Flair for fair

By Phyllida Jay Jan 05 2012

Look good while doing good with Shop For Change. Fairtrade is a social movement with a free market spirit

Flair for fair

The New Year always creates a sense of optimism, good intentions to be laid on the clean slate of the months ahead.

This is a good feeling, the promise of the new and the ritual separation of all that has gone before with the as yet to unfold of all that is ahead.

Fashion with its seasonal trend cycles is ritual promise and looking to the future. But there are other cycles of the fashion season, often obscured, such as agricultural ones, where fibres including cotton are grown. It’s the cotton-growing season in India now.

Hence timely to catch up this New Year with Seth Petchers, CEO of Shop for Change (SFC), to update on progress of their pioneering work on Fairtrade cotton for the Indian consumer market.

Seth is American with over 10 years of experience in Fairtrade campaigning in the US. He and his wife have made India their home. It takes single-minded dedication to pioneer a concept like Fairtrade in an emerging consumer market; but also a thinking outside of the box attitude, which both Seth and Founders of Shop for Change (which include veteran grassroots activist Stan Thekaekara) have in spades. In fact, SFC see the booming market as an opportunity to expand Fairtrade beyond established markets like the UK.

Fairtrade begins with a system of certification and set of guarantees, ensuring a better return to farmers. If the cotton is also organic, it commands extra premium for farmers whose livelihoods depend on a small piece of land. Clothes made with this certified cotton have a tag, allowing the consumer a clear way of connecting fashion to a social cause.

Shop for Change has pioneered sophisticated marketing platforms and branding campaigns, lucky to attract the pro bono support of actress Gul Panag, a former Miss India. For her 2011 coming of age film Turning Thirty, Gul saw that the cast wore SFC logo-emblazoned t-shirts at promotional events.

Seth emphasises the importance of people like Gul in creating awareness. She has over 250,000 twitter followers, her tweets about SFC mean massive spikes in hits on our website, he says.

SFC has also recognised the importance of designers like Anita Dongre, who creates boho-chic and cocktail dresses, as well as practical separates in SFC certified cotton. Seth reflects with evident pride that Dongre’s dedicated following of affluent, middle class clientele, now ask store managers for garments with the SFC tag. In 2011 it was a mark of success that across Dongre’s five brands, some 60 to 70 per cent of the higher end diff­usion lines, Grassroots, Inter­pret and Timeless were made from Shop for Change cotton.

The shift towards organic as well as Fairtrade cotton reflects concerns with cotton’s impacts upon human health and the environment.

In India, people love cotton, it lets the skin breathe, it’s natural, perfect for hot summers here, they say. But cotton isn’t natural if one considers the massive amounts of pesticides used in its production. The Environmental Justice Foundation reports that in India, home to over one third of the world’s cotton farmers, cotton accounts for 54 per cent of all pesticides used annually, despite occupying just 5 per cent of land under crops. Pesticides include chemicals such as lindane, a neurotoxin that can cause cancer and disrupt the hormonal system in humans. Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment released a report, which cited high levels of pesticide residues in India’s food supply.

Pesticides are linked to widely reported farmer suicides where small farmers in drought prone areas such as Andhra Pradesh are sold seeds by large agrochemical companies. These seeds produce crops that need massive inputs of water and pesticides (also sold by the agrochemical companies). Farmers without access to bank credit borrow from local money lenders at massive usury rates, when crops fail, farmers are left destitute, the rest is history. A niche of consumers increasingly care about this. On their part, some business managers and fashion retailers are aware that it makes business sense to promote more positive ways of producing fashions seasonal cycles. For Seth, the brands that have signed up to SFC cotton see the value in differentiating their product, and score on consumer loyalty. SFCs latest brand tie up is with Raymond-owned menswear stalwart Colour Plus resulting in smart polo shirts. A recent collaboration with Mumbai-based t-shirt brand No Nasties offers something decidedly funky and recognises the growing consumer influence of young professionals.

The challen­ging thing with branded garme­nts, he says, is to work with the seas­onality of fa­shion, where eve­ry few months new collections are pro­duced. And alth­ough Seth is often to be seen posing for photos at brand launches his comfort zone is visiting farm­ers in rural India often acc­ompanied by Gul and fellow SFC celebrity supporter, actor and photographer Parvin Dabas.

In an imperfect system, Fairtrade has many detractors. It is often easier to rage and do nothing, lost in a maze of tired-old recycled relativist ethics, than it is to face up to the limitations and do something, even small. What SFC asks the consumer to do is buy something fashionable, delightful and beautiful, which will also give someone a better chance at survival, it doesn’t seem like a lot to ask when perhaps so much more should be questioned. India’s challenges depend upon the ability to harness the massive transformations it is currently undergoing for a fairer distribution of the wealth it is generating. Fairtrade, a social movement with a free market spirit demonstrates one way in which the consumer boom could begin to enable a fairer spread of the good life to more people.

So with the year ahead, and so many fashion collections to look forward to, it’s the cotton season for small Fairtrade farmers upon which I will be making some News Years resolutions.


India plants seeds of sustainable luxury

By Phyllida Jay Nov 28 2010 , London

U2 front man Bono, the self-styled philanthropist rock star, and his wife, Ali Hewson,
land in a private plane on the African savannah. Ali is beautiful, her hair slightly windswept, she is looking into the distant African landscape, a brown embossed leather Louis Vuitton holdall is pressed to her side. Behind her Bono follows, insouciantly carrying a guitar in one hand a Vuitton monogrammed weekend bag across his left shoulder. They stride towards their destination — an orphanage, a refugee community, a farmer’s collective? Here, in this advert they are seen saving Africa, one Louis Vuitton bag at a time.This is the premise of a recent ad campaign for the Louis Vuitton luxury brand’s “core values” series. In 2009, Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey (LVMH), the conglomerate which owns Louis Vuitton, bought a 49 per cent stake in Edun, the ethical fashion brand started by Ali Hewson in 2005. Although they carry Vuitton bags in the advert, the clothes they wear are from Edun’s own product lines.

Ali’s Louis Vuitton holdall in the advert is a specially commissioned piece, retailing at around Rs 2.19 lakh.

For each one sold, LVMH, with a reported revenue $17.05 billion (Rs 78,128 crore) in 2009, donates part of the proceeds to charities chosen by Edun, including The Conservation Initiative, a charity they set up in Uganda to help rehabilitate displaced farmers through organic cotton farming.

The idea of organic cotton itself fits into a broader concern with the impact of textiles on the environment and the ways in which fashion can be connected to positive efforts to conserve bio-diversity. LVMH is one of many luxury groups increasingly concerned with their “green credentials”, as the idea of sustainable luxury has taken root and LVMH’s stake in the ethical fashion brand came at a time when Edun was facing severe problems with production, cash flow and brand image.

Yet the relationship between Edun and LVMH raises uncomfortable questions around the way luxury companies address environmental and social responsibility, when these issues, which imply a fundamental re-ordering of supply chains, may instead be glossed over with high-profile charitable initiatives. Jem Bendell, international CSR expert and founder of, is less than sanguine about the LVMH-Edun collaboration.

He explains: “In setting up Edun, Ali Hewson was demonstrating how Africa is a place of creativity and industry, a place to engage with. It was a message of everyone’s dignity, not a few celebrities’ charity. Since the LVMH group bought into Edun, Africa is depicted as a charity case. They switched most production to Asia, and tell us nothing of who makes their stuff or in what conditions. To make up for that, Louis Vuitton now offers some charity to Africa. It’s good that the money raised will go to initiatives to help capacity build the cotton industry, but what of the workers and communities that make the LV bags in Asia or Latin America?”

In sum, what Louis Vuitton’s investment in Edun, in the face of a general lack of transparency of the group’s own labour and environmental practices, highlights the danger that sustainable luxury may be reduced to a charitable gesture or a marketable fad, rather than a vital component in building an alternative fashion system.

Indeed organic cotton’s role in promoting livelihoods and protecting the environment is more than a nice story to sell a luxury leather handbag. Increasingly biodiversity has been seen as a form of “natural capital” worth trillions of dollars on a global scale. In his book Imagining India, Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani urges how many Indian environmentalists have been calling for a form of “accounting” for the environmental impacts of industry for decades. At the Nagoya biodiversity summit in October this year, one of the more positive gains in the general impasse of wrangling between nations was that India became one of the first countries to agree to publish annual reports on its “natural wealth”.

One thing this is predicted to do is help to assess the impact of production on the environment and place more value on farmers who use less or no chemicals for crop cultivation, effectively honouring their key role as custodians of biodiversity. India is at the forefront of the global organic cotton industry, producing 51 per cent of the world’s non-chemically cultivated cotton in 2008 with almost all of it going to the export market. Organic cotton, though a niche market, is nonetheless a significant one. An Organic Exchange report showed that globally the market for organic cotton stood at $4.3 billion in consumer sales in 2009.

Consumers’ imaginations have been lit by revelations of the environmental impact of orthodox cotton farming, which involves levels of pesticides that make it one of the most polluting crops on the planet. Farmer livelihoods are the other side of the organic cotton story and a big focus is on how organic cotton can provide better and more secure livelihoods with more direct access to markets outside of the frame of middle players. So although not all organic cotton is currently produced under “Fairtrade” conditions, it’s logical that this should be the long-term goal.

The Mumbai-based not-for-profit Shop for Change, launched in 2009, is devoted to developing a Fairtrade label for the Indian market and its big focus has been on organic cotton. As Seth Petchers, CEO of Shop for Change, notes: “…the environment doesn’t take care of itself. People care for the environment, and if cotton farming families are given a fair chance to earn a decent living and the support they need to grow greener, there can be a more positive link between cotton and the environment. Fairtrade gives farmers that fair chance”.

The international market for organic Fairtrade cotton is largely divided into two quite distinct market segments. On the one hand there are niche sustainable fashion brands such as the UK’s People Tree, and on the other are giant retail chains such as Marks & Spencer and Topshop, which are beginning to integrate cotton into product lines. The latter trend comes with its own thorny issues of mainstreaming and co-optation of the organic and Fairtrade agenda. The problem with the niche brands is they aren’t collectively big enough to absorb sufficient quantities of organic cotton to make it a viable market. Key to the adoption of organic cotton by large retailers is that organic cotton shouldn’t be seen as a “magic bullet” but as part of more broad-ranging commitments to review and transform the entire range of materials used in products to be more sustainable or replace them with alternatives. A good example of the latter is Marks & Spencer’s Plan A, consisting of 180 commitments the company aims to achieve by 2015, including efforts to reduce waste, use more sustainable raw materials and trade more ethically.

Yet what about the much touted “image problem” that Fairtrade organic cotton is said to labour under? No doubt some consumers still associate it with lumpy clothes or a token feel-good t-shirt purchase. But exploding this myth are People Tree, designers such as Sweden’s Camilla Norback or India’s own Anita Dongre, all of who are marrying organic, Fairtrade cotton with stylish design.

In a recent collection under her Grassroots label, Dongre sent flowing maxis and cinched the 50s inspired cocktail dresses down the catwalk. All were printed using special air dyeing processes with vegetable based inks, meaning less water use and no toxic chemicals. What’s also important is that Dongre is in it for the long haul. This collection used organic Fairtrade cotton for every piece shown on the catwalk and represents her third season of collaboration with Shop for Change. Anita notes: “Organic is perceived as unstylish, but my whole style is feminine and pretty. I cant change my style and what I do in organic has to be about that.”

And where are the big luxury brands in the story of organic and Fairtrade cotton? Hitherto eco- and social labelling has not been seen as desirable for the “DNA” of luxury brands whose cachet rests on exclusivity and the idea of European fine craftsmanship. Yet, as market segmentation creates mass produced luxury, frequently originating from global supply chains stretching as far as China and India, many luxury brands are now having to face up to the realities of their own impact on the environment and questions of fair labour practices. The temptation has been to retreat into feel-good charitable campaigns or one-off products hyped way beyond their real meaning for a company’s claim to sustainable luxury.

Jem Bendell says of the Louis Vuitton-Edun collaboration: “Only by providing decent work in sustainable enterprises will people’s lives be improved in the longer term, whether in Africa, Asia or anywhere… Responsible business is about how you make your money, not how you give it away. It’s time Louis Vuitton got some better advisors about responsible business, and social development.”

Perhaps a key place to begin would be integrating organic Fairtrade cotton as part of a wide-ranging review of its materials procurement practices across the entire LVMH conglomerate. They could take, for a start, the eponymous monogrammed bags with the LV logo or Damier patterns made from coated canvas. What would be the “brand proposition” of Louis Vuitton monogrammed canvas bags made with Fairtrade, organic cotton in factories embodying the latest in sustainable technology and solid fair labour practices?

This would represent a by far greater contribution to both farmers’ livelihoods and ensuring factory workers a fair wage, than charitable donations based on the sale of a single bag, because one thing seems clear, sustainable luxury isn’t about feel-good charity, it’s about trying to change the way business is done, a luxury we cant afford to do without — for ours and future generations.


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