Nice, France: October 2017

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Taking a few days break from the office, I headed to Nice in France. And a lovely break was had. Here are a few observations and encounters…

Day 1
Observations from today…
…the coffee machine in the hotel is a no nonsense gadget with one espresso or two espresso settings…
…sitting by the sea in Nice is an expensive business unless you brave the stones…
…children roaring in any language annoy me…
…there is indeed one gin in the universe I can’t drink…
…four Irish women in frantic search of a corkscrew and paper cups in the afternoon are my tribe…
…people can look out to sea for extraordinary lengths of time without speaking…
…a man out jogging in shorts, no shirt and scratch marks the length of his back is not a good look…
 
Day 2
Observations from today…
…you can wear a dress back to front for an entire day without noticing…
…hearing people say ‘hashtag’ in the middle of whatever language they speak is just plain weird…
Screenshot_20181030-165210_Gallery…pedestrian crossings in this town are like an extreme sport – yes, you may cross when the light turns green but I can drive right over your sorry ass if you don’t move quick enough…
…it is possible to get lost on a tram going one way – in a straight line…
…school French comes racing back when there’s coffee/food/ alcohol to be ordered…

 

Day 3
Today, I headed out of town…

On the local bus to Monaco with four ‘Made in Chelsea’ wannabes who discuss at length how they need a new house for their cats, how well they know Nice, how Monaco is like a second home, how they got ripped off €50 for drugs in a Paris club which turned out to be three Smints, get frustrated when they can’t remember the name of the “ocean” they are looking at, laugh at “how the only way to leave Monaco is drunk and bloodied”, panic look at Google maps “to make sure Monaco is actually in Europe” before getting off the bus about ten stops early…

Observations from today…
…an Irishman roaring “Stick with the system” to his mate sounds as stupid on a street in France as it does on O’Connell Street…
…a man walking straight towards a mirror, and not the exit, is in for a shock…
…an altercation between a Muslim mother and a Jewish couple on the tram is ugly in any language…Screenshot_20181030-165244_Gallery
…in Nice, I saw yachts bigger than our house…in Monte Carlo, I saw yachts bigger than our estate…
…a Frenchman called ‘Warren’ (‘Oui Warren, War-ren, W-A-R-R-E-N’) has as much difficulty explaining his name to his kinsfolk as ‘Fachtna,’ (‘Yeah, Fachtna, Facht-na, F-A-C-H-T-N-A ‘) to the Irish…
…Monte Carlo has to be one of the prettiest but loudest places I’ve visited in a long time…
 

 

‘Slow Fashion’ – a movement gaining momentum

‘Sustainability’ and ‘traceability’ are common words used across industry generally. Now they appear prominently in the ‘Slow Fashion’ movement with its emphasis on taking a more accountable approach to manufacturing and purchasing. Stemming from the ‘Slow Food Movement’, it is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace – it is about doing things at the right pace.

Slow Fashion is a spectrum of beliefs, not a hardened set of rules. First coined by Kate Fletcher, Design Consultant, in 2007, it has come to mean different things to many people. At its core, however, it’s an alternative to mass produced clothing, favouring sustainable, ethically produced and recyclable materials which do less damage to the environment than cheaper alternatives. Other elements include opting for clothing from smaller producers, artisans, fair trade outlets, choosing clothing that transcends latest fashion trends and which is repairable plus buying vintage and second-hand clothes when possible. Much of the emphasis is, as Coco Chanel once said, that ‘Fashion fades, style is eternal.’

As a movement, Slow Fashion is gaining momentum. According to Not Just a Label, Slow Fashion represents all things eco, ethical and green in one unified movement. Linking the fashion industry’s output with its impact on the environment, it aims to broaden consumer awareness of the process from material to design to production to delivery. Moreover, it wants to change the consumer’s relationship with clothing. For Maxine Bedat, co-founder of Zady, the question it wants people to ponder is: “How is a product made and what does it mean to me and my values?” The origin and make of a product is essentially what drives the sustainability issue.

Similarly to ‘Slow Food’, Slow Fashion emerged in direct reaction to ‘Fast’ counterpart. In many ways, it is the antithesis of ‘Fast Fashion’ with its negative connotations of often poor grade materials, shabby production values, low wages and questionable business ethics. Instead, Slow Fashion advocates Zady promote ‘No more clothing that ends up on landfills. No more production with questionable roots. Quality over quantity.’

Emphasising quality over quantity, Slow Fashion seeks not only to reduce the number of trends and fashion seasons but to promote the ideal of ‘Less is more’. It is not merely about choosing well-made clothes but ones with longevity, about investing in pieces which will last. Who then is leading the way in Slow Fashion? Some of the brands include Lily Ashwell, Carrie Parry, Pendleton and Zady. Each uses sustainable materials, aiming to design and produce every item in the home country. And in this respect, they pride themselves on relationships with local designers, local producers of fine materials and garments.

Slow Fashion is not necessarily a new departure but rather a return to the old. Over fifty years ago, nearly all clothing was made by home based industries – in the US, that was estimated at 95 per cent ‘but today that number is closer to 2 percent.’ Pendleton, for example, uses mills in north-west America which are over 100 years old to further its commitment to producing homemade materials and garments from sustainable sources. In adopting such styles of production, it aims to reduce water and energy use too.

If rejecting the notion of seasonable fashion, how then will companies launch new collections? In November 2014, Zady announced it will launch a collection of clothes designed and produced entirely in the US – one piece at a time. Doing so, it believes its ‘Essential Collection’ is an extension of the philosophy of sustainable couture.

Slow Fashion is laudable on so many levels but if it seeks to match and then surpass Fast Fashion, it has a rocky road ahead. Despite the emphasis on education and marketing, it is more likely it will be one model of production rather than the only one.

While sitting easy with other movements such as ‘Slow Food’ and ‘Slow Money’, Slow Fashion cannot turn back time to older methods and values if it is to keep pace with need let alone demand. Fashion exists in a very fast paced world where consumer desires are catered for and choice is king. Being built to last is a thing of the past, where short life spans and models mean people have to regularly update – not simply because they have to but because they want to.

Sweatshops and low wages in Asia are often referred to but without proper consideration. If it were indeed possible to raise wages, improve working conditions and use sustainable materials would this meet the philosophy of some ‘Slow Fashion’ advocates? The carbon footprint involved in transporting clothes into western markets would go against the more eco-conscious in this area. Perhaps a slow boat from China might be the way forward…

And in considering transportation from the east might this also impact on Europe to US movement too, curbing home-based Chanel and Dior in how far it might travel? What then of transportation? Some companies deliver within the US only but some do so by air. Discussion needs to occur then on what the limitations of travel should be and if it is indeed feasible without negatively impacting on the industry. In India, for example, if the exporting of clothes was reduced, the effect on the economy would be dramatic – mostly to the cost of the workforce.

Using the best designs, craftspeople and materials also have cost implications and some believe that the cost of Slow Fashion is prohibitive. While Anusha Couttigane, Conlumino analyst, believes marketing, media and education is essential and that eventually sustainable fashion will be available to all, it is a long (long) way from this point. Buying the latest fashion and buying new have cultural implications which cannot be dismissed. Supporters of Slow Fashion may believe education will teach many that less is more and vintage is preferable to always buying new. For many, however, wearing used or repaired clothes – whatever the quality and ethical considerations – is akin to donning hand-me-downs. And hand-me-downs are often what you wear if you cannot afford to buy new. Clothing is intrinsically linked with status and self-image; links the fashion industry has spent billions upon billions seeking to cultivate. There are so many emotional aspects at play here that one can only surmise that it will take more than education to diminish such feelings.

Slow Fashion has much to commend it and it will continue to gain momentum and supporters. Realistically, however, it will not and cannot erase its arch nemesis, Fast Fashion. Here’s hoping that the two can coexist with perhaps the balance being firmly tipped in favour of sustainable and better quality options – at affordable prices.

 Published online: 2014

The Rana Plaza disaster – a quagmire of considerations

On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed. Described as the deadliest garment factory accident in history, it left 1,129 dead and nearly 2,500 people injured. Among the rubble were found the labelled garments of 29 well known manufacturers who were outsourcing production to this factory.

Outsourcing on this scale is big business. Of Bangladesh’s total exports, garments account for 78 per cent. Some 59 per cent of these exports is destined for the European market. In Ireland, for example, CSO figures attribute €277 million of garment imports from Bangladesh since 2010. With big business in this context, however, comes little regulation and it is not surprising that it often results in corruption, collusion and most seriously, cutting corners for workers and workplace safety.

The Rana Plaza disaster is one among many but the scale means its victims are in need of immediate financial assistance. In reaction to this, the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund was established by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), an agency of the UN. The aim is to provide monies to those injured in the collapse and to those who have lost their principal breadwinner. Operating in contrast to a charity, the fund seeks to provide compensation to the most needy to spend as they see fit and not invested according to where the ILO deems appropriate.

So who funds the fund? While open to all, companies manufacturing in Rana Plaza are asked to contribute towards an overall goal of $40 million. Any contribution, it states, ‘does not imply legal responsibility or obligation for the accident’ and there is no onus on the company to disclose how much it has contributed.

Being included on the list of donors does not mean standing among equals. Of all companies, Primark has stepped up to the plate, contributing $8 million to the fund. It is also making contributions directly to workers which will be in the region of $4 million – a total of $12 million overall. It sits on the list beside companies such as C&A, Mango and Gap which made a contribution of $200,000 each. ‘Nearly all of these brands,’ states Clean Clothes Campaign Ireland (CCCI), ‘have failed to make a significant enough contribution and we are calling on them to increase their donations.’

On 4 July 2014, the fund stood at $17.7 million – substantially short of its $40 million goal. As donations dribble in, Matalan in the UK has come in for particular flak and attention. The last big British company to contribute, it only paid in the past few days. Susannah Compton, Campaigns Manager with ‘38 Degrees’ believes it did so after tens of thousands of people emailed, called and tweeted Matalan to tell them they could not walk away from their responsibilities. It chose not to disclose the amount contributed. Compton believes that ‘Until Matalan says exactly how much it has paid, its customers will still be waiting to see what kind of business it really is.’

Why did Matalan hold out this long? In its opinion, it didn’t. While it did not contribute to the ILO-managed fund until recently, it has already donated to BRAC, an NGO which will rehabilitate and retrain survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster (a similar approach to that taken by Benetton). Maintaining that it only ran a small pilot scheme from February to March 2013, Matalan states it had no interests there at the time of the factory collapse even if garments bearing one of its labels were found amongst the debris. It says it has donated the equivalent of what it made during this short time to BRAC. Calling for Matalan to contribute £3 million to the fund, the ‘Labour Behind the Label’ campaign group does not think duration is a relevant factor: “Quibbling over the exact status of an order at the time of a collapse is petty given the scale of the disaster.” There is no information, however, on how this amount was arrived at and why one company out of 29 should be obliged to contribute the equivalent of $5 million to a fund total of $40 million.

Paying into the fund is voluntary. While no company is forced to contribute, public and political pressure to do so is significant. But should all companies contribute equal amounts? There is no scale of contribution. David Babbs, executive director of ‘38 Degrees’ argues “If Primark can pay, why can’t Matalan?” Is this acceptable? Surely, a company which has benefitted most from the workers at Rana Plaza should contribute more than a company there momentarily? Morally, Matalan might contribute but from a business perspective, it makes little sense. With unsafe work practises throughout the region, there is the danger of setting a precedent that it might be required to contribute at the same level each time.

Matalan and many other companies, for example, Benetton, Walmart and the Gap Foundation, have opted, however, to contribute to BRAC. Why did Matalan pick this over the ILO fund? According to a company spokesperson, “In order to come to this decision, we have undertaken a significant level of due diligence and have moved to avoid public debates of where the right place to put our support should be.” Contributions to BRAC have been largely overlooked by the campaign groups which say that monies should be paid to the ILO fund specifically and have garnered public support to make this happen.

Should companies willing to contribute, however, not retain the right to place their money where they believe it can have most impact? As the largest NGO in the world, BRAC seeks to pull people out of poverty. It invests in communities’ own human and material resources, ‘catalysing lasting change and creating an ecosystem in which people who are poor have the chance to take control of their own lives.’ This is the approach being taken to those directly affected by the Rana Plaza disaster – seeking to arrange integrated livelihood options for people to ensure sustainable futures and to help them gain control of their own lives and those of their dependents. It seeks therefore to contribute to long-term goals rather than compensate short-term recovery.

Like Primark, Matalan was one of the main beneficiaries from the economic downturn and the demise of Woolworths in the UK. In all this discussion of which companies should pay and how much, little attention is given to the actual consumer who is creating, and sustaining, the demand for cheaper clothes. Companies manufacturing garments in Bangladesh and the surrounds are meeting that demand. An emphasis on higher standards and regulations will inevitably drive prices up. With the threat of increasing prices, companies can move elsewhere to less regulated areas to feed the demand for cut-price clothing. And so the cycle continues.

The Rana Plaza Donor Trust Fund is open to all but campaigns focusing on companies don’t promote this point. They simply highlight the cause without addressing the demand which perpetuates this practice. Saying this is not to divest companies of moral and financial duty to their workforce wherever they are located. Reading through all the materials on this subject, however, it makes one wonder how many of the writers, researchers and representatives are wearing clothes from the companies they now hold so culpable…

 Published online: 2014