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My (Mis)Adventure with Sustainable Fashion

I’m certainly not a fashion victim. In fact, I wonder if the clothes I wear can even be called fashion, seeing as I’ve owned most of them for more than three years, and they were purchased second-hand back then. So when I say sustainable fashion, I guess what I really mean is sustainable clothes.

Over the years my clothing shopping habits have changed. Whilst today I try to buy as little as possible, I confess there was a time when I used to see clothes shopping as a fun way to spend time. Luckily, I didn’t see it as a fun way to spend money (which I’m sure has saved me a small fortune over the years!), so I tried to stick to things I really liked and that I thought would last, and would only shop a few times a year.

I’ve never been a fan of cheap throwaway fashion:  inexpensive items wear out quickly and lose their shape, and I want the clothes I own to get many outings. More than that, I’ve always been a believer that if something seems too cheap, it is; somewhere along the line, someone has suffered. I’d opt for the more expensive high street stores hoping that if the prices were higher, it meant there was no exploitation going on behind the scenes.

The switch from new to second-hand came slowly, and actually, thanks to eBay. I’ve never particularly enjoyed clothes shopping in charity shops, but here on the internet I could find the size and styles that I wanted in the brands that I already knew. Giving a second life to somebody else’s waste, and not contributing directly to these fashion giant’s coffers rests better with my conscience, and I committed to try to avoid buying anything new (underwear excluded).

In the last year or so, two things have made me wonder if this is enough. There’s always the question “can I do more?” Sometimes the answer is no, but often it is yes, and I wondered if there was more I could do with the clothing I chose to wear. In particular, I had two concerns.

How Can I Live a Plastic-Free Life With a Wardrobe Full of Plastic?!

I buy my clothes second hand, wear them to within an inch of their lives, cut them up and use them as rags for cleaning…but ultimately they need to be disposed of, and I am faced with two choices. Compost, or landfill. Plastic fibres will not break down in compost. (They’re actually not great as cleaning cloths, either.) Natural fibres make much better cleaning cloths, and can be composted at the end of their lives.

When I looked at the contents of my wardrobe, only a handful of items were made of natural fibres (silk, cotton and wool). The vast majority are polyester (with some acrylic and nylon). Polyester is plastic. This has sat a little uneasily with me ever since I began my plastic-free living journey, but what really clinched it was when I first read that plastic microfibres are washed into the ocean every time we launder our (synthetic fabric) clothes. I feel that now I’ve got my all the plastic-free fundamentals of my life (shopping, eating, washing and cleaning) under control, this is something I want (and need) to tackle.

As I minimalise my wardrobe, ethical and Fairly Traded garments made from sustainable and natural fibres are my new priority : )

As I minimalise my wardrobe, ethical and Fairly Traded garments made from sustainable and natural fibres are my new priority : )

Is “Hoping” that Clothing is Sustainably Made, Ethically Produced and Sweatshop-Free Enough?

The answer to this, quite clearly, is no. Avoiding clothing at rock-bottom prices is a no-brainer, but assuming (or hoping) that just because a clothing company charges more for its products that the farmers and workers have been treated fairly… It’s a big ask. And it’s a question I’ve not even been asking.

Fair Trade fashion is a growing industry, with clothing that looks less like old sacking and more like regular high street wear than some of the earlier attempts I remember. Whilst I’m a huge fan of second-hand clothing, I also think it’s important to support companies who stand for ideals we believe in. I guess there needs to be balance. (Second-hand Fair Trade clothing would be my ideal, but there’s a lot less of it around!)

My Misadventure with Sustainable Fashion

With this in mind, I have decided that my vision for my wardrobe is one where the majority of the items are made of natural fibres, that the majority are organic and / or Fair Trade, and that a significant amount is second-hand. Second hand items aside, this is the total opposite to my current wardrobe. Change will be a slow process, I’m sure, as I still have a commitment to myself to reduce (half) my wardrobe, and I intend to wear the current items out before replacing them. (Or maybe that’s my excuse as I find it really, really hard to declutter my wardrobe!)

In some rather exciting news for the minimalist-wannabe-but-closet-hoarder that I am, I actually managed to wear out a pair of black leggings (to the point where they were almost see-through) and decided their replacement would be my first organic natural fibre Fair Trade purchase. Then, because the postage was a flat fee I also bought two organic Fair Trade dresses for work – which I justified because I literally wear the same skirt to work every day, and thought I should probably invest in another outfit. (Did I need two? Possibly not. Oops.)

Feeling rather noble about my purchases, I was very pleased when they arrived in a brown paper bag, looking all environmentally friendly. At last! A sustainable solution! And then I looked inside.

Plastic!

People Tree Ethical Sustainable Organic Clothing2015

Organic cotton clothing, Fairly Traded, ethically produced…and packaged in plastic!

I haven’t bought new clothing online in so long, it didn’t even cross my mind that the items would come individually packaged in plastic. I purchased these in July, so ironically, in the one month of the year where I aim to make the biggest effort to consume no plastic, I end up accumulating more than in the entire rest of the year put together!

People Tree Paper Packaging

People Tree packaging – plastic-free heavy duty brown paper envelope, labels made of card attached to the clothing with ribbon (possibly plastic but at least reusable). If only the items themselves didn’t come in plastic bags!

So often when trying to make “green” and ethical decisions we have to compromise, and it can be frustrating! Clearly I’m committed to not buying anything in plastic, so shopping like this isn’t going to work for me. I’d also far rather find local shops and avoid online shopping altogether. Then again, living in one of the most isolated cities in the world makes this tricky. People Tree is a brand is championing the values that I think are so important – chemical-free crops, Fair Trade, capacity building, ethical supply chains – and I want to support them.

An Ethical Dilemma – What Next?

One thing I’ve learned on this journey is to ask questions. Maybe there’s an option for purchasing items without plastic packaging. Maybe there’s a good reason why they don’t offer this. Maybe they’ve just never thought about it before. My first step is to write a letter to express my concerns, and see if I can get any answers. (I might mention replacing the ribbon with natural twine, too.) Plus I’ll be recycling the plastic bags (our local supermarket collects soft plastic like this for recycling).

My second step is to look for in-store options (next time I need to replace something though…not before). For example, People Tree stock over 1000 stores, so there must be the option to buy in-person, and avoid all the unnecessary extra packing and shipping. They are also not the only Fair Trade and organic brand out there. An exciting journey of discovery awaits!

And of course, as I start to discover these brands, there will be the option of looking for them online (or even in stores) in the second-hand marketplace. It’s also easier to request plastic-free packaging when you’re buying from an individual, items are usually cheaper, and you’re giving a new lease of life to somebody else’s waste.

Sometimes making sustainable choices isn’t easy. Often we are faced with hurdles. Giving up or accepting defeat isn’t an option. If we care enough, if we want to live a life aligned with our values, then we need to keep trying. I may have tripped, but I intend to get back up, dust myself off, learn from what’s happened and keep going. After all, even when we stumble, we are still moving forward.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you tried to make a sustainable choice that’s backfired? What did you learn from it? How do you deal with compromise? Do you have some non-negotiables – rules you’ve  set yourself that you’ll never bend, or is everything open to compromise depending on the situation? What about sustainable fashion? Have you taken steps to make your wardrobe more ethical or environmentally-friendly? What did you find easy? What do you struggle with? Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

Fairphone: my fairly traded, ethical Smartphone

As signs of life slowly ebbed out of my battered old mobile phone, I decided that (when the time came) I would replace it not with another second-hand phone, but with a Fairphone. Fairphone are a social enterprise that make mobile phones with a difference: mobile phone that champion social values. are environmentally responsible and support Fair Trade principles. They have done this by opening up the supply chain, sourcing conflict-free minerals and ensuring workers receive a fair wage, as well as designing a phone that can be repaired by its owner, and recycled responsibly at the end of its life.

I ordered my Fairphone back in May and it was delivered in July, but I had to wait until I went back to the UK in August to pick it up (Fairphone only currently ship to Europe). The timing couldn’t have been better though, as my iPhone finally packed up that same week. So, now I’ve had a month to play with it…what do I think?

The Fairphone: a Review

This isn’t a technical review, as I’m no techno-gadget whizz kid. I’ve had a Smartphone for the last four years so I have some idea what I’m doing with these things, but I’m not interested in the specs. I’m interested in: will it work? Is it easy to use? Does the camera take good pictures? Regular person stuff. This is a regular-person review…with an ethical slant!

Fairphone in its packaging

The Fairphone came in this cardboard box, and with minimal packaging.

The packaging for the phone was minimal. The cardboard case was not much bigger than the phone. Fairphone don’t send out chargers or headphones as they figure most people already own hundreds of them, so this reduces the package size. A small paper manual was included. I was expecting the package to be completely plastic-free, but there was still some stupid plastic included. There was a sticker with the writing “this is your Fairphone” covering the screen on the front, and a sticker on the battery at the back. I’m about to get my fingerprints all over the screen – is there really any need to “protect” it?!

The phone is bigger than my iPhone 3GS, and noticeably heavier…although it’s not exactly heavy (it weighs 165g). The rim around the screen should help protect the glass from damage (apparently – someone who knows about these things told me). The back has a removable metal plate (it’s not made of plastic!) and slots for two SIM cards, and also a slot for a memory card (no memory size-fixing and premium-charging here). It charges with a standard micro USB cable.

So far, so good. Next step: charge it up and switch it on.

Fairphone off and on

Fairphone off…and Fairphone on.

You’re probably thinking, yep, looks pretty straightforward. Look closely. Do you see the buttons for making a call and sending a text message?

No? I didn’t either. When you turn on the phone you have to install Google Apps yourself – the phone doesn’t come pre-installed with it. Even afterwards though, where is the button for making a call?! Scrolling left and right just seemed to offer blank screens.

Eventually (and I’m talking a good half an hour later) I figured out how to make a call. Text messaging took longer. I’ve obviously been spoiled by Apple, who do make their products very easy to use, but seriously? I was not expecting this level of complication. After all, phone calls are a pretty fundamental feature of a mobile phone!

Slowly slowly, I’m figuring out how it works. In the days of instant gratification though, this is hard, and a bit of a shock! I’m probably going to have to read the manual (something most mobiles no longer even come with). I feel myself resisting, and wishing I’d just waited for the new iPhone. Then I feel guilty, because I don’t want to give Apple my money, I want to give it to companies like this!

I was going to add that I’m disappointed with the camera, because the photos have all been terrible… but then I remembered that I took these pictures with my phone:

Yorkshire Dales 1

Photos taken with the Fairphone camera

Yorkshire Dales 2

Photos taken with the Fairphone camera

It’s probably less to do with the camera, and more to do with my lack of understanding the settings of the camera properly!

The final test was coming back to Australia. The Fairphone website says the phone is optimised for European 2G and 3G networks, but functional worldwide. However, a friend from here emailed them and was told it probably wouldn’t work in Australia. So would it work? Fortunately, yes! Using the same SIM as with my iPhone, I have better reception, better connectivity and better functionality than I did with my old phone. Which, ultimately, was the point of changing. Hurrah!

 Would I Recommend the Fairphone?

Despite my teething problems and my struggle to get to grips with the features, I do honestly believe it’s a great phone, and of course, I love what it stands for. If I could go back and decide again whether or not to buy one, of course I still would. We just need to take a little longer to get to know each other better!

I also have to remember that I bought this phone because I believe in what it stands for, not because it had the best specs of any phone on the market. It does everything I want it to do…and that is enough.

One of the great things about the Fairphone is that it is completely customizable. My boyfriend loves aspect of the phone; I wish maybe they’d gone a little further with the pre-installed features! It is good not having memory space taken up with all kinds of nonsense that I know I’ll never use, though. If you already use Android, you probably won’t find the transition as hard as me. If you’ve been spoiled by the iPhone, you might be in for a shock!

Is the Fairphone for You?

If you are familiar with smartphones already and you’re comfortable with all the different functions and features, plus you have used Android, I’d definitely recommend the Fairphone. If you haven’t had so much experience, be prepared to read the manual, spend time on Google and tear your hair out several times before you get the swing of things. If you’re new to smartphones altogether, this probably isn’t the best starter phone for you. You’d be better off with a simpler second-hand option until you get the hang of it all.

Right, I think I have a bit of reading to do…

Fairphone user guide

Tonight’s reading material…the Fairphone user guide.

Mobile phones: When Second-Hand Just Isn’t Good Enough

I’ve decided that I need a new phone.

Need, I hear you say? Do I actually need a new phone?

Good question.

My current phone is an iPhone 3GS. I purchased it as a refurbished phone in January 2010. In phone life, that’s old. iPhone have released 8 different models since they launched, and the iPhone 3GS was the 3rd one they released. Since then, they’ve updated the iPhone 5 times, each model being better than its predecessor.

iPhone Comparison

Yet in real life, four years is not old, and the fact that I’m thinking about replacing it seems ridiculous!

If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.

Or so the saying goes. And whilst on a basic level my phone still functions – it can make and receive calls, the battery still works – it has some problems. It deletes my entire contacts list at least once a month. It crashes at least once a day. The software is corrupted, so I cannot update to a new operating system, nor restore the original settings.

This means that I can’t download new apps, update existing ones or generally use my phone as a smartphone. This is annoying. I realise there are more pressing problems in the world. I know there are people who would argue that a mobile phone is just for making calls, and all this smartphone stuff is unnecessary.

However, I find my smartphone useful. Not having a car, I use public transport a lot and I like being able to check my email, manage my blog and read the news via my phone. We don’t have a television, so my smartphone helps me stay in touch with what is going on in the world. If I didn’t have a smartphone, of course I’d manage. But what I find particularly frustrating is having a smartphone, but one that doesn’t really work properly. That is the worst possible combination!

What are the options if it IS broken?

I really don’t want to buy a new phone. More virgin materials, more unnecessary plastic packaging, and another step on the consumer treadmill. Having to research where the phone was manufactured, where the minerals were mined and whether the workers are fairly paid. And goodness, they’re expensive! A new unlocked sim-only phone (without a contract) costs almost as much as a computer! Then again, it is a computer. A very small one.

Second-hand isn’t a perfect solution though, particularly with mobile phones. I don’t want to buy anything stolen or damaged, and there is no security and a lot of money lost if something goes wrong. Then again, I’ve bought enough electronic items second-hand, as have many people I know, and none of us have ever been ripped off.

The bigger issue, for me, is that I want a high-tech, up-to-date mobile phone. Whatever I buy, I want it to last at least another four years! This means finding a phone that has been released fairly recently. There are plenty for sale, but they aren’t for sale because their owners have seen the light and have decided smartphones aren’t for them; instead they’re selling so they can get another new smartphone. They want to sell their iPhone so they can buy the latest Samsung, or sell their Samsung because they want the latest HTC.

Is this really any better than me buying a new phone in the first place? The consumer treadmill goes on, and I’m still contributing.

Surely there must be a better way?

Buying new – with a difference

What I want is a smartphone with social values. Wishful thinking?

Actually, no.

Fairphone

Social values, environmental responsibility and fair trade are the thinking behind Fairphone, a mobile phone with a difference. Different because they are all about opening up the supply chain, using conflict-free minerals and ensuring workers are fairly paid, and designing a phone that can be used, repaired and recycled responsibly. yes, repaired. They sell spare parts on their website, and have teamed up with iFixit to offer repair guides so people can fix their own phones. No built-in obsolescence here!

Fairphone Spare Parts

When I say “spare parts”, I’m not just talking about the battery and the headphones either!

Here’s what they believe:

Mining: We believe in conflict-free, fair resources that put people first. We’re starting with conflict-free minerals from the DRC that support families, not armed militias.

Design: We’re making phones that are built to last using open, responsible design. We want consumers to have true ownership of their phones, including how they use and configure them.

Manufacturing: Factory workers deserve safe conditions, fair wages and worker representation. We work closely with manufacturers that want to invest in employee wellbeing.

Lifecycle: We’re addressing the full lifespan of mobile phones, including use, reuse and safe recycling. We believe that our responsibility doesn’t end with sales.

The people behind Fairphone don’t think of the Fairphone as a phone, they think of it as a movement. Their vision is to start new relationships between people and their products by showing where stuff comes from and how it’s made. They want us to make informed decisions about what we buy.

Fairphone’s first phone was launched a year ago as a crowdfunding campaign with a target of selling 5,000 phones. They smashed their goal and 25,000 people pre-ordered the Fairphone.

A year later and they’ve just announced a new batch of 35,000 phones available for ordering (NB they currently only deliver within Europe). Last time round, I wasn’t quite ready to switch my dying iPhone. This time, I am. I’ve placed my order, and shipping is expected to begin in July.

The most sustainable mobile phone is always going to be the one you already have. But the Fairphone seems like a pretty good second choice.

Fair Trade: what it means, what it does, and how you play a part

Last Friday I attended the Fairly Fashionable? event, where local fashion designers created garments using Fair Trade fabric to raise awareness of ethical fashion. I was telling some new friends about it, and one of them asked me:

“What is Fair Trade?”

Good point! Whilst you probably know (or could guess!) it means that workers getting paid a fair price for the goods that they produce, there’s actually a bit more to it than that.

What does “Fair Trade” Mean?

Fair Trade is all about better prices, yes, but it’s also about decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world.

The movement came about after people recognized that conventional trade wasn’t providing fair wages and sustainable livelihoods for the world’s poorest people. Poverty and hardship make these workers more vulnerable to exploitation by limiting their choices, access to markets and negotiating power.

The idea with Fair Trade is that farmers or workers are paid a higher price for their goods or services, and this cost is passed onto the consumer, who will pay more for a product that has been fairly traded.

There’s no one definition of Fair Trade; there are many different organisations who promote Fair Trade, and they have different standards and criteria. The 10 principles listed by the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO), which Fair Trade organisations are expected to follow, are excellent for explaining what Fair Trade companies across the globe strive to achieve.

The 10 Principles of Fair Trade

Principle 1: Creating Opportunities for Economically Disadvantaged Producers

Principle 2: Transparency and Accountability

Principle 3: Fair Trading Practices

Principle 4: Payment of a Fair Price

Principle 5: Ensuring no Child Labour and Forced Labour

Principle 6: Commitment to Non Discrimination, Gender Equity and Women’s Economic Empowerment and Freedom of Association

Principle 7: Ensuring Good Working Conditions

Principle 8: Providing Capacity Building

Principle 9: Promoting Fair Trade

Principle 10: Respect for the Environment

(You can read a full description of these principles here)

How does Fair Trade Work?

Fair Trade has existed since WWII, but was more focused on handicrafts in the beginning, with products sold solely from Fair Trade shops (also called worldshops) and churches. From the 1980s there was a shift towards the fair trade of agricultural products, and the idea of certification came about.

Certification was introduced in 1988; the first certified Fair Trade product was coffee.The idea behind certification was that it allowed consumers to recognize which products gave farmers a premium price for their crops and followed Fair Trade principles. This meant products could be sold in mainstream shops such as supermarkets rather than specific Fair Trade shops. Certification has allowed the reach of Fair Trade to grow massively, and more customers means more farmers can benefit.

How does certification work? An independent organisation certifies that the commodities used in a product meet Fair Trade standards, and manufacturers pay for the right to use a logo. This tells consumers that the product meets certification standards for Fair Trade.

The FAIRTRADE Mark

The FAIRTRADE Mark is probably the most famous Fair Trade logo: it’s currently used in over 50 countries and is attached to over 27,000 products. It’s an independent certification mark that guarantees a product has been produced according to international Fair Trade standards. It shows that the product has been certified to offer a better deal to the farmers and workers involved.

Fairtrade logos

Certification schemes with logos that people recognize mean that products can be stocked in supermarkets where high volumes of products can be sold. It is estimated 90% of consumers trust the FAIRTRADE Mark – and this confidence means higher sales.

Whilst the FAIRTRADE Mark is the world’s biggest Fair Trade certification scheme, it’s not the only one. Different certifiers will have different standards and procedures, but all promote Fair Trade.

Different Fairtrade logos

Logos from Fair Trade USA (left and second left), the Fairtrade Federation and the World Fair Trade Organization

Not all Fairly Traded products are certified, either. Remember that participating in a Fair Trade certification scheme costs money. Some organisations that work with small cooperatives to produce Fair Trade products may not have the resources to certify their products; but that does not mean they don’t adhere to Fair Trade principles. Most businesses selling Fair Trade products want to be as transparent as possible, so if in doubt, just ask questions.

What Can We Do to Support Fair Trade?

Buy Fair Trade products! Simple as that! The most common products are coffee, chocolate, sugar and bananas, and you’ll be able to find these in supermarkets. Health food stores and independent grocers will probably have a wider range.

Start with just one product that you buy that has a Fair Trade alternative, and make the switch. Last year I switched to only buying Fair Trade chocolate. The market for Fair Trade products continues to grow every year, and the more we support it, the more this growth will continue.

Fairtrade InfographicFor more information on Fair Trade, and to see how you can support Fair Trade in your area, check out these great websites:

World Fair Trade Organization
Fairtrade International
Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand
Fairtrade Foundation (UK)
Fair Trade USA

Do you already buy Fair Trade products? Are you new to Fair Trade but willing to make the switch? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment below!