. This post is to let everyone know about the recent commitment Quakers made to disinvest from fossil fuels.

Below is a copy of the press release, this can also be found on the Quakers in Britain website. Within the text is a link to the Quaker briefing 'Ending fossil fuel dependency'.

News Release8 October 2013

Quakers to disinvest from fossil fuels

Quakers in Britain today (8 October) took steps to disinvest from companies engaged in extracting fossil fuels. The decision was taken by their Investment Committee, under responsibilities devolved by the Trustees.Quakers say that investing in companies which are engaged in fossil fuel extraction is incompatible with their commitment made in 2011 to become a sustainable low-carbon community. Since then they have been speaking out to create pressure in the UK for an energy system and economy that does not rely on fossil fuels.The decision follows the publication of a Quaker briefing Ending fossil fuel dependency [new window].Quakers have been praised by the environmental campaign group, Operation Noah, for being the first Christian denomination to divest from fossil fuel extraction. Operation Noah’s recent report, Bright Now, says “For the sake of humanity’s survival, we cannot afford to invest in fossil fuels any longer.”The move is backed by overwhelming support from Quakers all round the country who attended Quakers’ Meeting for Sufferings (their representative decision-making body) at the weekend. That meeting heard that Britain Yearly Meeting, as the body of Quakers is formally known, currently has about £21 million invested in the stock market, including in Statoil and BG Group. As at 30 September this year BG Group represents 2.73 percent of the portfolio by value, while Statoil accounted for 1.12 percent. Trustees, who oversee this investment, are to review their entire investment policy.The minute of the meeting recording their wish to disinvest said: “We want to invest in renewable energy and energy-saving schemes. Action we will take as individuals, as meetings and as Britain Yearly Meeting Trustees should aim to minimise damage and strengthen our advocacy position.“We have expressed our difficulties, especially since we all depend in many ways on fossil fuels, but we need to make positive steps towards the change we want to see,” the minute concluded.Local Quaker Meetings are being encouraged to engage in these issues, especially during Ethical Investment Week [13 to 19 October].


Notes to editors
  • Quakers are known formally as the Religious Society of Friends.
  • Around 23,000 people attend nearly 475 Quaker meetings in Britain. Their commitment to equality, justice, peace, simplicity and truth challenges them to seek positive social and legislative change.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Resilience - our resilience and that of our community

Personal Resilience

Sometimes you see people click, the conversation flows, they are animated and engaged, their faces smile. Human interaction, when it is positive fills me with joy, people are happy and I am seeing before me glimmers of the grace of God.

But it’s not always good, sometimes, often, interaction is negative – people get hurt, or worse. In the past I wanted to face this straight on, I determinedly set out to prove how much good there was in the world, for every negative experience I would aim to build more friendships, more dialogue, more campaigns, and more petitions against injustice.

I feel like human interaction is at the core of all, if we valued the human, would we live in a way that was detrimental to others, would we drive gas guzzling vehicles knowing that it was creating a world where millions would suffer the adverse effects of climate change, would we continue to eat foods that were high carbon, out of season, food that had travelled across the world, food that was handpicked because it looked the right colour or the right shape whilst food with so called imperfections are discarded.

These days I feel like I am walking a tightrope, sometimes I want to close my door as it gives me the illusion of feeling safe. The reality is I don’t feel safe, I won’t feel safe unless I fight for the world I want to live in. This week, that world includes one where legal aid isn’t cut, where we save the artic, where people don’t incite racial hatred, where the richer don’t get richer and the poorer don’t get poorer.
I need to be a part of the positive human interaction because I need to be filled with at least a few glimmers of the grace of God.

Community Resilience

At work, Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, where I am the Faith in Action Tutor, we have been talking about resilience, how resilient do we feel? Are we a part of resilient communities? I think my answer to this question, would have to begin with the consideration of whether or not I belong to a community and if I do – which ones and how involved I am in each.

If you feel a part of a community, I believe you can feel empowered to do all sorts of things, perhaps we feel a little braver, more adventurous, willing to take risks knowing that we are not acting alone. Perhaps we feel we can achieve change when working together. If I consider taking action on Climate Change, I might feel like my actions have no impact – but if I consider my actions along with others in my communities and those taking action on Climate Change then suddenly my impact becomes part of a bigger picture.

If we don’t feel a part of a community, or that the community does not feel resilient to hold us – then what? Do we become isolated? Detached? Are we less likely to take action as we don’t feel supported by one another?

However working within community is a challenge in itself, communities aren’t places where we all think the same and would be led to the same action. There is always a need to communicate with one another, to be clear in our own convictions without drowning out the ideas of others.

This is only the very beginning of this conversation.  Resilience is going to be a theme for some of our Woodbrooke courses in 2014 (in particular), if you are interested – please get in touch. The brochure for 2014 will be available late autumn.