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Eco-fashion and Google Earth

As consumers demand more information about their clothes, green labels are applied to clothing. We talk to one designer who promises traceability without a “whiff of heavy manufacture”.

The ethical clothing market is growing fast. In the UK, it increased by 79% between 2005 and 2006- from £29 million to £52 million-, according to the Cooperative Banks Ethical Consumerism Report of 2007.

That number is predicted to rise as shoppers ask for more traceability in their clothing. In a poll done by YouGov for Marks & Spencer, a large majority- 78%- of British consumers claimed they want to know more about the way their clothes are made, including information about factory conditions and chemical use in manufacture.

It is becoming easier to find out at least some aspects of how our clothes are made. There are increasingly more ethical and environmental labels to guide our decisions including, Oeko-Tex, the European flower, Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS), Sustainable Textile Standard (STS), Bluesign, GreenBlue and Made in Green.

Along with more established labels like organic- applied to cotton and wool-, the Fairtrade Mark was first applied to clothing, or more specifically to cotton, in November of 2005 and in the UK it quickly outsold other more established Fairtrade products like coffee, chocolate and bananas.

As big retailers like Wal-Mart and Sainsburys have added organic and fair trade clothing lines, the definition of an ethical wardrobe is becoming more fluid. Yet it is just this entry of big business in the ethical market that has motivated some smaller designers to launch their own eco-clothing lines.

After seeing so much “green fashion” imported from outside Europe with a “whiff of heavy manufacture about it”, Shauna Chapman started Quail by Mail- a label based in Devon, England committed to local, ethical production-. faircompanies talked to Shauna about product provenance, corporate greenwashing and how her clothing line originated from personal needs that emerged during her own personal eco-equitable development.

From London to Devon to go beyond “yoga wear”

“Deciding to start an ethical fashion label is part of ‘my green and ethical evolution’. I’m 37 years old and I’ve always been a reducer, reuser and recycler–even as a child my family were interested in doing our bit. As a student I would ride my bike to school/college rather than having the expense and the waste of driving a car.”

“My ‘green mentality’ grew and I developed better habits as an adult. Organic food made a lot of sense to me. My parents had a vegetable garden so I understood the logic of organic gardening.”

“As my evolution continued, I realised that skincare and cosmetics ought to be organic or as natural as possible since our skin is the largest organ in the body; it made no sense to eat organic produce and then consume cosmetics that were produced en mass by dubious corporations and marketing schemes and had even more dubious ingredients.”

“My ‘green revolution’ eventually took me to thinking about my wardrobe. I was never into polyester but realised the enormous amount of chemicals went into cotton production, both growing it, processing it and in finishing the product for retail. Women grow up thinking that cotton, linen, silk and wool are natural fabrics–lovely to wear on the skin and all very natural. I was horrified to discover that growing cotton is in fact a nasty affair and that garment production is out of control insofar as infractions to basic human rights. Consumers are naive to what is swept under the carpet.”

“Eco fashion was largely made up of what I call “yoga wear” or unsophisticated designs like T-shirts and floaty kaftans made from various eco-friendly fabrics. All very good but I thought if society is really to change, we need to shrug off the hippy mentality and adopt a modern let’s-face-facts mentality.”

“I found it difficult to shop for stylish clothing that was ethical and eco-friendly. After much research I decided to take the plunge and launch my own label and do things my way, I wanted to see ticks in as many different boxes as I could. I set out on my mission to finally transform my career into an ethical and eco one.”

“So, in fact, I jumped two places up in my personal ‘green and ethical evolution’ by launching my ethical fashion label, Quail By Mail, and switching my career from the big sky scrapers of London business, to Britain’s most organic county, Devon.”

faircompanies: What’s wrong with fashion today?

Shauna Chapman: “I think three things are wrong with fashion:
1) The ‘have to have it consumer’,
2) The ‘have to have it cheap’ and
3) ‘Fashion ignorance’

“Fashion today is all about consuming rather than anything else. Clothes shopping has become a past time whilst grocery shopping, for example, is about necessity. Women have always spent money on clothes but modern shopping is about shopping for quick buys, cheap prices, looking good for the moment or the season and then flinging the garment away in the trash (or possibly a charity shop).”

“The market is driving consumers in to ‘Consume’. The cheaper the garment, the more buys, the more consumption. The average fashion consumer is ignorant or does not want to realise, that garment workers in developing countries work in appalling conditions with a raft of human rights infractions and the cycle is spiralling down. On average a Bangladeshi garment worker makes 5 pence (10 cents) per hour and minimum wage, if it even exists, is well below the poverty line.”

What do you try to do differently with your business?

“I suspect everything I do is different from other fashion labels since I plough my own furrow and don’t care what others are doing. Early on when I was just starting up I was getting bogged down with details. I read something that just worked for me: “Not knowing where to start is a common form of paralysis– begin anywhere.” I love that.”

What were your impressions of the shortcomings of “green fashion”?

“I support any person or entity who brings a eco-friendly and/or ethical garment or accessory to any market. It is all a step in the right direction. The short comings in Green fashion however are in design, manufacturing and marketing. In the last 3 years there has been a surge in new labels coming into the market selling t-shirts, floaty kaftans and other basics from organic or fairtrade cotton.”

“Manufacturing is often done on a cottage market scale by those wanting to make a difference and this should be commended. Though there is only so much equipment a small scale enterprise can cope with or afford. Therefore manufacture needs to be simple. Design elements take time. Examples of design elements are buttons, pleats, functioning pockets etc.”

“Marketing is always difficult for any small entity. Those marketing true ethical and green fashion find it hard to afford to ‘get the word out’ simply because it costs more to think about making the fashion in the first instance. Large corporations use a small line of ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ garments to boost their PR for a week or so.”

“The press love large fashion labels because their readers do, so there is much coo-ing and ah-ing and back patting. In the United Kingdom, we call it ‘Green Washing’, when a large, greedy company throws a bone to the green movement.”

How would you define green fashion (or eco-friendly fashion or however you want to call it)?

“‘Product Provenance’ is the term I’ve recently invented to define what Quail does. I know the full history inside of everything I do, inside out and backwards. As an example, Quail’s ‘Slim Fit Paisley Shirt’ is grown organically from non-GM cotton seed in northern India under the Dutch certifying body of Skal, transported as ‘picked bundles’ to southern India by train.”

“There the cotton is processed to a finished fabric by using non-azo dyes (no petro-chemicals), and the weavers in this specific community use rice starch to assist in the hand-looming process, predominately done by women, a different set of women concentrate on silk-screening fabric (I email my artwork to them as a PDF).”

“The whole cotton textile community has access to healthcare, a pension, schools, teaching skills to the young etc etc. I order fabrics twice annually from two colour palettes. The idea is to keep the workers in constant employment without seasonal lulls.”

“The fabric is usually shipped by container overseas and unloaded near London. I commission London fashion graduates and use hand grading (to produce the various sizes). Clothing manufacture is done 42 miles away from my live/work studio in Brixham in the West Country, by 2 sets of women in their own co-operative.”

“Shell buttons are imported from India. I believe the shell buttons I use are river mussels and are even considered buy-product because they are eaten! I’m experimenting with coconut, horn, tagua nut (vegetable ivory) and wooden buttons. Cotton thread is used. My Quail label is woven, not printed.”

“Quail as a business runs an office with energy saving light bulbs, we recycle everything of course and we have a wormery and water butt for the first time because our previous accommodation has always been apartment buildings!”

“None of the above is difficult, tedious or more time consuming to me then if I went down the non-provenance route. Knowing the provenance of my products empowers my brand. I know all my suppliers and associates by name and I could find out the names of each weaver or silk screener in India if I wanted to. I’ve spotted the South African shweshwe fabric manufacturer on Google Earth!”

How did you choose your fabrics?

“I choose fabrics which demonstrate some sort of benefit in kind. Organic and fairtrade is easy. But I’m interested in other national heritage fabrics as well. For example genuine South African shweshwe.”

“I source shweshwe from the factory which has been producing it for over 150yrs and the factory just happens to be 45% owned by the workers themselves. Shweshwe is synonymous with traditional South African dress and Nelson Mandela is seldom seen without his distinctive- and funky- shweshwe shirts.”

“I also source genuine Indonesian batiks which can be traced to various regions of Java because of distinct geometric designs and motifs. I’ve even managed to source antique batik sarongs that are a minimum of 30 years old and have been used. Used sparingly, I can use 6 feet of batik for up to 30 unique detailing on organic and fairtrade shirts, producing something utterly unique.”

How do you try to ensure that your materials are sourced ethically?

“Early on it made sense to choose a few small suppliers and develop a relationship and mutual understanding. So I ensure my materials are sourced ethically because I not only trust the suppliers, those suppliers provide incredible detail without a moment of hesitation. Entities which sell dubious materials really don’t know how to bluff their green or ethical credentials– they stick out like sore thumbs and I steer clear.”

Do you work directly with your suppliers abroad?

“I do not work with my suppliers since the links in the chain are usually too short! For example, I buy wholesale organic and fairtrade cotton from Bishopston Trading, Bristol which is operated by Carolyn Whitwell who help set up the weavers community in southern India and has been involved with them since the late 1970s.”

“Carolyn is in regular contact with the workers and visits the community from time to time. Her aim is to promote the wares of this community from her base in England.”

Have you had any trouble sourcing organic cotton?

“Organic cotton is not difficult to source. There are quality fabrics available on a wholesale basis in different grades, weights and qualities. However, for small fashion labels, the minimum order criteria can be very high for buying on a wholesale basis. For example 5,000m of one type of fabric in one colour way.”

“Labels like Quail would like to buy 500m of one type of fabric. Bishopston is very good at offering very manageable minimum order requirements and it works well for Quail and many other small labels or cottage industry labels.”

Why is it important to work locally, when possible?

“Working locally reduces transport miles. In my research of the garment industry it is common for the cotton to be grown in one country, processed into fabric in another country before moving somewhere else for manufacture. It is also common for large manufacturers to cut the fabric in one country and sew in yet another country, all before moving to the final retail country across the world.”

“I also think working locally strengthens the ties within a community or region. Working locally, Quail manufactures within England and as close to the studio as possible because I believe everyone needs a job, including the English! In the last 20 years many traditional English manufacturers have long since gone because they could no longer compete with cheap labour overseas. Some tenacious manufacturers are still around and the few that I utilise are delighted to be working with Quail.”

Are your costs quite a bit higher because of the way you do business?

“Since I operate online with a retail shop, my costs are low. I believe I am able to produce quality clothing at competitive prices.”

What does the future of fashion look like to you?

“I think parallels can be found in the food industry to where fashion is going. Organic and fairtrade food, slow food, locally produced food, home grown food etc etc is being adopted by the same consumers and they are consumers from all walks of life and backgrounds and economic situations.”

“Modern consumers understand that we are living in an era of change and by consuming certain ethical/green products it is a form of modern voting. I believe the next decade is make or break time whether we’re going to make it as a Planet or fail ourselves.”