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The Jacket On Your Back. Part 1

Over the past couple of years there has been an increasing interest in the origins of the goods we consume. The recent food-scares and scandals brought this starkly to light. But it’s not just food that consumers are starting to ask questions about, what about the clothes on their back, the shoes on their feet and even the electronic devices in their hand.
Manufacturers have begun to address this with a range of schemes and initiatives aimed at arming the retailer with the knowledge to answer these questions, in the same way we are trained in the vagaries of GORE-TEX and Polartec. In addition, manufacturers have also started adding literature to their existing product information. But this often means yet another label hanging from the jacket, alongside all the other literature that products are festooned with on the rail. Despite trying to clarify the situation, it has in some ways, only muddied the waters further.
So faced with a range of jackets, each with differing designs, colours, styles and technologies, the customer is now faced with a choice of Blue Sign, Fair Wear, Worn Wear; not to mention whether its produced in the Far East, Europe or North America; whether its European, Chinese or American down or even down at all. This is just jackets; should boots be leather or synthetic, Italian or Romanian or again Far Eastern? Even the humble t-shirt is not safe, organic cotton or bamboo, merino or synthetic, natural or synthetic dyes? And while we’re at it; New Zealand Merino or Australian or South American even?
It’s a bit of a minefield out there at the moment and the next big development in customer awareness is the unification and clarification of the information available but that’s easier said than done. Each company wants to identify itself as being at the top of its game and part of this is to lead the way in whatever initiative it is they are pursuing, unfortunately this leads to conflicting, contradictory or sometimes superfluous initiatives operating alongside each other and vying for attention on the shop floor. The situation as it stands can easily lead to confusion, both for the retailer and customer.
Hopefully we can outline a few of the major initiatives and choices facing the customer. Over the course of a couple of short articles, we hope to provide a little more information and context for the labels you see in store.
Fair Wear Foundation (FWF)
Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) is an independent, non-profit organisation that works with companies and factories to improve labour conditions for garment workers.”
By tackling poor working conditions and fighting to improve worker’s right worldwide, the FWF have changed the lives of thousands who work in the garment industry with its 8 simple rules:
Employment is freely chosen
– There is no discrimination in employment
– No exploitation of child labour
– Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining
– Payment of a living wage
– No excessive working hours
– Safe and healthy working conditions
– Legally-binding employment relationship
The nice thing about Fair Wear Foundation is that manufacturer’s are not permitted to use membership as advertising, that is to say they must sign up to it because they think it is right, not because they think it will be profitable; a rare instance of altruism in commerce.
Blue Sign
The textile industry is one of the most environmentally damaging in the world, with heavy use of industrial solvents, detergents, dyes, pesticides and fertilizers, not to mention huge distribution distances. Blue Sign aims to minimize the environmental impact of the process.

 

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To be certified Blue Sign, the entire production process for a garment must be assessed, from raw materials to finished product. And it is applied garment by garment, not to a manufacturer as a whole. The process must be sustainable, clean and safe; improving waste water management and reducing emissions. The Blue Sign initiative is one of the most stringent and exacting standards placed on manufacturers making Blue Sign approval for a product very hard to attain. more and more companies are signing up to the scheme and trying to improve their manufacturing processes to come into line with it as they see increasing numbers of consumers demanding this kind of responsibility.

 

While we’re on the subject of harmful chemicals:

 

DWR
Many waterproof and weatherproof garments are given a surface treatment of water repellency, known as a Durable Water Repellency (DWR) which is responsible for the beading effect. These treatments however are potentially very hazardous to the environment. Introducing anything that alters the absorption and adherence of water to the natural environment is obviously going to have adverse effects, poisoning waterways and aquifers. To make the treatments durable, a longer chain of polymers was used, this however meant it took longer for them to break down when they entered the environment. To tackle this and other issues raised by hazardous chemical use, REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) was introduced across the EU and as part of the legislation; manufacturers were obliged to use shorter chain polymers, in their water-repellency treatments. This means they are more readily broken down when they enter waterways etc but has the knock on effect of reducing the DWR’s durability. This means newer (as of 2013) DWR-treated products will require more regular reproofing. Many reproofers are now aligned with the Blue Sign scheme (see above) and so are safe to use regularly without adverse effects on the environment.

 

 

Water-repellent treatments are increasingly being used in the down industry but the nature of down means it requires much heavier applications of any sort of DWR to be considered durable and worthwhile. Some brands are currently investigating non-harmful means of creating a water-repellent down but until then it remains an environmentally grey area.

 

 

Part 2 will cover: Patagonia’s Worn Wear and Common Threads Partnership; The Down Codex; Organic textiles; Merino and Cotton.

Part 3 will cover: Where stuff is made and decisions to make.

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