Steve & Barry’s No Longer Making the Cheapest Dress in the World

Incredible news this week on Steve & Barry’s–if you have not heard already, they filed for Bankruptcy on Wednesday and will be going into liquidation asap. According to NY Times DealBook blog, there are several dozen irate vendors speaking their mind on the situation. Clearly the company had a pattern of not paying vendors or paying very late, among other distasteful behaviors. While their downward fall is unexpected news to me – it certainly is a lot sooner than I even expected.

Green Cotton just covered a 2 part series on Steve & Barry’s in May ‘ “The Cheapest Dress in the World Part I and Part II – and I just wrote a piece on this latest news aptly entitled, ‘Part III’ on our new site. Come check our latest story on Steve & Barry out.

Photosource: Mark Lennihan/Associated Press as seen in The NY Times

Silk: just how green is it?

Photo: organic silk lingerie at keetsa.com

By Brit

Silk is one of the most unique, and one of the oldest fabrics in the world.

Much of the silk produced today is made from the cocoons spun by the larvae of the Bombyx mori moth, the mulberry silkworm. When a silkworm hatches from it’s egg, it ravenously consumes fresh mulberry leaves for just over a month, growing from a tiny speck to a fat caterpillar. The silkworm then begins spinning a cocoon of silk filament. In 2-3 days the silkworm can spin a continuous thread up to one mile long around itself, at which point it plans to begin it’s metamorphosis into a moth.

The silk producers have other ideas: they boil the silkworms in water, and the cocoons are unreeled onto spinning wheels which twist several filaments together to make fibres. These fibres are then woven into silk fabric.

This, clearly, is not a happy ending for the silkworm, and that’s just one of many issues with wearing silk.

One mile of filament sounds like a lot, but it takes thousands of silkworms, and many pounds of mulberry leaves to make a dress. 1 acre of mulberry trees produces over 11 tons of leaves, which will feed 240 lbs of silkworms and their cocoons, and will yield just 37 lbs of raw silk.

Like other commercial crops, the mulberry trees occupy land, consume water, and require “a plentiful supply of fertilizers” to produce a high yield of leaves. And growing a plant that bugs love to eat means controlling the bugs that you don’t want to eat it. Mulberry trees are sprayed with pesticides to kill the many other insects who also think that they are tasty.

Chemicals can also be used on the silkworms to increase the amount of silk produced. Methoprene is an insecticide and hormone disrupter which may be applied to silkworms to slow their growth rate and extend the time they spin silk.

Once a luxury fabric reserved for Chinese empresses and emperors, today silk is an mass-production industry with intense pressure on prices. While high-quality, handmade silks are still used for gowns and high-end designer clothing, most silk manufacture is a maximum-output-for-minimum-input business. Most silk production takes place in China, and a significant amount in India; neither country is known for workers rights. When Forever 21 can turn out pure silk dresses for under $30, labor concerns come to mind for the people working in the silk factories.

As well as labor concerns, health issues also afflict silk workers. Silk workers who process raw silk often suffer from asthma and respiratory diseases caused by a fine dust from the gum that binds the strands secreted by the silkworm, and a host of unpleasant skin problems.

So what’s the alternative?

Organic Silk

A lot of garments are sold as being made from “organic silk”. But currently, there is no formal standard in the US or anywhere else for organic silk. Moves have been made towards a standard so organically produced garments can be labelled as such. There’s a precedent in organic standards for raising crops, and for raising animals, so presumably organic silk would involve growing the mulberry trees organically, without chemicals, and raising the silkworms humanely and without hormones. But as there is no standard, the term “organic silk” presently doesn’t mean anything.

Peace Silk

Mahatma Ghandi criticized the wearing of silk for the killing of silkworms. Some silk producers allow the silkworms to hatch into moths from their cocoons, then spin silk from the cocoons in a way similar to spinning wool. As the moths hatch, they chew a hole through the cocoons which makes reeling the silk in a continuous strand impossible. Peace silk is not as strong as conventional silk, but has a softer texture. One caveat: commercial silkworms have been selectively bred to make silk, and only make silk. All a Bombyx mori moth can do is mate, and die. They have vestigial wings, they can’t eat, and only live for a few hours after hatching. There’s no flying wild and free.

Wild Silk

Wild silk is more in line with animal rights. It is considered vegetarian, and is debatably vegan. Other species of wild moths spin silk cocoons, and once the moth has hatched, the cocoons are collected to make silk. The moth lives it’s natural life with no human interference – it has no need for the cocoon once hatched. Wild silk’s color, texture and lustre varies greatly with the species of moth, the leaves eaten, and the spinning and weaving methods used.

Most wild silk is produced in by small companies, co-operatives or individuals, and companies like Indigo Handloom integrate fair trade, fair wages and refusal to buy products created by child labor. With a similar philosophy, Amana, a British company, makes printed dresses and camisoles from wild silk which sell out infuriatingly fast; and Norwegian company Fin designs sleek, uptown garments which will keep their appeal for enough seasons to justify the higher price.

Recycled and Vintage Silk

A vintage silk dress, if it’s free from rot and stains (which sadly never come out) is a great investment. Silk, when cared for, can last for thousands of years – silk textiles over 4000 years old have been found in Chinese tombs.

Vintage silks lend themselves perfectly to recycling and re-working. These dresses, made from 1950s silk parachutes, seem positively youthful! And a search of the treasure trove of talent that is Etsy throws up many beautiful and ingenious ways to recycle silk into dresses, pillows, purses and accessories, like these slip dresses which I covet to wear to a summer picnic. And perhaps karma will stop the bugs – the silkworm’s distant relations – from biting me?

In sum, on the plus side, silk is durable (not to mention beautiful), lasting a really long time (up to thousands of years if preserved well!) and yet the resources needed to make silk are significant: from the water and pesticides to maintain mulberry trees, to the killing of silkworms to get the silk – all combined are a high cost. Organic silk does provide one alternative, but since that process is not yet certifiable, there are no guarantees that the process is pesticide-free, humane or resource conscious. Recycling old silks seems like a great alternative. Since the fabrics rarely degrade, it makes perfect sense to re-use and re-style.

Tell us what you think… What is your take on silk? Do you wear it and do you think it can be green? greencottonblog@gmail.com

Eco-Factory in Sri Lanka: The Cutting Edge of Green Manufacturing

Source: CS Monitor, courtesy of MAS eco-factory Depicts a rendering of the lingerie factory in Sri Lanka (now complete) runs on renewable energy and employs 45,000 workers.

CS Monitor announced last week the completion if the first ever eco-sustainable apparel factory in Sri Lanka. Built with evaporative cooling technology, solar panels and hydro power, the factory is the first of its kind in Asia (and perhaps even worldwide), setting a new standard in apparel manufacturing.

One problem with organic and sustainable garments today is that the fabrics may be green, but so often the manufacturing is anything but (not to mention a majority are still made in sweatshop conditions). The MAS factory solves this problem by greenifying HOW the clothes are made and dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of that part of the process.

With energy-efficient task lighting, low-emission permitting glass (which cuts down on heat transfer), and traditional applications such as courtyard design and tree plantings, the factory is an oasis of low carbon production amidst an industry of profuse waste (e.g. see Cambodian garment factory dumping its refuse in its backyard for passersby to scourge for materials).

Costing 25% more than the average garment factory, the MAS plant will cut and sew lingerie for a number of labels. So far according to the authors, there isn’t a mass retail company out there yet that has developed a full sustainability standard that accounts for the garment across every step of production.

We have the organic certification, but so often that is for the fabric itself and may exclude steps in the production process that occur after the certification. Furthermore, carbon footprint is not a factor separately considered in that certification process. For example, a garment may be made with organically grown cotton, but if coal-fired boilers and poor treatment of waste- water or toxic dyes are used later on, then the garment ultimately has a huge carbon footprint and potentially damaging effects on the environment.

As Linda Greer, a Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist who specializes in toxic chemical pollution in textiles production notes,

‘true sustainability requires independent certification, extensive consumer-education campaigns, and a desire and ability to review entire supply chains.’

I could not agree this statement more. With certification we move toward a more informed consumer base as well as regulated supplier market, and move away from haphazard ‘green and socially responsible’ labeling with little meaning.

We all know that green-ification of goods costs more and without the strict certification and labeling in place and high levels of consumer awareness, it is very difficult to justify those additional costs. So the question is, how is it that a company like MAS is able to afford and/or justify such a substantial up-front investment?

According to the author, ‘economies of scale is one answer’ but in addition, MAS will arguably save money in the long (and even short run) in energy costs. Furthermore, by being the first to commit at this level, they will gain credibility and loyalty among consumers who are increasingly Green and socially conscious.

Just as Gary Hirshberg, CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farms, reflects in his new book ‘Stirring it Up,’ nearly all of the green decisions he and his company made in its 25 year history proved economical and beneficial for the business in the long run. I might add, in an era of rising fuel costs, how can sustainable, energy efficient architecture and systems not be beneficial? By leveraging energy efficient solutions such as solar, hydro and other technologies, MAS will be ahead of the pack in less than a few years if energy prices continue on their current track.

See CS Monitor for more information.

The Cheapest Dress is the World ($8.98): Part II


Photo source: Keetsa.com

For the first part of this post see Part I. This post is in response to last week’s NY Times Style section article on the world’s cheapest dress.

So lets take a closer look at the first 10 miles of apparel production. For a garment to be sold at a price as low as $8.98 – guess what the fabric had to cost per yard before dying – a heck of a lot cheaper than that! Probably less than a dollar per yard. Furthermore, we must also think about how many pesticides were spilled into waterways and the food chain as a result of the cotton grown. In addition, how many children were employed to pick that cotton or spray the pesticides? How many laborers were paid insufficient wages and make the fabric and what kinds of dyes were used? For more information on the real costs of cotton, see White Gold: the true costs of cotton production.

I was at a trade show recently in Las Vegas recently and stopped by the sourcing section to talk to some vendors and visit with sustainable designers. As it turns out, organic fabrics cost anywhere from $11 to $50 per yard. Some online retailers and wholesalers are available at Harmony Art and Near Sea Naturals so you can see for yourself. This is a big difference between conventional! No wonder few retailers are talking about moving in this direction in a big way.

Yet at the same time, organic cotton follows a bare minimum of environmental and social standards to ensure resource management and human rights compliance. Furthermore, as certified organic fabrics, they meet a whole set of criteria at every step in the production process – that ensures they are good for the environment and good for you. For more on differences, see Organic v.s Conventional.

These fabrics cost more because guess what? It costs more to make a good product. Don’t be fooled by cheap prices. There is definitely something to be said for economies of scale and just-in-time inventory, but there is a limit to how low one can go with out sacrificing the environment or humanity along the way.

In general, higher priced organic cotton reflects the TRUE cost of producing materials in alignment with environmental conservation and sustainability. Furthermore, the natural resources used and conserved in the process arguably last longer – so the good news is we can be ‘buying dresses’ for a lot longer! Plus, we will have less contaminated waterways and ecosystems and our great grandchildren may actually live to see some still thriving elements of our natural world.

Be a smart consumer. Ask questions and be aware of supply chain steps and demand that your clothing fair, environmentally smart, good for you & the world. You know something is wrong when 2 lattes cost more than the dress you are wearing (thanks to Steve Allen’s comment).

Remember: we vote with our wallets. The checkout line is the biggest voting machine in America, and in the world actually. So, next time you are at the check out line, ask yourself, could this really be this cheap? If your honest answer to yourself is no, then don’t buy it! I know its tempting to buy cheap goods, but if you don’t need it and can’t afford the ‘smarter’ one, simply don’t get it.

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The Cheapest Dress is the World ($8.98): Part I

Photosource: Tony Cenicola for The New York Times

Maybe you read the article this week in the NY Times Style section on Steve & Barry’s incredibly low prices such as the $8.98 Sarah Jessica Parker dress?

Well even if not, the story raises some very interesting and important issues. I must admit, that after reading the article, I was left feeling a bit depressed and confused.

What is missing from this model? How can a dress of this caliber (e.g., designed by Sarah Jessica Parker, who obviously gets a cut from each garment) sell for $8.98 and STILL make a profit for Steve & Barry? What is missing from the economic model? Is this a classic case of market externalities in which there are a number of negative costs spilled out into the marketplace and more broadly into our environment that somehow get absorbed elsewhere now or in the future? Where are these additional costs getting absorbed? (and by the way, Steve & Barry’s is not the only company that can get clothing so cheap to make one’s eye’s pop – see also, Forever 21, Wal-Mart, Target).

What bothered me the most however is the fact that the company’s executives declared ‘ absolutely not’ to the notion that their clothes are made under sweatshop conditions. In fact, the management states openly that they ‘monitor [their] subcontractors carefully and demand ethical business practices,’ which I do not doubt. I bet they are telling the truth and that their subcontractors are complying with whatever local laws they need to comply with. So where is the missing link in this puzzle?

Having delved into the issues of organic and fair trade clothing production for quite some time now, I have a few conclusions and questions.

(1) When Steve & Barry and others talk about ethical business compliance, are they speaking to a very specific context: e.g., the country in which they are manufacturing the clothing under their subcontractor’s jurisdiction or international fair labor laws? I would fathom to say the later. For example, when a company declares they are compliant – that is with the local labor laws in whichever developing or other country they are subcontracting to (eg Kenya or China). If a subcontracted factory is either of those two mentioned countries (which we know they often are), we can be assured that human rights compliance, fair labor law enforcement and environmental stewardship is minimal to zilch. So the question: whose laws are we/they complying with? What is certain however is that companies like Steve & Barry’s are not member certified by accredited Fair Trade monitoring bodies such as the Fair Trade Federation and/or the European Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO). If they were, they would publicize that. We do know that these organizations set forth established criteria for fair wages and labor requirements in tune with international humanitarian standards, so if that standard is met –we can be assured some level of transparency. If not, then who knows? It’s a bit of a big black box.

(2) The last mile. Secondly, the other gaping hole appears to be in what I would like to term the ‘last mile’ of retail. This ‘last mile in the supply chain train’ is the point at which a majority of major brands and retailers step into the picture. This is where accountability begins and consumer awareness starts. But what about the first ten miles? What happens there? Do we even know? What sorts of compliance measures have been put in place, what environmental and social accountability exists – who is doing what and how is it done?

It may be fair to say that a majority of major American brands are primarily responsible for the ‘last mile of production and branding’ in the apparel industry, and not necessarily part of (nor want to be) privy to earlier steps in the supply chain. This has advantages for retailers and disadvantages for consumers. When it comes to accountability, who wants to be responsible for production starting with cotton growing, when you can take responsibility for just the last stitch on the cloth? By the way, there is a reason why less than 5% of global cotton production is organic. No one wants to take responsibility for the environment that much. This is one of the key reasons why the garments can get as cheap as they are, e.g., $8.98. Importantly, organic certification itself includes compliance with fair labor practices, so by gaining that certification, one also tackles the other issue simultaneously. But guess what – the demand starts with us – consumers. If we become more aware and we demand it, they will do it. We need to be better informed. Furthermore, as more and more companies take on this socio-enviro responsibility, the fabrics will get less expensive. Its that simple – but we must demand it.

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Stay tuned for Part II….coming soon!

Fair Trade: What is It and How to Certify

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On the Rise
Since 2000, the Fair Trade industry has grown extensively, leading to more than a half dozen certification and membership associations. Sales and consumer awareness have increased tremendously as well:

• According to the International Fair Trade Association, in 2006 there were $2.6 billion in fair trade sales ($160 million FTF Members)
• In 2006, the cocoa sector grew 93% according to the Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO).

• In addition, coffee gew by 53%; tea by 41%; and, bananas by 31%.

What is Fair Trade
Fair trade is a system of exchange that seeks to create greater equity and partnership in the international trading system by

* Providing fair wages in the local context,

* Supporting safe, healthy, and participatory workplaces,
* Supplying financial and technical support to build capacity,
* Ensuring environmental sustainability,

* Respecting cultural identity,
* Offering public accountability and transparency,
* Building direct and long-term relationships, and

* Educating consumers.

Source: Fair Trade Federation

Fair trade is a holistic approach to trade and development that aims to alter the ways in which commerce is conducted, so that trade can empower the poorest of the poor.

CERTIFICATIONS

The “Fair Trade Certified” system involves non-profit organizations in 17 different countries, all affiliated with Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International including the European Fair Label Organization (FLO). In the USA, TransFair USA places the “Fair Trade Certified” label on coffee, cocoa, tea, bananas and other fruits. This label is product-specific, meaning that its presence on one product doesn’t mean that all of the companies products are Fair Trade. The Fair Trade Federation (FTF) is an association of businesses that follow fair trade principles universally, so its presence on a product DOES mean that a company supports the highest level of commitment to fair trade. FTF also applies to products beyond food and beverage to include a wide range of goods.

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TransFair, focusing on commodities, food and beverages, certifies products and is the main fair trade food and beverage certifying organization in the United States. Major products certified include coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, sugar, wine, spices and a variety of gourmet foods. Beginning its certification in the 1990s, coffee holds the largest share of fair trade commodity certifications. 85% of fair trade coffee is also organic.

According to TransFairUSA, the Fair Trade Certified™ label “guarantees consumers that strict economic, social and environmental criteria were met in the production and trade of an agricultural product.”

TransFair principles include:
• Fair prices: Democratically organized farmer groups receive a guaranteed minimum floor price and an additional premium for certified organic products. Farmer organizations are also eligible for pre-harvest credit.
• Fair labor conditions: Workers on Fair Trade farms enjoy freedom of association, safe working conditions, and living wages. Forced child labor is strictly prohibited.
• Direct trade: With Fair Trade, importers purchase from Fair Trade producer groups as directly as possible, eliminating unnecessary middlemen and empowering farmers to develop the business capacity necessary to compete in the global marketplace.
• Democratic and transparent organizations: Fair Trade farmers and farm workers decide democratically how to invest Fair Trade revenues.
• Community development: Fair Trade farmers and farm workers invest Fair Trade premiums in social and business development projects like scholarship programs, quality improvement trainings, and organic certification
• Environmental sustainability: Harmful agrochemicals and GMOs are strictly prohibited in favor of environmentally sustainable farming methods that protect farmers’ health and preserve valuable ecosystems for future generations.

TransFair USA licenses companies to display the Fair Trade Certified label on products that meet strict international Fair Trade standards.

Fair Trade Federation

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FTF on the other hand, is another major US association with a slightly different focus than TransFair. FTF is “an association of businesses and organizations who are fully committed to fair trade. FTF strengthens the capacity of its members, encourages the exchange of best practices, and raises awareness about the importance of choosing fairly traded products and supporting businesses committed to fair trade principles.”

FTF’s members are not just commodity-based businesses, but include crafts, gifts, household items, clothing, books, music and a variety of other goods. FTF does not actually certify goods, but maintains an affiliation with businesses and organizations that meet their established criteria for Fair Trade. FTF’s criteria are similar to TransFair, and are best described in the definition at the top of this page.

International Fair Trade Association (IFAT)

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In the late 1970s, US- and Canadian-based entrepreneurs who defined their businesses with the producers at heart began to meet regularly, exchange ideas, and network. This informal group would evolve into the Fair Trade Federation and formally incorporate in 1994. In 1989, the International Fair Trade Association (IFAT) was founded as a global network of committed fair trade organizations, aiming to improve the livelihoods of disadvantaged people through trade and to provide a forum for the exchange of information and ideas.
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Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO)

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In 1988, as world coffee prices began to sharply decline, a Dutch NGO, Solidaridad, created the first European fair trade certification initiative. Similar labeling initiatives grew up independently across Europe within a few years. In 1997, these organizations created Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO), an umbrella organization which sets the fair trade certification standards and supports, inspects, and certifies disadvantaged farmers. In 1999, FLO affiliates, TransFair USA and TransFair Canada opened in North America.

Roots
According to FTF, fair trade in North America began in 1946 with Edna Ruth Byler. As a Mennonite volunteer, Edna visited a sewing class in Puerto Rico and discovered local women’s talent for creating beautiful lace, despite extreme poverty. Edna carried the lace back to the US, selling the items to women. She then returned to Puerto Rico with the money earned, giving back to local Puerto Rican women. Edna’s work grew into Ten Thousand Villages, which opened its first fair trade store in 1958 and is now the largest fair trade retailer in North America.

World Fair Trade Day 2002 marked the first World Fair Trade Day (which will be May 10 2008 this year) in an effort to celebrate local artisans, heighten consumer awareness and strengthen partnerships among fair trader artisans/farmers and interested citizens around the globe.

Why Fair Trade?
Everyone’s consumer spending choices directly affect people’s lives around the world. The products we enjoy are often made in conditions that harm workers, communities and the environment. Increasingly consumers are demanding more information on how products are made, both in terms of the ingredients (including toxins, pesticides, and hormones etc), as well as the impact on the environment and human beings. Fair trade, and its certification bodies are an effort to regulate and promote this emerging industry to create more equitable and sustainable commerce worldwide.

Fair Trade Partners
The Fair Trade system benefits over 800,000 farmers organized into cooperatives and unions in 48 countries. Fair Trade has helped farmers provide for their families’ basic needs and invest in community development.

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White Gold: The True Costs of Cotton Production

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The Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan happens to be the second largest exporter of cotton in the world. One third (1/3) of its population works in the billion dollar industry, and a large majority of those individuals are children. In addition to concern over children’s rights, the situation presents an emerging environmental crisis tied to irrigation and natural resource management. With an over-reliance on dangerous pesticides and economic dependence on cotton, the country is in a difficult position. Yet, Uzbekistan is not solely at fault. Western companies are also complicit by negotiating business with industry officials and consistently purchasing product. Similarly, Western consumers (e.g. Americans and Europeans) reinforce the situation by continuing to purchase Uzbek-grown cotton and demanding price-quality paradigms at such a high human and environmental cost.

How do we navigate ourselves out of such complex socio-eco-nomic mess?

Here are some three simple steps that we as consumers can do to make a difference:

1) Ask your retailer where your cotton has been sourced. If they don’t know, chances are some or all came from Uzbekistan, or some other country where human rights or environmental abuses are part of the production equation. There are plenty of fair trade, organic options out there, seek them out, buy them and promote them to others.

2) Be wary of inexpensive product. If something is cheap, it is probably too good to be true. Cotton is one of the most expensive, labor, pesticide and water intensive crops to grow in the world. It is associated with huge environmental and human costs. If the end product is very inexpensive, chances are someone or something (e.g. natural resources) is paying the real price. Think before you shop. You can start to change the world through your purchases.

3) Buy green, buy organic and buy fair trade. When laborers and craftsmen are given a fair, living wages, the end product will reflect this cost. In addition, when fabrics are organically grown without harmful pesticides, they can be more expensive to maintain and grow. As conscientious consumers, we need to be willing to assume some of this cost. It’s the best way to drive the market toward greater sustainability and equitability. If enough demand existed, even Uzbekistan would move toward organic crops and higher wage production. The market is more powerful than one might think.

Finally, I encourage you to watch this short video directed, produced and supported by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF):

White Gold: The True Cost of Cotton. It is truly enlightening.

www.ejfoundation.org/page85.html

Credits: the Title of this blog was inspired by the above video. Thank you, EJF!

Photo source: The Environmental Justice Foundation

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