March 2nd, 2014

sans serif typeface wltm serif typeface for friendship, dialogue, maybe more


Meet Hermit. Hermit is a lively, readable sans serif font who would like to meet a complimentary serif font for a long term relationship on all the material, onscreen gubbins and publicity for The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold.

Hermit would need someone who is solemn with gravitas but who also understands irony and can deliver quips at lighting speed. Simplicity and readability are “musts”. Might consider a fling with Bodoni or Bembo.

Helvetica serif and Lucida Grande need not apply.

March 2nd, 2014

Barbie in Sports Illustrated? Time to challenge gender marketing to children

Barbie Sports Illustrated

Toy manufacturer Mattel’s recent marketing campaign in Sports Illustrated proves nothing quite kicks off an argument on the internet like the subject of children and advertising. Thanks to an advert taken out by Mattel, you can now get your scantily clad swimsuit edition advertised by Barbie.

When you get over the initial shock of a hypersexualised plastic toy selling sun, sex and sand, you start to unpick the symbols behind it. It’s creepy. A child’s doll – which is no stranger to its own controversy of marketing an unrealistic body image to young girls – is being used to sell a magazine bought by (mostly) men in search of titillation.

Comedian Bill Hicks called on everyone working in advertising or marketing to kill themselves. “There is no rationalisation for what you do and you are Satan’s little helpers. Kill yourselves.”

Why the hate? There’s something of the “social control” model when it comes to marketing to children. For instance, only 5% of US women have the body type portrayed as the ideal in advertising, yet 69% of teenage girls said that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape. Contrast this with a Yale University study which found that the more fast food ads children were exposed to, the more likely they were to eat the stuff.

“If you look at TV commercials, you start seeing how product is marketed by gender,” begins Jennifer Pozner, a media literacy educator and author of Reality Bites Back: the Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV.

“Boys’ products tend to be sold with dark colours, language that stresses immediacy and usually focuses on a lone boy dominating his play world. Girls get lighter colours: the pinks, the lavenders. The language is more about nurturing, friendship, popularity and consumption.”

Goldieblox, a new toy unleashed to the US market by engineer Debbie Sterling says it is out to disrupt the “pink aisle” by inspiring young girls to become engineers. The model of play takes the kinetic and building functions of K’nex and other construction toys and ties in a storyline. But wait a moment, if Goldieblox is meant to redress the gender normative imbalances of the toy industry, why is it all in lavender and yellow?

“We’re not here to say pink and princesses are bad,” says Sterling. “My goal is simply to give young girls the options that I never had, so they might consider pursuing engineering at a much younger age than I did.”

So does gender-specific advertising create or reinforce stereotypes about men and women? Research carried out by Professor Judith Blakemore at Purdue University claims that the development of physical, cognitive, academic, musical, and artistic skills occurs more with less gender-typed toys. But marketing experts argue that is down to parenting.

“The critical factor is the adult who buys the product – the shopper,” says John Nevens, co-founder of marketing specialists Bridgethorne. “It could be that they want their daughter to focus on an engineering type activity, or that they want to indulge her or they may just buy without any real thought to gender. A brand has to meet the shopper’s need, yet so many brands are focused on the consumer.”

Erin Simons, a social media consultant at Caliber, questions the effect of fashion marketing and whether those too young to understand advertising should be targeted by it. Children have “grown up with social media. Inspired by celebrities and fashion models, many young girls feel pressured to upload highly sexualised photos of themselves in order to receive validation from peers. Fashion marketing is no longer restricted to billboards or magazines, but entering into a seemingly personal space where vulnerable young girls look to emulate it. Brands enforce the perceived importance of image and identity among a very impressionable demographic.”

Professor Alex Molnar is publications director of the National Education Policy Center and one of advertising’s biggest critics. He gives an example of how marketing capitalises on gender identity.

“When the full-page Barbie ad ran, it looked like Barbie was taking on a pro-feminist view. Saying that girls and women are free to be whomever they want, and saying that real women don’t wear high heels or appear in swimsuit [magazine] issues is regressively confining women. That kind of thing is something that marketing does very well. And the best marketing is like the best propaganda – it always contains a kernel of truth.”

Although Mattel and Sports Illustrated have yet to reply to our request for comment, Barbie herself is, if you believe the marketing,“#unapologetic”. The Barbie Twitter feed says girls should not be “judged by how she dresses, even if it’s in heels”.

This more nuanced way of marketing to girls and women contrasts with ads a generation ago that prescribed a woman’s role in society as that of a homemaker. The saying that a woman must be a maid in the parlour, a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom probably still rings true, but we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re “free” of that. So you can guiltlessly accept marketed gender clichés such as “girls like pink and glittery things” because, you know, feminism.


This article was first published in The Guardian, 27 February 2014.

February 17th, 2014

the cotton film dot com [new taster]

Well hello there.

We have a new taster for the film.

Click the image, sign up to get the taster code and watch away.

The Cotton Film Taster Screengrab


You’ll need about twelve minutes to watch it.

If you’d like to help us out, then please click donate and do please give what you can.

The first few who give over £25 will get a special thank you present from us and subvertising maestro Dr.D.

If you can and would like to be a bit more generous, please feel free to email us on for various incentives we can offer you depending on how much you would like to give.


Thanks for watching, reading, sharing and all of that. You lovely people.

January 29th, 2014

E-cigarettes: helping smokers quit or glamourising a dangerous habit?

e cig

Smoking is cool again. At least, electronically. The electronic cigarette (e-cig, vapouriser, fake fag, digital cancer) is, if you believe the adverts and scare stories in the press, the new black.

No longer happy with the adverse health effects of smoking analogue traditional cigarettes, a large swathe of smokers are hanging up their lighters and picking up little metal sticks loaded with a battery, a metal coil, propylene glycol, glycerine and nicotine.

“In one year, its use has doubled,” says Iain Quinn of “In 2012, there were around 500,000 vapers in the UK. Now there are 1.2 million.”

The ubiquity of the digital cigarette is undeniable. As a new convert to vaping – a reference to the smoke-like vapour the unit emits when you suck on it, I seem to find them everywhere. People use them in offices, in bars, on public transport. And, although some quizzical looks are thrown when you puff out a cloud of smoke, faces calm once people realise you’re not smoking an actual cigarette.

Since England’s smoking ban in 2007, smokers have had to duck out of buildings to get their nicotine fix. Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) estimates that two thirds of the UK’s 10 million smokers would like to quit. Medical advice varies from GP to GP, but mine suggested I give e-cigarettes a go after its cousin, the inhalator – a plastic tube filled with a nicotine-soaked sponge – made me feel I was sucking on a tampon.

From 2016, the electronic cigarette will be classed as a medicine. This means it will be regulated by the MHRA and doctors in the NHS will be able to prescribe it to help smokers cut down or quit.

Yet this seeming official acceptance of vaping cannot quell fears that it is not only normalising smoking, but glamorising it. Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus chuffed on one at the Golden Globes and celebs are papped walking out of bars with them. Advertised as the healthy way to smoke and seeing a gap in the market, companies are now being acquired by tobacco manufacturers that want a stake in the £200m industry – for example, Skycig’s acquisition by Lorillard.

Vapour liquid comes in flavours from chocolate to piña colada, leading schools in the US to ban it because they fear it will act as a gateway drug to the real thing.

“Smokers are addicted to the nicotine but it is the smoke that kills them,” says Martin Dockrell of Ash. “Nicotine is often part of the solution rather than the problem, and we know that nicotine replacement therapy combined with skilled support makes smokers four times more likely to quit successfully.”

For a smoker, the benefits are clear. You can feed – or wean yourself off – your addiction to nicotine. You don’t have to inhale the 4,000-7,000 toxins a regular cigarette sends down your throat. It’s cheaper. A unit costs a little more than a packet of cigarettes and refills are just over a pound each and claim to have as much nicotine as 20 smokes.

You don’t lose the social aspect of cigarette smoking either. Variations in nicotine doses and tastes seem to be an easy topic of conversation from the darkest of Soho members’ bars to the rainiest of Hackney bus stops.

There are downsides.

Legal experts, such as Alex Bonner from London’s Blake Lapthorn, say it’s up to employers to make their own policy decision as to whether or not to allow vaping at work. “Employers have an obligation to provide a safe place of work,” says Bonner. “The long-term health implications of the e-cigarette are not yet known, and it has even been suggested that they may not currently meet appropriate standards of safety and quality.”

A University of Sterling and Cancer Research UK report on the trend raises questions about the safety of some of the doses of nicotine in some models as well as the propylene glycol used to suspend it.

The report also addressed the issues of corporate power and tobacco companies’ actual commitment to harm reduction through their exploration of the e-cigarette market. They have long been trying to push low-tar and “safer” cigarettes. As the cigarette market deteriorates, does their recent investment maintain rather than reduce harm?

“I know a few people who never smoked cigarettes but are now hooked on e-cigs,” says Mohammed, a 30-year-old sound engineer. “I’ve done a few Bengali weddings and even the women are puffing away. It’s a cool thing to do.”

What happens to discarded e-cigs and refills is also a concern as they contribute to the volume of global e-waste. “How soon will these products end up on the shores of Africa and Asia?” asks Michael Jones of the United Nations’ Safe Planet campaign.

The fact remains that we may be moving away from tobacco, but, as long as we have nicotine, we’re just finding new ways of dosing up with the drug we’re addicted to. And as long as there is demand, someone is going to supply.


This article was first published in The Guardian, 29 January 2014.

December 17th, 2013

Christmas, the most wasteful time of the year

santa waste

Christmas is a time for giving, receiving –and chucking packaging and unwanted stuff in the recycling box.

The UK produces nearly 300m tonnes of waste each year. It’s estimated that every Christmas tree bought in the UK this year put end to end, would be the equivalent of a return trip to New York City. Combine that with the 4,500 tonnes of tin foil, the 13,350 tonnes of glass and enough wrapping paper to go round the equator nine times, and we’re talking about a huge amount of rubbish – and that doesn’t even touch on the gifts and gadgets that are chucked away because they’re broken, old or ugly.

The recent launch of DEFRA’s Waste Prevention Programme, produced in partnership with WRAP, is meant to instruct consumers and industry on how to reduce waste at whatever point they happen to be in the supply chain.

I was recently invited by the United Nations university to view its e-waste Academy (EWAS) – a kind of bootcamp of academics and researchers specialising in what happens to all the gadgets and goods we use once we’re fed up with them or a new model comes out.

The aim is to lay the seeds for global solutions to a problem that has its roots in the supply chain of everything we encounter – everything we use has to be made somewhere and in that process articles are commonly disposed of.

Waste issues go beyond the consumer, they start at the raw materials stage and continue after disposal stage. You even encounter “illegal transboundary waste flows”, when one country lacks the capacity to get rid of a certain type of rubbish and sends it on for another country to deal with. This can either be done legally through export or illegally by forwarding it on to developing countries, sometimes in the guise of aid donations.

We discussed the “urban mine” – the idea that electronic waste can serve as a very profitable source for stock metals such as copper, aluminium and iron. The UK produces around 915,000 tonnes of e-waste each year.

“Instead of heading to countries to mine for precious raw metals, recyclers can extract already processed metals from the gadgets we throw away for repurpose,” says Fanny Lambert a process engineer from Belgium on the EWAS programme who specialises in polymetallic wastes.

WRAP estimates that by 2020, electronic items purchased in the UK would total 10m tonnes, including over 400 tonnes of gold, silver and platinum that has an estimated market value of £1.5bn.

A visit to a recycling facility in Altdorf, Switzerland, run by defence company RUAG took us through how e-waste is processed. It is manually sorted by type and then funnelled through the factory where workers separate and sort what they can from each item. “We get some benefits from running recycling but the real money comes from waste byproduct,” says RUAG’s Daniel Keller who took us on the tour. “I can’t really tell you how much it is worth to us.”

It’s clearly a lot. A defence company that prides itself on low-emission munitions surely wouldn’t get in on the game unless there was money to be made. He wasn’t too keen on answering a question about whether metals extracted from domestic items in the recycling facility could end up elsewhere in RUAG’s product line.

So how much waste will Christmas produce? Swico Recycling – the not-for-profit electronics take-back scheme RUAG has partnered with to help with recycling e-waste – has an insight.

“We have peak seasons, such as Christmas and when people tend to move house,” says Roland Haberamecher, Swico’s technical auditor at Altdorf. “We don’t have actual figures, but on the ground we see a jump from the end of December until the beginning of February. Lots of consumer electronics, televisions, unwanted stuff.”

“Because a recycling fee is paid when you buy a new product in Switzerland, people are encouraged to bring unwanted items back to where they bought them for recycling,” says Swico’s Anna Keller.

“All societies produce waste,” a DEFRA spokesperson told me. “Our first priority is to prevent waste, but where waste does arise we need to deal with it in the best way possible, and that often involves recycling.”

They argue that prevention and recycling are not at odds. Packaging regulations require that a proportion of packaging can be recovered and recycled, and their Sustainable Electricals Action Plan seeks to eliminate the “built-in obsolescence” we get with most consumer products (the reason why new toasters last a couple of years and the one your mum had in the 60s is still going strong).

Just how green is recycling? A recycling facility like RUAG’s produces around 3 tonnes of dust everyday. They have a process that extracts metals from that dust and then they burn the rest. So as good as a conventional recycling plant is, it still produces waste.

A step up from this is closed loop recycling – where waste and by-products are used to make something new. It’s a fascinating process that could mean manufacturers would never have to rely on extracting virgin materials from the earth. So your drinks bottle will be shredded to make another bottle, or a carrier bag and so forth. But all of this takes energy – and what powers green energy is another supply chain rabbit hole altogether.

With the UK’s national waste and recycling industry worth £23bn, you can make the case that overconsumption underpins outwardly eco-friendly measures. Will encouraging and legislating in favour of recycling make people more wasteful? After all, you can buy and dispose of whatever you like because someone is going to renew it in the waste stream for you, right?

Actual conservation and sustainability requires a systemic shift in how you view things of value and how you value things. To paraphrase the eminent popular culture philosopher Jessie J, perhaps it “ain’t about the price tag”.


This article was first published in The Guardian, 17 December 2013.

November 8th, 2013

Bruno Pieters’ Honest By: a fashion label built on total transparency


When it comes to driving forward sustainability and ethics in fashion, the consumer has all the power, says Hugo Boss’s former art director, Bruno Pieters.

He has put his money where his mouth is by launching Honest By, “the world’s first 100% transparent company”, in January 2012. Honest By shows people where materials come from, how much they cost, who made the product, where it was made and – crucially – how much money everybody earns along the supply chain, including Pieters himself.

Pieters says his model – which even records minute details such as how many buttons are on a shirt and the length of thread –”can be used by everyone”. But how does it work?

I first met Belgium-born Pieters when I interviewed him for an article on the Source Summit in London – a day out with the who’s who of ethical fashion. He cut a striking figure with his shock of hair, striking glasses and a slick style of dress that fashionistas call “architectural”.

He says it was the failure of heritage brands – Chanel, Versace and other “bling” labels you often see faked on eBay – to live up to their reputation that led to his interest in ethical fashion.

“Heritage brands kept the pricetag but changed the way they made things,” Pieters says. “You would think that if you bought a bag from a French heritage brand, you’d pay a few thousand Euros for it because you were buying into tradition – that whole Made in France thing… But it was being mass produced somewhere in India or China and shipped to Europe, finished off here and have ‘Made in France’ stamped on it.”

“For me, that was the reason to go transparent. When you work in this industry, everybody knows everybody else and you know that this is going on. You generalise and accept these practices as the way everybody does things. But you are still making things that have no relation to what the brand sells itself to be.

“Something is ‘luxury’ because of the design, the process, the materials. Most consumers don’t know where their clothes come from – regardless of the price range. If you’re buying luxury goods at luxury prices, you assume automatically that it is good. It’s not. And that’s crazy.”

Imagine that a fancy brand sells a handbag at £2,500. People buy it because that design house has a reputation for being dangled off the wrists of everyone from Jackie Onassis to Beyoncé. The fancy brand has a website that tells you its products are steeped in tradition. What you’ll see is a glitzy product alongside the rough hands of a tanner amid piles of hide – possibly in a countryside setting.

The reality is that a team designs a bag – usually as they try to predict what will be “hot” two seasons from now (that’s a year in normal-speak). Someone then sources the material, finds a factory, sends the designs off with whatever security they feel is needed so that high street brands can’t steal the idea.

“If you buy the same bag style for £50, you can often find that the materials to make it come from the same people and the same suppliers,” Pieters says. “They sometimes use the same factories. Nothing is totally made in Europe anymore. Try to find a zip that isn’t made in China.”

His words echo something I found when I was filming in India. A factory was making sports shirts for a major UK outlet and a more upmarket brand. Same fabric, different colour. Even identical styles. The only difference was that one shirt got a £15 price tag and another got a £65 one.

Pieters says higher up the food chain this happens less and couture dresses are still handmade in Paris. As for the ready-to-wear clothes, where they come from is a mystery. Even though labour may be cheaper in some countries where it is produced, these brands are still charging the same prices, giving them a huge profit margin.

“I started Honest By because I wanted to be proud of my work. Total transparency is easy. The only reason it doesn’t happen is because consumers don’t understand that they can demand it. If people asked for it, it can happen tomorrow.

“In terms of the research that goes into our supply chain, now suppliers just email it to us. They know we ask for it. We’re small compared with somewhere like Hugo Boss. We can do it because whatever the client wants, the supplier will supply.

“What corporations say is that transparency hurts their markup – their profit – which is already huge. The effect won’t be great, but every cent matters to them. They pass the higher cost of organic cotton to the consumer because they don’t want to sacrifice a percentage of a cent. That’s how it is. But as the demand grows for organic cotton, it becomes cheaper.

Pieters insists that the consumer can use their wallet to get through to fashion brands and that it is pointless to blame brands for the way the world is today.

“Companies don’t anger me because they are not people… If you make brands responsible for bad things, then that means you aren’t responsible for them and you won’t demand that brands change their ways. If brands are responsible, then you are just a meaningless consumer. And that’s not what you are.”

Every interview about sustainable fashion invariably steers towards the events in April at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, where 1,028 workers died when a garment factory collapsed.

“Each time you buy something, you are communicating with corporations,” he says. “They are already on the back foot over this agreement over Bangladesh but look at what they are agreeing to – to ensure the buildings don’t collapse or catch fire? These should already be standards, not things you have to sign up to after the deaths of thousands. They’re only agreeing to what should already be the basic right of workers. “

Fashion question: there’s this pair of trousers I really like, but they are not made ethically. What do I do?

“Ask questions,” Pieters says. “These companies have so many people to do market research – to find out what the customer wants. If people go into stores, ask questions and say what they want, these companies will get the message. Say something like, ‘I really like these but can you tell me when you are going to make them with organic cotton …'”

But does that actually work?

“A woman came into the Hugo Boss store in Berlin asking why they had discontinued a bow on a dress. The shop assistant told their manager who told head office who told my boss who told me to work the bow back in. So changing things as an individual going into a shop does happen. Never feel ashamed about asking the store where their clothes come from – what goes into the process, what dyes are used, what the workers get paid, whether their material is organic. It is their job to know. And it is their job to tell people in the company what customers have been asking for.

“One of the problems is that people feel that they don’t matter. They do.”


This article was first published in The Guardian, 08 November 2013.

November 5th, 2013

As the Lords has a gander at the finer details of the Lobbying Bill – which could scarily curb freedom of expression for anyone with a vested interest in a) changing the world or b) being pissed of with whatever current government is in power, I’ve been asked to make a few films on this here gagging law again.

Here’s one for 38 Degrees – you can also sign the petition here:

And here is another for the Civil Society Commission [which needs your £££ so head here]:

October 18th, 2013

India’s e-waste burden

© Peter Kennard

© Peter Kennard

The Indian city of Bangalore produces some 20,000 tonnes of e-waste per year, according to a report by Assocham, the Association of Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India. This figure is rising at a rate of 20% per year and the report’s authors forecast the amount of computer waste across the country could increase by nearly 500% by 2020.

With a population of 8 million people, Bangalore has emerged as a global telecommuncations and technology hub shouldering 40% of India’s IT industry. Since the economic liberalisation of the 1990s, major international firms such as Infosys, Intel and Microsoft have opened bases there along with nearly 3,000 software firms, 35 hardware manufacturers and hundreds of other small scale businesses – turning this once lush farmland into India’s Silicon Valley.

More than 500 Bangalore-based companies generate an annual revenue of over $17bn (£10.5bn) – a healthy portion of India’s $85bn total tech-based export that started life as outsourcing and backoffice centres. Have you ever phoned your mobile phone company and been put through someone in India? They may well have been in Bangalore.

The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) set up a formal recycling system for e-waste to deal with Bangalore’s growing tech dump. But awareness of the e-waste management and handling rules is poor.

Up to 90% of this waste is still handled through the informal sector – by firms who employ low-paid workers to process and incinerate e-waste. The people who do this are unaware of safety measures needed for the work. They release lead, mercury and other toxins into the air and use acids to extract precious metals from hardware. What can’t be got out is unceremoniously dumped – letting pollutants seep into groundwater.

Hal Watts, a designer who trained at the Royal College of Art’s sustainability wing, SustainRCA, has devised a bicycle-powered machine that separates valuable copper from electronics. Copper is used in all circuit boards and within most wires. Its ubiquity is what makes it a valuable commodity for people who scavenge through piles of e-waste and sell the copper on.

“All recycling technologies have been designed with large western recycling plants in mind,” says Watts. “There is almost no equipment that is affordable enough for the informal recycling sector because no single recycler deals with enough waste to afford these large machines.

“The informal recycler breaks up waste, sells the copper to one guy, the plastic to another, the circuit boards to another etc. These guys amass their material and sell it to an exporter who then flogs it to a recycling plant often located in a developed country.”

Countries such as Singapore, Belgium and Japan have smelting units that extract precious metals the human eye can’t see.

Further up the recycling chain are startups like Karma Recycling. Based in New Delhi with a nationwide expansion plan to open a hub in Bangalore, Karma targets end users and consumers.

Most Indians have access to basic technologies like mobile telephones, televisions and radios. A rapidly expanding middle class also has access to personal computers and other comforts. If you can’t sell your old gadget on to someone else, Karma provides a system where you can get an online quote for it. They buy it from you, refurbish or dismantle it and then sell those components on. They also have logistics solutions to handle larger hauls of rejected or broken electronics.

“Electronic waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world,” says Akshat Ghiya, Karma Recycling’s co-founder. “If it’s not recycled scientifically, it leads to a waste of diminishing natural resources, causes irreparable damage to the environment and to the health of the people working in the industry.

“Companies design new and improved gadgets every day, flooding the markets month after month, year after year. What happens with these devices when we’re done with them? It is time for us as a society to realise that what has gone around (and has been used), must come around (and be reused).”

There is legislation that governs the disposal of used and defunct electronics, requring e-waste to be collected, transported and safely disposed. Sale of some electronic scrap to un-authorised or unlicensed dealers and vendors, large or small-scale, is illegal. But that doesn’t stop the murkier side of the industry from operating.

The informal recycling industry often employs children to dismantle electronic waste. Assocham’s report strongly advocates legislation to prevent a child’s entry into this labour market. The report also reveals that less than 5% of India’s e-waste is recycled.

Consumerism works much the same around the world – something new and shiny comes out and those that can afford it try to get it.

“Objects are not currently designed to be recycled,” says Watts. “A change in design practices won’t occur without stricter legislation or until materials become so expensive that there is real interest from companies to design with recycling in mind.”

When it comes to the reduction of e-waste, the onus is on both the consumer and the producer. In Bangalore, and elsewhere, individuals and companies have to see the fiscal benefits in upgrading without disposing what they had before. The secret life of machines is one where they are always reincarnated.

This article was first published in The Guardian, 11 October 2013.

September 24th, 2013

was sustainability on trend at london fashion week?

London Fashion Week

Sustainability joined the fashion set’s buzzwords as the cognoscenti swarmed into a rainy London for London fashion week.

Fashion is a foreign land with its own language. Shop talk is peppered with phrases like “on trend”, “directional”, “architectural”, “I’m loving…” and “so over that”. Clothes “scream” about something or other and the biggest compliment you can pay someone is to ask if you can photograph them for your blog.

Following Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed 1,129 people, and Labour Behind the Label’s report on malnourished Cambodian textile workers (around 33% of whom are medically underweight), I wondered if any of these stories had affected the fashionistas.

“Sustainability is very important,” cooed trendspotter Yvan Rodic. We were standing in a press queue with a host of other journalists, bloggers and blaggers all hungry for an “in” to what is rising on fashion’s horizon. “It’s good for a designer to have something eco-friendly in their collection.”

So it’s “a good look”. The UK throws out 350,000 tonnes of clothes into landfill every year. Surely sustainability isn’t just about having something eco-friendly, but about whether we even need all those clothes?

“The fashion and textile industry comprises many other industries from agriculture to communications. It has enormous impact,” says Orsola de Castro of Estethica – the British Fashion Council’s ethical fashion wing. “It’s a tough industry to change because there are so many elements to it. But it is also an industry that can really make a difference.”

Jocelyn Whipple is an environmentalist who works with designers and industry to guide them down a more ethical route. With over 10 years’ experience, her pet-peeve question is whether people have to compromise style over ethics. “Ethical designers compromise on ‘the look’ as much as ‘unethical’ designers do,” she says. “There are some serious design atrocities out there with zero style and zero ethics.”

Jocelyn’s colleagues at the Green Carpet Challenge – an initiative to get A-list celebrities to wear sustainable fashion on the red carpet – put words into action by launching a capsule collection with online retailer Net A Porter. Ten gowns designed by Christopher Kane, Roland Mouret, Christopher Bailey, Erdem and Victoria Beckham were unveiled at the uber-posh Apsley House with the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Anna Wintour in attendance. You couldn’t be further away from the unwashed-hippy-in-hemp cliché.

“We have proven that ethics and aesthetics are a match made in heaven,” says Green Carpet Challenge founder Livia Firth. “Design has nothing to do with unethical production and low impact environmental materials.”

However, optimism about sustainable fashion has its limits. Orsola de Castro doesn’t think a fashion week where all designers are sustainable is likely.

“Yet. Or ever, even. The concept of a fashion week is pretty environmentally unfriendly. But a fashion week where most designers incorporate elements of sustainable design innovation is something I can see in the near future.”

It’s in a designer’s interest to know where their materials are sourced so they know what they are working with.

“If there are two ways of doing something and one was more sustainable, we’d go for it,” explains Jayne Hemsley, a designer who has devised a novel way of fitting both a digital tablet and a dog in a handbag. “We know the men who pick out the skins, the tanneries and the women who cut and sew in the factory. It should be a more innate responsibility in a company, not just a social phase. There’s a lot of opportunity for designers to work more sustainably, but it should always be the less expensive option. Oftentimes, it isn’t.”

Later in the week, in a less-salubrious West London exhibition hall, The Sustainable Angle held their Future Fabrics Expo. Amid European wholesale traders who seemed to specialise in market-stall tat (think Lurex with more petrochemicals) were soft nettle fabrics, waterproofs made of coffee waste, Icelandic fish leathers and water-soluble swing tags from sticky-label makers Avery. The idea is not to negate traditional cotton, linen and wool but to offer unexpected additional options for designers.

“If a business wants to futureproof itself, it has to have a sustainability plan,” says The Sustainable Angle’s director Nina Marenzi. “This planet has resource constraints; natural fibres are bound to be more expensive in future. Supply chains will have to use what costs less.”

Some fashion retailers release up to 300 new styles per week. These are styles knocked off the catwalk with lead times as short as 13 days. Clothes are mass-produced in factories manned by workers who get their material from other factories manned by more workers who get their raw material from farmers and cultivators. This part of the chain is usually faceless.

Conversely, we also have designers who produce in limited quantities and take pride at knowing at least a part of their supply chain. Most of whom I spoke with all admitted they could do better. Many young fashion students still in the “canary-yellow wearing” phase surprised me with their eloquence about the environment and workers’ rights.

The ethics and morality behind sustainability don’t run contrary to fashion, although it may grate against the foundations of fashion industry. The noise off the high street can make us forget that the styles we wear are cogs in a £680bn ($1.1tn) business machine reliant on ever-decreasing natural resources. Something’s gotta give.


This article first appeared in The Guardian, 24 September 2013.

September 5th, 2013

what is the gagging law?

got an emergency phone call from robin at 38 degrees.
“you know about this gagging law thing?”
yeah, i do. the lobbying bill – the thing that will silence the unions and stop third party organisations (or anybody) from criticising the government a year before an election. massive threat to democracy and free speech.
“not everyone else does. can you make us a film in a day or so to tell people about it?”
yeah. sure.

and here it is