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Hasmik Matevosyan Paradigm Shift in Fashion

Hasmik Matevosyan on a ‘Paradigm Shift in Fashion’

Who made my clothes?

You may have seen this question popping up on the internet more often in the past few weeks. It is the main question of the Fashion Revolution campaign in the run-up to the second ‘anniversary’ of the Rana Plaza collapse on April 24, 2013 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The discussion on fair fashion and making the textile industry more sustainable often zooms in on the supply chain: how and where are garments produced? Issues that are part of the supply chain are well documented: labour issues such as freedom of association or working hours, health and safety, building safety or environmental issues such as use of toxins and high water consumption.

But is there a way to restructure the design process within the fashion company itself to contribute to a more sustainable business model?

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Primark

De aantrekkingskracht van Primark

Al maanden verbaas ik me over het straatbeeld in Den Haag. Waar ik ook ben, zie ik ze: de lichtbruine papieren tassen met lichtblauwe opdruk van Primark, de nieuwste grote retailer in deze stad.

Dus moest het er maar eens van komen. Gisteren liep ik even naar binnen om te zien wat er nou zo bijzonder is aan deze winkelketen en natuurlijk aan de kleding die er hangt.

Eenmaal binnen wordt mijn vermoeden bevestigd: hele lage prijzen. T-shirts voor €2,50. Spijkerbroeken voor €15. Jasjes voor €25. Niets is echt mijn smaak, dus dat scheelt: ik hoef in deze winkel geen ingewikkelde ethische afwegingen te maken wanneer ik iets zou willen kopen.

Want, ik kan niet anders dan me afvragen: ‘Hoe kunnen deze prijzen zo ontzettend laag zijn?’

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MINT eerlijke mode

Eerlijke mode: eigen stijl staat voorop!

Ik ben bepaald geen fashionista. Ik houd niet bij hoe de nieuwste collecties er uit zien tijdens de Paris Fashion Week (tenzij de highlights via Sartorialist in mijn feed voorbij komt). Ik heb geen uitpuilende kasten vol met de nieuwste must-haves van dat seizoen. Ik sta geen uren voor de spiegel voordat ik de deur uit kan.

Maar toch is mode onverwacht een onderwerp waar mijn zakelijke en persoonlijke interesses elkaar raken.

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cotton shanghai

Cotton: the people behind your jeans

Een keten van uitbuiting en wreedheid

Zo werd de productieketen van kleding afgelopen vrijdag genoemd in de driedelige documentaireserie De Slag om de klerewereld. Deel drie van deze serie, afgelopen vrijdag, dook in de katoenproductie: essentieel voor productie van kleding en het begin van die complexe en lange keten.

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Exploring fair fashion (4): ‘Groen is de rode draad’ in de Nederlandse textielsector?

Creëer nostalgie naar de toekomst.

Het was de laatste tip van een middag die volledig was gewijd aan hoe de Nederlandse textielsector verder kan verduurzamen. Juist deze oproep – van Karl Raats – had eigenlijk geen rechtstreekse link met dat thema. Maar toch past het, want dat is wat er nodig is: een gezamenlijk beeld van hoe we de toekomst (van een duurzame – textiel – industrie) voor ons zien en één waar we ons allen in willen bevinden.

Die toekomst is er niet alleen één voor producenten en kledingmerken, maar ook voor consumenten en ook voor de naaisters en anderen die er voor zorgen dat onze kleding in de winkels ligt. Jolande Sap verwoordde dit door te zeggen dat consumenten niet meer zouden hoeven vragen hoe kleding geproduceerd is: het zou vanzelfsprekend moeten zijn dat het goed geproduceerd is.

Tijdens Groen is de rode draad – de conferentie over verduurzaming van de textielsector – gisteren ging het over die toekomst in de vorm van het Plan van Aanpak dat de sector in 2013 heeft opgesteld in reactie op de ramp bij de Rana Plaza fabriek in april 2013 in Bangladesh. Gedurende de middag kwamen vertegenwoordigers van de drie brancheorganisaties aan het woord die zich hebben verbonden aan dit plan van aanpak en werd in korte workshops een stand van zaken gegeven van de verschillende werkgroepen die onderdeel uitmaken van dit plan. Die werkgroepen gaan over uiteenlopende, maar vaak ook deels gerelateerde, onderwerpen zoals sociale dialoog, gebonden arbeid, circulaire economie, inkooppraktijk, leefbaar loon en communicatie.

Complexiteit in de textielsector

Dat dit complexe onderwerpen zijn om snel resultaat op te boeken bleek al snel: een aantal werkgroepen heeft nog maar een enkel bedrijf als deelnemer en meerdere bedrijven zijn verbonden aan meer dan 1 werkgroep waardoor het totaal van betrokken bedrijven relatief laag blijft. Concrete acties lijken er nog relatief weinig te zijn. Vaak wordt ook gekozen voor een kleinschalige aanpak: bijvoorbeeld met een pilot in één regio van een bepaald land.

Dit is logisch, want zoals ook in een presentatie van het Ethical Trade Initiative over de sumangali problematiek in Tamil Nadu in India duidelijk werd, kun je niet bij je leverancier waar problemen zijn binnen lopen en direct verwachten dat alles verandert. Dit vraagt vertrouwen, tijd, wederzijds respect en een aanpak per bedrijf en issue. Best ingewikkeld dus.

Ongeduld over resultaten

Tegelijkertijd begrijp ik het ongeduld van organisaties zoals SOMO, FNV, Schone Kleren Campagne en anderen ook goed: met meer zichtbare resultaten en aantoonbare best practices wordt het ook makkelijker om de achterblijvers verder mee te nemen hierin – en om meer effectieve internationale samenwerking op te zetten.

Want gezamenlijkheid en samenwerking waren de woorden die door vrijwel elke spreker meerdere keren werden genoemd. Samenwerking met partijen in Nederland: het plan van aanpak wordt juist als uniek ervaren door de bundeling van krachten van bedrijfsleven, maatschappelijke organisaties en overheid. Tegelijkertijd miste ik die gezamenlijkheid op het podium: vrijwel uitsluitend stonden hier vertegenwoordigers van het bedrijfsleven (heel belangrijk!) en een enkele vertegenwoordiger van een vakbond of maatschappelijke organisatie.

Rol van de overheid?

De overheid heb ik vooral gezien als bezoeker. Vanuit het werk wat ik doe voor onder andere het ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken weet ik dat de overheid nauw betrokken is bij dit plan van aanpak, maar dat kwam zeker niet voor het voetlicht tijdens deze middag. Sterker nog, het was ook het onderwerp van meerdere discussies waar ik in belandde tijdens de middag: de overheid zou meer moeten doen. Terwijl onzichtbaar is wat de overheid nu al doet.

Daarnaast kwam op meerdere momenten terug dat die samenwerking ook een internationaler karakter zou moeten krijgen: Nederland is een te klein landje om hier alleen het verschil in te kunnen maken. Waar is de Europese coördinatie op dit onderwerp zodat verschillende initiatieven wellicht versneld gerealiseerd kunnen worden en er meer invloed uitgeoefend kan worden op lokale overheden in bijvoorbeeld Bangladesh of China? Een terecht punt: in Nederland kunnen we wel wetgeving neerleggen dat kleding gemaakt met kinderarbeid er niet meer in komt maar zonder brede Europese implementatie hiervan heeft dit geen enkele kans van slagen.

Er is dus nog een lange weg te gaan naar die gedroomde toekomst. Maar, de zaal zat vol en in mijn beleving vooral ook met kledingbedrijven zelf.


Hopelijk durven zij steeds meer stappen te zetten én hun creativiteit te benutten om dichter bij die toekomst te komen.

Exploring fair fashion (3): Fair Fashion Lab

A honest and humane future in the fashion industry.

This is what Fair Fashion Lab, the current temporary exhibition at the Humanity House in Den Haag, is exploring through six installations by Dutch artists.

The exhibition has been set up in response to many factory disasters in the textile and fashion industry which have happened over the last few years, of which the Rana Plaza collapse in April 2013 has been the largest recent disaster. The fashion industry is being confronted with more pressure – from some consumers and from government, at least in the Netherlands – since then to be more transparent about how and where it manufactures its products and what it is doing to clean up their supply chains.

It took me a while to actually make it to this exhibition, but I’m happy that I finally walked in a few weeks ago – considering my interest in this topic, and my own exploration to find responsibly produced clothes (here & here).

Rather than diving into a theoretical analysis of all the things that are wrong in the supply chains getting fashion into the shops, the Fair Fashion Lab invited six artists to give their perspective on solutions for the industry. This has resulted in six very diverse installations.

What all the installations have in common is that they challenge the visitor to think about what they wear, where they buy their clothing and what they might do differently next time they walk into a clothing shop.

For example, one artist shares different ways of DIY-fashion, and another commits visitors to always ask in a shop where the piece of clothing they want to buy is made.

These are easy things that people can do, even if it can sometimes be frustrating. My own questions to shop assistants about information on local production only rarely gets a satisfying answer. Yet, the exhibition also offers a great opportunity to give visitors more: even if it is just some additional information on fair fashion – such as referrals to apps and sites which lists brands that are open about their production process (such as the EerlijkWinkelen shopping routes, the TalkingDress app and more)

Luckily, part of that is covered in the events and side-programme that accompany the exhibition. Such as the Fair Fashion Lab Festival coming up on October 18 & 19: workshops, presentations, a fashion show and a pop-up shop for all your fair fashion questions.

The exhibition Fair Fashion Lab can be seen until 31 December 2014.

Exploring fair fashion (2): finding answers

Two months ago I wrote about my frustration that no one in clothing shops ever seems to have an answer to my question: “Where and how is this dress/skirt/shirt made?”

Today, though the shop assistant couldn’t answer my question about the particular shirt I was holding, she could at least give me alternatives in her shop. And she said that their customers do ask about how things are made that they sell – which I haven’t heard anywhere else before.

Part of her answer was that they only stock smaller brands. I think she meant that that implies that these brands also take better care of their supply chain. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It’s possible that a smaller company has a less complex supply chain and therefore knows better where and how its products are made. But it’s also possible that a small company doesn’t have the resources to go into these issues and outsources their production to unknown third parties.

Anyway.

It doesn’t change the fact that it’s difficult to get answers to this question, when you care about the production circumstances of the things you wear and use.

Asking for transparency

Following up from my post in October, I now know a little bit more about Nümph’s policies on responsible production. I understand that it’s difficult for a company to be open and transparent about these topics – especially when it’s ‘just’ a random customer asking. From the information I’ve received the company follows regulations on e.g. REACH and child labour. Several of their producers in China are BSCI-certified.

These are good things.

Yet I was hoping for more. But maybe this is too difficult to share or to explain? Then again, if a clear policy would be in place – such as minimum requirements for suppliers – it would help so much if this is more openly shared. I have no hesitation buying things from Skunkfunk because of their extensive information online. It may not be possible to guarantee that nothing will go wrong, but showing that a company cares goes a long way in my book.

Another example of showing you care is what I came across today in Vanilia’s shop (I thought about taking a picture – and didn’t. I’ll have to go back). Along with the price tag is a small tag that says: we care.

With the questions I ask, what I have in mind mostly is local labour conditions. And yet. There’s so much more that is happening in the supply chain in the fashion industry. Greenpeace had a big campaign earlier this year on the use of toxic chemicals in the textile industry.

Adding more issues to think about

And only today a friend alerted me to the possibility of GMOs used in cotton in China….

It’s way too much to be able to take in when you are out shopping.

And as someone told me a while ago: there really are no realistic alternatives to the regular high street brands out there. With emphasis on realistic: where you don’t have to trawl online for information, email brands, and so on….

In the Netherlands, the discussion for a cleaner supply chain in the fashion industry has been on-going. And only last Friday, the minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation published the Dutch National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. The action plan calls on businesses to put more effort in to knowing the impact their corporate activities have on human rights – be it within their own operations or in their supply chain – and to show what they do about preventing or mitigating the effect of these activities on human rights abuses. I look forward to see how these intentions will be put into further action, and if this will trickle down to, for instance, consumers like myself (or rather, consumers not like myself).

PS, my shopping excursion this afternoon did lead me to a new discovery for beautiful accessories: CultureMix

Fair fashion: a personal exploration

Hopefully some of you can relate to this situation. When you find the perfect dress (or jacket, skirt, etc), but then before paying at the counter you think you should also really ask the staff if they can tell you anything about the brand’s CSR policy or about local production circumstances. I.e. does the brand you are intending to buy from operate responsibly? Of course, the staff doesn’t know. I’ve never actually had an answer that made sense when asking this question.

So what do you do? Put back the gorgeous dress because you don’t know how the brand does business, or do you buy it anyway (thereby negating any impact your question might have made: clearly you don’t care at all)?

Yes, sometimes these are the questions that I go shopping with. (And yes, I’m good at making my life difficult)

Of course, when talking about international CSR policies of companies in the Netherlands, you quickly hit the textile industry where this has been a major issue this past year, spurred on by the incidents in Bangladesh. The collective industry has come out with an action plan with the objective to drastically improve the supply chain of Dutch companies in this sector.

Increasing transparency

But another thing that is related to this is being transparent about what a company does, and what its supply chain looks like: what do brands show and say about their business operations? I believe that increased transparency will help a lot in encouraging responsible business practices. If a consumer can tell where the clothing he or she is planning to buy has been produced and how, this can (hopefully) influence someone to buy the better product (though, of course, there will be many a dilemma like the one mentioned above). I’ll soon share a project I’m working on with CHFC that aims to contribute to increasing that transparency.

Where to find information?

But in the meantime: I want to know where the things I wear are made, and how. There are different websites where you can find fair fashion brands (such as here or here) which helps of course. But what about the brands I already wear? And sadly, I can’t really find reliable information on those on, for example, GoedeWaar or Rankabrand.

So I’m intending to take you on a bit of a personal exploration – and you’ll get to know my wardrobe as we go too 😉

I’m starting with two of my favourite brands: Skunkfunk & Nümph. And they couldn’t be further apart on this topic: Skunkfunk has an extensive page on sustainability, while Nümph has nothing. I’ve sent them an email to ask…

To be continued.

Bangladesh and the long road to ‘fair’ fashion

When it comes to news on CSR in Asia, this week has been all about the collapsed factory in Bangladesh. As I’m writing this, the news is announcing a still rising death toll, up to 500+ by now.

A tragedy. And I feel it does show that the prices we pay for our clothes in Western Europe are not sustainable, least of all for the people who manufacture these clothes. Would it kill us to pay a few euro more for a t-shirt so that other people can have a slightly better standard of living?

The problems in Bangladesh’ textile production industry aren’t new, and a search on the BBC News site will bring up reports from many accidents over the last few years. A change is long overdue.

Today I also heard the news that Disney is withdrawing its production from Bangladesh (and several other countries).* Apparently this had already been decided after the fire in a textile factory in Dhaka killing over a 100 people in November 2012.

However, even if this may be an effective way for Disney to reduce its risks, this can’t be the way that that change is going to take place. Without the textile industry in Bangladesh, many many more people would be without a job and without any income. Bangladesh depends in large on this industry for its exports. Should we boycott the country? Or should industry take responsibility and work together with (local) government and ngo’s to improve the labour circumstances on the ground, and thereby improve the quality of life of many people?

An easy choice, when writing it down like that. But a difficult process to begin and to get going effectively. And, it can’t be down to industry alone. It also means that consumers have a responsibility to ask for better produced clothing. Unfortunately, that requires information: how does your favourite brand rank when it comes to labour, safety, health in its production locations?

In the Netherlands there are a few resources available, which will hopefully be gaining in exposure. Some examples are Rankabrand and an app by Talking Dress to help you find brands that perform better on these issues.

And if you want to know more about sustainable fashion or CSR in the textile industry, there are a few events coming up in the next two months or so:
> the communications agency Schuttelaar & Partners will host their next Maatschappelijk Café on fair fashion (May 28, Den Haag)
> three Dutch industry associations in textiles and fashion are collaborating to organize a conference on CSR in the textiles industry: Groen is de Rode Draad (June 20, Den Haag)

* UPDATE [5/5] – through a friend I just came across this article which discusses the Disney withdrawal in more detail. I still don’t believe that disengagement is the way forward. However, I can also understand the argument of lack of leverage (assuming Disney’s leverage is as non-existent as they seem to imply) for disengaging if that means you can allow more attention and effort in making sure other production locations are responsibly managed. Nevertheless, I do hope the choice for which country to leave from and in which country to stay was not just based on a Worldbank list as it should also depend on individual factories and local knowledge (available within the company, Disney in this case) – where circumstances may vary a lot locally.