Three generations on my father’s side were Scottish cotton handloom weavers. It was at one time a worthy trade, with these home based weavers commanding high wages, but progress and the spinning jenny took over. My great-grandfather, John Hislop, was a weaver for only a short time. He left Scotland and joined the army when the handloom industry was in decline, and any weavers not working in a factory lived in abject poverty. His brother William didn’t leave, worked in the mill at Lanark, and died young, at 23 years of age, of tuberculosis. Perhaps the poverty he lived through as a child and the work he did as a Cloth Lapper, preparing and cleaning the cotton before it went through the jenny, had something to do with the outcome of that disease.
Clothes and cloth are produced for profit, of course, they are, that’s our capitalist system and I don’t think there was ever a golden age when the workforce came first in the minds of the manufacturer. But there’s some interesting stuff going on behind the scenes in our High Street shops.
I had a great time last Saturday when I went charity shop shopping. I bought 11 items for next-to-nothing and managed to find two complete matching outfits of trouser, top and cardigan in the 7 different charity shops in the High Street of this small town. You’ll see one of those outfits next week. But what was fascinating was that inside one of the (unworn) trousers (from Marks & Spencer’s) was a sample label showing the name of the factory and supplier. I looked them up and the supplier is based in Hong Kong and the factory is in China.
Ok, that shows you that M&S manufactures its clothes in China, that’s not news. But what is news is that M&S is using British manufacturers for its Best of British range, which is now in 50 stores across the UK and online. Lucy Seigle tells us that 20 British companies are producing this range actually inside this country. And while there are worries that a lack of consistent and continuous orders might stymie this growing industry, we are, it appears, at the very beginning of a rebirth of British fashion manufacturing, which will be great for many reasons including jobs for rag trade workers and a smaller carbon footprint.
Talking of carbon footprint, did you know Lidl supermarket will be selling clothes from 25th August? Their prices are going to be very low, even lower than Primark and that’s saying something but it’s a German firm and a big buyer of products so one hopes that the workers on the production line are either based in Europe or are well looked after. Lidl has anyway just started selling its own-brand knickers at £2.99 for 2 pairs. (Btw, we say pants in the UK but this might be a bit confusing to my readers in the States so I’ll stick to the knicker word). And these knickers are made in Austria. Also they are made from modal, a rayon which is a semi-synthetic cellulose fibre produced in a carbon-neutral way thanks, apparently, to an oxygen-based chemistry process.
Actually I’m kind of lost here, as despite becoming a nurse, science wasn’t my strongest subject. But before you say, well, really, I do prefer my underthings to be made of cotton (which I certainly do) don’t forget that conventional cotton has a huge environmental impact on the world. An average T-shirt needs 11 bath-tubs of water to grow while 10% of all the world’s pesticides are used on cotton.
That’s why I thought it rather good that H&M has been one of the world’s biggest users of certified organic cotton. The environmental sustainability manager at H&M (yes, they’ve got one!) says that all their cotton products are to come from recycled or organic cotton by 2020 – well, if they do that, good for them.
In addition to that, H&M are looking at labels. They’re developing a common standard care label to encourage people to wash at 30C. Also, along with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, they are working on a common measurement for the sustainability performance of clothes and footwear – the Higgs Index. And they hope to translate this benchmarking into a labelling system across brands, so we the consumer can really see how the clothes we buy compare in terms of sustainability. And then we can choose, and say, yes, I will buy this T-shirt because it hasn’t cost the earth.
That’s all for now, but I do applaud any initiative that informs the consumer – as well as having fun when I shop I do want to make informed decisions when I buy my clothes.
Penny, The Frugal Fashion Shopper