by Clare Lissaman, Founder of Arthur & Henry, consultant on ethical trade, fair trade and corporate social responsibility
Fairtrade licensees Arthur & Henry believe that every man needs a good shirt. So as Fashion Revolution Day calls on us to ask “who made my clothes?” we ask Arthur & Henry to tell us more about their business and why knowing who grows and makes their shirts is so important...
Sometimes we are asked 'why did you set up an ethical business?' To which our answer is 'but why on earth would anyone set up one that deliberately sets out to be un-ethical, unfair'.
It's the 'deliberately' in that sentence that makes all the difference of course. Most people in business aren't actively trying to kill people (1,134 people died when the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Bangladesh collapsed two years ago) or pillage and despoil the planets's natural resources (the textile industry is the world's third largest water polluter after oil and paper). It's just what happens when business is done according to currently accepted norms.
But it doesn't have to be like that. All our trading systems are human-made. We can do things differently.
It's not that we don't believe in market forces. After all if no-one actually wants to buy something because the design, quality or price isn't right then it doesn't matter how ethical, how fair the production is, there would be no business.
So when we set up Arthur & Henry we sat tried to write down what an 'ethical clothing business' would entail. It got complicated...
Is local production ethically superior to distant production? The carbon footprint of local is lower isn’t it? Well, where do all the materials come from in the first place? Is it better to create a job in Wales or Bangalore? What about the ethics of producing “fast fashion”, isn't it fundamentally wrong to produce a t-shirt that is only going to be worn once before being thrown away; but what if the production of said t-shirt gives somebody a job so that they can feed their children....(Actually the point here is that all too often today the job making that cheap t-shirt does not enable them to keep themselves, let alone their children.)
We came down to a few essentials. We wanted:
- to be fair to the farmers who grow the cotton that goes into an Arthur & Henry shirt;
- to be fair to the tailors who sew Arthur & Henry shirts (and those who spin, dye, weave, cut, finish, launder...)
- to be fair to our customers, to the men (and indeed some women) who wear Arthur & Henry, by selling good quality shirts that last – they may not be fast-fashion cheap but they are excellent value
- to be as fair to the planet as possible
We are building a slow-fashion business around the spirit of Coco Chanel "fashion, you see, goes out of fashion; style never." Nothing would make us happier than somebody wearing an Arthur & Henry to the office until the cuffs start to fray, then rolling the sleeves up at the weekends, then migrating it into a gardening shirt, then finally turning it into rags. Every ounce of usefulness has been extracted from all the effort put into its production, from farmer to tailor, from dyer to shop assistant.
Because their hard work, their skills, their lives deserve to be valued. We should know who makes our clothes. Once upon a time we did know because the mills and the factories were at the ends of our own streets. We made our clothes, or at least our friends, our neighbours, our community did. Now these are all too often faceless people, far away, who are easier to ignore.
So here at Arthur & Henry we thank the amazing farmers of the Pratima Organic Farmers group in Balangir, Odisha who plough and plant and pick the cotton
We choose to buy certified cotton, knowing that that way we can ensure the farmers get a better deal.
We celebrate the skills of Thangaraj, Prabhu and Sathish; of Shankar and Manju and their colleagues who cut and sew with such precision and who are rightly proud of their work.
If we can do business like this, then why can't everyone?