FAIRTRADE. ORGANIC. Overworked and underpaid labourers … but cheap products for us. These complex issues are almost too big to even think about! Plus, what can we do about it anyway? It seems a whole lot easier to block out the thoughts of slave labour and leave them on the other side of the world.
Unfortunately, for Joe Mitchell, it wasn’t that easy.
This crazy Kiwi design graduate made the journey to India to find out whose hands had worked on his Fairtrade organic hoodie before it ended up in his. Along the way he met some interesting people, made some embarrassing blunders, and became a whole lot more passionate about Fairtrade.
Joe agreed to chat with Julia Bloore about his adventure and what he plans to do with his new understanding of clothing supply chains.
GRAPEVINE: You’d recently graduated from studying design and didn’t yet have a job … but you decided to embark on an adventure half way around the world, to … follow your hoodie?
JOE: Yeah … it was a pretty naïve idea! I basically wanted to visit all of the steps in the production process of my hoodie.
JOE: Haha – good question! I guess because, despite the fact that I’m here in New Zealand and thousands of miles away from the beginning of my hoodie, I’m wearing this piece of clothing … which means I have a connection with these people who I know very little about. I wanted to visit the factories to see what it was actually like on the ground, as well as meet some of the workers who’d made my hoodie, and get a feel for what their lives are really like.
I suppose part of it was that I didn’t like feeling so disconnected. We don’t often think about the fact that there are real people behind the products we buy. I wanted to find out what life is like for those who played a part in making something that I wear every day.
GRAPEVINE: What was the catalyst for all this? Where did your interest in Fairtrade start?
JOE: I don’t really know what the catalyst was … I’ve been interested in Fairtrade for the last few years. But my experience with it, living in New Zealand, was pretty limited to brochures and the small number of things you can buy that claim to be Fairtrade. I was always curious about the story behind it. When you strip away everything from a product that has the Fairtrade certification, is it actually as legit as it’s made out to be? What’s it like for the people who are involved in the supply chain? Are their lives any different or better than the people who make non-Fairtrade stuff?
GRAPEVINE: So the trip was an opportunity for you to see for yourself.
JOE: Yeah. I wanted to see it at the coal face – to see behind the fashion supply chain and be able to make up my own mind …
GRAPEVINE: Why a hoodie? When I think ‘Fairtrade’ it’s not the first thing that pops into my head! Did you consider following something like chocolate or coffee?
JOE: There were a couple of reasons that I went with fashion. I’d been interested for a while in the background of clothing supply chains. My first introduction to these sorts of things was at university, reading about the terrible condition of Indonesian sweatshops in Naomi Klein’s book, No Logo. Even though there are violations in working conditions right throughout industries in the developing world, it seems fashion has attracted a whole lot more attention. So when I was looking into supply chains, fashion seemed like a good one to follow.
GRAPEVINE: Why has it received so much more attention than other industries?
JOE: I think fashion is a bit different from, say, chocolate or bags or things like that, because it’s something that people really, personally, care about. Fashion is a bit of an identifier. We have more engagement with the things that we wear than the things that we buy for our house – or even the things we eat and drink. It’s not that the workers making those other items are any less significant, but humans, especially westerners, care about fashion.
GRAPEVINE: So did you just choose your favourite hoodie and start investigating?
JOE: Not exactly. I had a gap between finishing my studies and starting work, so figured it would be the perfect opportunity to do this trip. Because I was interested in Fairtrade, I’d been introduced to a couple of guys in Christchurch who run a wholesale apparel company, Liminal Apparel. Liminal sells Fairtrade organic hoodies and tees, plus bags made by women who’ve escaped the sex industry in India. It’s a pretty amazing Kiwi social business really.
Anyway, as I was thinking about what exactly I should do on this trip, these guys came to mind. So I sent them an email out of the blue, saying, “Hey … I’m thinking of doing a trip to look behind a Fairtrade fashion supply chain. Um … can I do yours?”
GRAPEVINE: And they thought it was a great idea?
JOE: Yeah, they came back pretty quickly and basically said, “Sure, sounds cool!”
GRAPEVINE: So you knew you were following something that was certified Fairtrade. Did you think about investigating something that wasn’t?
JOE: A few years ago, when I first had the idea to do a trip like this, I looked into it. But following other supply chains seemed infinitely more difficult and complicated, especially without me having any connections there.
GRAPEVINE: As you were thinking and planning, and then committing to actually doing it, what was it that you were expecting to find?
JOE: That’s a tough question. Looking back, I didn’t really know what I’d find. I genuinely hoped I wouldn’t uncover anything horrific! But, that said, I was prepared for that to happen and knew it was always a possibility. Basically, I wanted to come back with a much clearer picture of what was going on.
GRAPEVINE: So, where did you start?
JOE: I sort of did the trip backwards! In the supply chain for the hoodie, you’ve got about seven different steps. First there are the growers – the people who actually grow the cotton (which is largely what the hoodie is made of), right through to what they call CMT (cut, make and trim). Those are the people who sew the hoodie before it gets put on a ship and delivered to Australia and New Zealand.
GRAPEVINE: So was that your first port of call?
JOE: Pretty much. I flew in to India through Chennai, and then caught a train down to a city called Tirupur – which is where I met the people who sewed the garment. I basically worked my way backwards from there: the dyers (who dyed the fabric) … the knitter weavers (who made the fabric) … the spinners (who supplied the cotton yarn) … and so on.
GRAPEVINE: Wow! So how far did you have to travel to visit all of these people?
JOE: Well, despite the fact that they were all separate businesses, these first few in the chain were all within about a 75km radius. So visiting everyone from the spinners through to the sewers was actually pretty straight forward.
However, the first two stops in the supply chain are the growers and the ‘ginners’. Ginning is where they separate the cotton fibres from the seeds and take what is essentially raw cotton straight from the fields and turn it into something that can be made into … well, my hoodie. So after spending some time with the spinners, knitters, dyers and sewers, I took the train up north to Surendranagar to see these guys.
GRAPEVINE: You must have met a huge variety of people.
JOE: There were a lot of them. One of the things about the fashion supply chain (particularly in India and South East Asian countries), is that it’s a huge business needing people with a variety of skills. There are so many people involved – and all coming from a range of backgrounds. I met guys who were the directors of some really big companies that are doing millions of dollars’ worth of turnover, through to rural agricultural workers up in Surendranagar who would work in the ginning facility and then go back to their villages during the off season.
GRAPEVINE: Did any of the workers who contributed to the making of your hoodie really stand out to you?
JOE: Yeah! There was this girl I met in Assisi, the sewing facility in Tirupur. Her name was Jayalakshmi, and her job was to order all of the materials that were needed to make the finished garments – everything like buttons and zips and things like that.
GRAPEVINE: What was it about her and her story that stood out?
JOE: Well, she was just beaming. Just completely beaming. She’d been there for about four years when I met her, and had come to work there because of what she’d heard. People at Assisi had great working conditions and were treated well.
GRAPEVINE: Assisi… named after St Francis of Assisi?
JOE: It was actually set up as a Catholic social enterprise about 20 years ago. It was one of the first companies in India to use organic cotton in garment manufacturing.
GRAPEVINE: And it’s obviously made a good name for itself.
JOE: Yeah. This girl more or less knocked on their door and asked if they had any work. She’d previously been at another facility, but this one was just way better. Jayalakshmi definitely stood out. I’d been curious to see whether or not there was any real difference between Fairtrade factories and other factories. But she made it real to me. It was clear that she saw Assisi as far better and definitely different to other workplaces.
GRAPEVINE: I bet that was encouraging! Did you spot anything during your visits to the different facilities that made you concerned about Fairtrade?
JOE: When I was at one of the dyeing facilities I thought I spotted a child labourer. It was quite early on in the trip and I was probably a bit hyper-sensitive about the whole thing. I was getting a factory tour with some of the management staff at the facility, and we walked past a worker who was feeding fabric into a machine to get dyed. This guy appeared to be only about 14 or 15.
Naturally, I was quite concerned and asked what was going on. I wanted to know why he was working there. I found out, much to my shock and my surprise that he was actually in his twenties! He’d also completed his tertiary education before getting the job at the dying facility. So yep, that was pretty embarrassing!
GRAPEVINE: From what you saw, what are the differences between Fairtrade and other work environments?
JOE: Fairtrade starts with the premise that good treatment of workers is paramount. It’s a starting point, not an afterthought. Each step in Fairtrade supply chains (including the one I was able to see) is set up to ensure a better standard of living – a good standard of living – for the people involved in making the garments. That’s the starting point. It’s one thing to go and set up shop, make your clothing, and then think, “Oh flip, we really should sort out some certification so that we don’t look like we’re making things in sweatshops!” But Fairtrade is actually starting with the understanding and philosophy that people matter – so, with everything they do, they want it to better the lives of the people involved.
GRAPEVINE: You mentioned earlier that your hoodie was both Fairtrade and organic…
JOE: That’s right. The trip actually gave me a real appreciation for the benefits of organic. Before I left I saw products labelled ‘organic’ as being mainly for rich people – those who’re happy to spend twice-as-much-money on their food or clothes. I definitely didn’t consider it a necessity – more of an over-hyped luxury!
GRAPEVINE: But post-trip you see it differently?
JOE: Absolutely! Especially after hearing stories about people involved in the cotton supply chain – particularly those picking cotton, but also in the ginning facilities. Basically, there’s a huge amount of pesticides involved in the growing of non-organic cotton – and if you’re working pretty intimately with the cotton on a day to day basis, there are lots of really negative health effects. Hearing about that gave me a newfound appreciation for the benefits of buying organic.
GRAPEVINE: That’s interesting. Organic often marketed as just being better for the consumer, but it’s far better for the workers too!
JOE: Absolutely. It’s a really big thing. But unfortunately, on top of those particular health concerns lies an even bigger problem. Cotton farming in India is a really tough business – particularly if you’re farming cotton that’s not part of a Fairtrade process, where there are people looking out for you. The majority of Indian cotton is grown from genetically modified seed, which is expensive. And farmers need to buy the seeds each season – it’s non-renewable. With organic farming, you just gather the seeds from the season before. With GM cotton, if the crop fails they lose it all …
So farmers who grow non-organic cotton are in a very vulnerable position – it can be pretty rough. And sadly, over the last 15 years there’s been an estimated 250,000 suicides by Indian farmers … that’s one farmer every 30 minutes.
GRAPEVINE: One every 30 minutes? That’s terrible!
JOE: It’s absolutely shocking! The numbers are ridiculous. So buy organic! The benefits for farmers are huge: there are fewer risks – both financially and to their physical health – and there are much greater provisions within the system for looking after them. It was really good for me to learn that. I came back from the trip seeing organic differently – I stopped seeing it as a luxury.
GRAPEVINE: I’ve talked with friends before who definitely care about the people who make the products they’re buying, but have thought, “If we stop buying this stuff altogether, then it’s putting these workers out of a job completely – and that’s not productive. At least at the moment they’re able to put food on the table …” It sounds pretty logical – doesn’t it?
JOE: I guess I agree with it somewhat, but I also think you can’t just exploit people because they could be worse off. You can’t justify your purchases by thinking, “I get to treat people like rubbish because they could be being treated worse.” I think that when we interact with people by buying the products they’ve made, we have a responsibility to take an interest in how they’re treated. As consumers, we need to make sure that the people who’re working in the supply chain of the products we’re buying, aren’t being treated like rubbish.
GRAPEVINE: I wonder how the workers themselves feel about people boycotting their products.
JOE: You probably remember when the Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh? It was a building that contained a clothing factory as well as a bank, some shops … and some apartments, I think. There’d been cracks in the building, so the bank and shops had closed. But the garment workers were ordered to continue working … and the building collapsed on them – killing 1,129 people and injuring thousands of others.
GRAPEVINE: That was terrible. It did bring a lot of media attention to the reality of poor working conditions though.
JOE: I remember seeing some of the snippets on TV showing other workers. They were basically saying, “We don’t want you to see this and stop having your clothes made here – garments are providing a lot of employment opportunities in Bangladesh. But we would like you to care about us, treat us with respect and treat us with dignity.”
GRAPEVINE: So we should continue to buy the products coming from non-Fairtrade supply chains?
JOE: I don’t think it’s an either/or thing. I think as consumers we can say that something is not acceptable without going as far as boycotts.
GRAPEVINE: So, how can we have a voice?
JOE: One of the small but effective things you can do is just ask questions as you buy things. I’ve tried to do this for a while, but even more so post my trip to India. I actually try not to buy things I don’t really need! But when I am buying something, I ask about it. If you’re concerned that the t-shirt you bought might have been made by people working in bad conditions, ask the shop assistant about it. If they can’t give you answers, send an email to their head office.
GRAPEVINE: Do you think that will actually make a difference?
JOE: Absolutely! People care about their customers, and companies care about what their customers think. If you let them know that you care about such things, then where they source their products from will become more important – they’ll take a greater interest in it. It’s a simple change to make in terms of the way you shop, and so I think it’s sustainable.
GRAPEVINE: It’s something that we should all be concerned about, but you seem to have an extra passion for Fairtrade. Is that passion driving you to do anything more than just asking questions?
JOE: Well, the thing that’s been occupying most of my time lately is a traceability system for the hoodies. I’ve been working with the guys at Liminal Apparel and we’re hoping to release it in the next couple of months.
GRAPEVINE: What’s a ‘traceability system’?
JOE: Once it’s up and running, you’ll be able to walk into a store that sells Liminal Apparel hoodies, pick up the tag on the garment, scan the QR code with your phone –and it will immediately bring up the entire journey of the hoodie.
GRAPEVINE: Right from the cotton fields …
JOE: … through to it turning up in the stores in Australia or New Zealand. It’s important that it does go all the way back to the cotton fields, as many companies have their sewing facilities certified, but worker-abuse often happens earlier in production.
GRAPEVINE: I guess that most people out there don’t like the idea that their clothes could have been made in poor conditions, but there’s not a lot of information that’s easily available.
JOE: Exactly. And the traceability system will change that. It’ll provide a whole lot of quality information really quickly, so customers can get a much better feel for where their hoodie came from. They’ll be able to see things like which facilities the garment was made in, the certifications of those facilities … the whole background of the hoodie! It’s a pretty small step, but we think it’s a step in the right direction in terms of giving people better information, so they can make better decisions about what they’re buying.
GRAPEVINE: Will it eventually be available on other clothing brands as well?
JOE: At first the system will be just for Liminal Apparel. However, having gone through the process of putting this together over the last few months, it’s made me realise that it’s very doable. If a random graphic design grad can go and meet the people who made his hoodie, and basically document the entire supply chain, a huge, multi-national clothing company should be able to do the same! What we’d love to see is people starting to ask, “Well, these guys know where their hoodies came from, why can’t I know where ‘x’ product comes from?”
GRAPEVINE: Companies that don’t want to co-operate will start to come across like they’ve got something to hide.
JOE: Yeah… I know the phrase is cliché, but, sunlight is the best disinfectant. It’s pretty hard to make the case that everything you’re doing is completely ethical, but you just can’t tell me about it! So we’re starting to see in places overseas that where companies are confident in what they’re doing and believe they have nothing to hide, they’re starting to share their supply chains. Transparency seems to be the best way forward – being able to reassure customers that they’re working really hard to make sure that the people involved in making their products are being looked after.
GRAPEVINE: And the traceability is transparency. It’s such a great idea.
JOE: We’re hoping it will be the beginning of something pretty powerful.
GRAPEVINE: So, in short, after following your hoodie across India, what’s the message you’ve come back with?
JOE: Ask your retailer where your clothes came from. And if it wasn’t certified, keep walking. If we all start asking questions, I do believe that we’ll see a real change and make big steps towards living in a just world.
QUICK FACTS ABOUT COTTON
- It takes about 150 grams of pesticides and fertilizers to grow enough non-organic cotton for just one T-shirt.
- Non-organic cotton uses more insecticides than any other crop.
- Conventional cotton cultivation is alone responsible for more than 15% of the world’s total production of pesticides.
- Organic cotton is grown in 22 countries worldwide with India topping the list.
- Organic cotton is less likely to trigger allergies: there are no harmful chemicals and organic cotton is more breathable.
- Organic cotton feels softer because the cotton fibres are left intact and not broken down by the chemicals used in the farming and processing of non-organic cotton.
IF YOU’RE KEEN TO FOLLOW THE TRACEABLE HOODIE PROJECT, OR ORDER YOUR OWN ‘TRACEABLE HOOD’, YOU CAN VISIT LIMINAL APPAREL’S WEBSITE: WWW.LIMINAL.ORG.NZ