Patriot Gains

The latest project from ProjectRepat

I hate the idea of this blog becoming a collection of, “I think this is cool – look at it” posts, without much opinion or analysis but unfortunately (or fortunately) this project ticks all the boxes, so I don’t know if there is much to add. I came across an article on the GOOD website last week about ProjectRepat. Set up by several enterprising Bostonians, the project looks at the business of mitumba, which is a Swahili term meaning “bundles”. Many of you are possibly unaware (as I was until recently) that excess clothing donated to charities in the U.S. is sold to bulk buyers in African countries for distribution and resale. Mitumba is a somewhat controversial concept. A lot of generous donators don’t realize where their clothes end up and many aspects of the mitumba system leave the chain of bulk buyers, brokers and retailers in precarious economic situations. For example, clothing is bought by the bale and is generally unseen in advance, so the buyer could end up with really bad quality merchandise or clothing that is unappealing to their customers. Meanwhile local artisans and producers of new clothing go unsupported – because mitumba is so cheap and trendy.

A customized shirt repatriated from Kenya

It’s funny how we often overlook the concept of fashion trends in developing countries, but local trends are a key element in shaping local society, no matter where groups of people are located. It only takes a couple of influential people to start wearing a particular style for a new trend to be born and this phenomenon can be seen across Africa, where desire for Western clothing is rife. ProjectRepat also made a documentary and in it, most people are wearing Western clothing as opposed to traditional dress. In some ways that could be seen as a sad reminder of globalization but I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing. Kenyans are opening themselves to global influences and they’re wearing American clothing with Kenyan flavour. Mixing Kenyan and North American cultures to customize something unique for the people themselves signals a new sense of identity and self-confidence.

This system has been in place since the 1980s but ProjectRepat sought to look at the mitumba phenomenon in reverse. Ross Lohr and Sean Hewens raised enough money to fund the initial project to take a trip to Nairobi and buy 500 expat T-shirts. The tees are emblazoned with humorous slogans and retro brands. The locals seem to like the colours and the graphics but the irony is lost on them. To complete the circle of recycling, ProjectRepat essentially repatriated the 500 tees to the U.S. and is selling them back to the American consumer for a profit (Buy one here). Each tee has a stamped logo explaining where the item was bought and when it returned to home soil. I love the idea that an ubiquitous item like a T-shirt can fall out of fashion and be donated to charity, travel to Africa and then (possibly years) later can find itself back in the Western wardrobe. It is recycling at its finest and creates an economic loop between the U.S. and Africa, which can only be a good thing, right?

The second instalment of this project, called No More New, has just been launched. Having witnessed the upcycling and customization of tees in Nairobi, the people at ProjectRepat were inspired to do a little upcycling themselves. A series of jersey tees, bags, skirts and scarves has been designed and will utilize more of these excess T-shirts to actively develop new products. This innovation adds value to a seemingly worthless item and invents something new using existing materials. I think the key is: the inspiration came from the Kenyans themselves. This resourcefulness and adaptability needs to be harnessed to contribute to further economic growth. We’ve seen projects before, using bottle tops or plastic, and I think this inventiveness and creativity is central to the development of African fashion businesses.

The project needs funding however, and still needs to raise about $4,000 by December 16th. A fair wage for workers in Kenya has been agreed and all profits of the sale of these garments goes to non-profit organizations in Kenya and Tanzania. Depending on how much you pledge, you will receive one of the items that is about to be created. (All info on the Kickstarter funding page)

Another funny find!

Looks like I had something to say after all…

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I Love Lucy

To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? by Lucy Siegle

Ethical fashion has been lurking in the back of my mind for a few years but I only recently discovered Lucy Siegle. She never registered on my radar before, probably because living in France obscured my vision of most British cultural developments… Lucy is a journalist and writes a weekly column on ethical living in the Observer. She’s also on telly, currently as a reporter on the BBC 1 programme, The One Show, and has written two books. The second book, To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?, documents the current state of global clothing production. If my copy (photo above) looks a little battered, it’s because it’s been in my handbag for the past seven weeks – this is not exactly light reading, despite its novelesque size.

Lucy researches the complex clothing supply chain, from growing raw materials to treating, dyeing and sewing final products. She also explores the environmental impact of clothing production, including the poisoned Ganges in Kanpur and the desertification of the Aral Sea, as well as reporting on the daily struggles of the average garment worker in India, China and beyond.

For all this research however, the book moves from topic to topic quite quickly. This is both a good and a bad thing. While providing a general overview for novices, there’s also some serious detail for those already well-versed in the clothing supply chain. Lucy looks at the system from many angles, including government policies and flawed auditing, in a clear and concise way, but I find myself wanting to know more about everything. In saying that, the book is replete with an astounding amount of facts and figures and sneaks in some really specific information. For example, I didn’t know what mulesing, salaula or perc were before, and now I do. Likewise, the inclusion of historical information and trends gives context to each of the aspects explored. I imagine Lucy has a library of collated information and I dream of a day when she publishes the encyclopaedic version of this book (unrealistic, I know). Meanwhile, I think the publication really reflects ethical fashion’s current standing. Although some progress has been made, we are very much at the beginning of this process of change, and a book that dips its toe in each area expresses this reality.

Siegle has been accused of forensic levels of investigation into the infinite processes of production and while they might seem tedious to some, the truth is, if we are to effectuate real change, we must discover exactly what’s going on and the ramifications of current practices. The information is blunt and relentless however, it ranges from human exploitation to irreversible environmental destruction. About halfway through, I felt like I was drowning in toxic sludge myself, and that the problems were insurmountable or certainly beyond the realms of my control. There are hopeful moments of clarity though, and Siegle’s straight-talking writing style just about keeps the book buoyant, while an honest portrayal of her own less-than-perfect wardrobe is cheery and realistic. Rather contrary to the rest of the book, the last few chapters focus on practical solutions and ways in which the individual can reform this fast-fashion extravaganza. Most of this section was not news to me, but is a very useful guide for anyone wishing to change the landscape of his or her wardrobe.

Overall it is a fascinating read and a real eye-opener, whether you are interested in ethical fashion or are unburdened by injustices in the garment industry. My favourite thing about this book is, while Siegle expresses anger and frustration, her approach is generally balanced and offers the facts without judgement at several points, notably with regards to fur and animal management. This is the new face of ethical fashion, one that focuses on education and encourages the consumer to make informed choices.

I bought the book at Brick Lane Bookshop and I’m sure it’s available online. If anyone else has read it, please chime in with your comments below.

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MADE makes the grade

MADE Nne Moja set of four brass rings

I’ve been a fan of MADE jewellery since I first purchased a pair of MADE earrings in Topshop a few years ago. I wore them to death i.e. until I lost one… and then immediately purchased another pair. Last week I again succumbed to the wonderful artisanal brassiness of MADE’s signature styles and allowed myself a gift from The Outnet. I love everything about this company. For those who aren’t aware, MADE was founded by Cristina Cisilino in 2005 with the aim to produce directional jewellery while promoting ‘trade not aid’ in Africa. From the base in Kibera, one of Nairobi’s worst slums, MADE has established a safe and fair working environment where workers gain new skills and are trained to make the jewellery collections. Using sustainable local materials such as brass, recycled glass and beads, MADE contributes to recycling and repurposing efforts. Each piece is unique and I especially love the slightly imperfect, handmade finish.

MADE’s success lies in clever collaborations with designers and celebrities. People like, Laura Bailey, Pippa Small, Livia Firth and Hattie Rickards, give the brand some clout and elevate it from ‘charity workshop’ status. I love the irregular characteristics but your average Saturday shopper may not appreciate the rough-hewn finish, and some smart associations can go a long way to raise the profile of a brand. Retail stockists have also played a huge part in keeping MADE in the spotlight. As I say, I’ve purchased from Topshop and The Outnet, and select MADE pieces are also available at ASOS, Whistles and John Lewis, along with a host of dedicated ethical websites. My recent purchase was a set of four stacking rings, which arrived in a printed cotton pouch (produced by an ethical manufacturing facility in Kenya, called SOKO). The rings are made of brass and can be worn in various configurations or alone (apologies, having a Q.V.C. moment…)

Another key factor of MADE’s charm is the on-trend appeal. While I admire and encourage fair working practices and aims to alleviate poverty in Kenya, I wouldn’t buy MADE pieces unless they suited my taste and budget. At £32 this set is reasonably priced and satisfies my brassy, mismatched and misshapen desires.

One of the many ways to wear the stacking rings

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Where to begin?

I’ve been researching ethical fashion for a while and every time I feel like I’ve got a handle on it, I learn something new or gain a new perspective that changes everything. Like all causes or objectives, there are a multitude of facets and variables to unravel. In the unravelling, more and more pros and cons arise; as soon as I decide where I stand on one aspect, I learn something that makes me rethink my stance. Sometimes it’s the choice between prioritizing people in the short-term or the environment in the long-term. Or, parts of the industry require overhauls to such an extent that the resultant ill-effects to so many interconnected factors would render the changes worthless.

Trying to concentrate on one aspect and really channelling all my energy into that could be more worthwhile and could effectuate more change. But does that mean I isolate one facet at the expense of all others? Some people are concerned with Fairtrade and certifications, others with ethical work practices and others still with the extensive damage to the environment, yet within these three general categories, there are hundreds of individual aspects to consider. It’s a minefield of do’s and don’t’s and causes a lot of confusion for those willing to get involved and even more so for consumers. I struggle to see why or how any consumer would buy into the ‘ethical’ world when the information is so unclear and the protagonists so divergent in their opinions.

My only solution is to take each new piece of information as an individual nugget and decide whether it’s something I wish to endorse or not. For now I’m willing to support any company or individual who is at least trying and acknowledging that change is needed, without suggesting that their products are the last word in ethical fashion! While that might sound a little wishy-washy, I don’t think it’s possible to begin with a dogmatic approach and risk alienating some of the hardest working and well-meaning people in the industry.

And so it begins…


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