Social Fabric 2018.07.16

Potatoes

NATURE’S OLDEST COMFORT FOOD

French fries, German potato salad, Irish potato soup, Bengal potatoes. An international starch powerhouse, the humble potato is actually native to Peru, was domesticated there over 10,000 years ago, and was only introduced to Europe after the “discovery” of the Americas in the fifteenth century. Today, there are over 4,000 (4,000!) varieties of potatoes in Peru – only a handful of which are able to grow away from the ideal Andean climate and soil. Idaho gets closest but even there they can’t grow most of them. Madhur Jaffrey chronicles her journey through Peru’s potato belt. From the New York Times.

ZIPPING ALONG

Quick – think of a company or brand whose products you use daily. I’m guessing no one but the most insider-y of apparel insiders thought ‘YKK.’ And they probably didn’t either. But if you put on a pair of jeans, zipped up a jacket, or grabbed a backpack or handbag today, chances are you interacted with a YKK zipper. For decades, Japan’s YKK has made over half the world’s zippers. If you feel like geeking out on zippers, this deep dive by Quartz looks at the history, the present, and the future of apparel’s most essential fastening device.

THE LAST STRAW?

One bright spot in the movement to change our culture of consumption is the decline of single-use plastic shopping bags. We can thank growing consumer awareness as well as new local and state laws, the most consequential being California’s 2016 law outlawing the bags. (Shameless plug – our Envirosax reusable shopping bags are so cool, so convenient, you’ll forget you ever used plastic bags!).

Next up…the plastic straw. After shopping bags, no other product gets used once and tossed (rarely recycled) as a drinking straw. Re-usable straws and paper straws (remember those?) are making big comebacks as plastic’s reign finally begins to recede. We can all drink to that! From NPR.

SPEAKING OF THINGS GOING AWAY

It’s hard to fathom, but not too long before ‘Netflix and Chill’ we had ‘Blockbuster and Return in 48 Hours, 24 Hours for New Releases.’ After closing two Alaska locations, Blockbuster will have only one remaining store. Quite honestly, I didn’t realize they had any locations still open even though my member card looks as good as new (oh, the wonders of plastic!). The fact that the last store is in hipster mecca Bend, Oregon is even more surprising. Or is it? Could this be some kind of ironic Blockbuster? From Esquire.

The fix is in

As anyone who works in apparel will tell you, the deck is stacked against things running on auto pilot. Murphy’s Law? Not really. Making clothing involves very ‘touchy’ elements: cotton fiber (which varies as the weather does), yarns, fabrics, dyes, washing processes, sewing needle tension, human judgement, and how those things interact with each other. If the water temperature during the dyeing process is 2 degrees off, fabric shrinkage can go way off course. It’s one of the reasons no one has quite figured out how to teach robots to make clothes. As the president of a major denim factory said in 1970, we’d colonize Mars before figuring out how to automate clothing production.

For the past several days I huddled with our partners in Peru to solve a perplexing issue. While 90% of our organic cotton fabrics this season were great as usual, there were a handful of colors that were, well, too soft. That may sound weird, but these colors felt a bit more like pajamas (soft and fuzzy) instead of how we want our organic women’s tees and dresses to feel (soft and silky smooth).

Organic cotton fabric

Too soft? More accurately, the wrong kind of soft.

This had the technicians at our knitting and dyeing mill scratching their heads as they followed the same formula for knitting, dyeing, and washing they always have.

After several days of testing (and the usual jokes about how much easier it would be to make cardboard boxes) we found it. Our dye producer– maker of some of the gentlest dyes on earth – slightly changed their formula on some colors to be even more eco-friendly. While happy they took that initiative, they didn’t inform our dyeing facility. Sure enough, the very slight change interacted with the wash process and created a slight but perceptible change in how the fabric feels.

Drying fabrics after dye and wash

Drying fabrics after dye and wash

Once we discovered the issue, the technicians made an adjustment to the wash formula, we did a few more dye and wash tests, and voila! Our fabrics were as smooth as silk again. We gave the all clear for Fall/Winter 2018 production.

post_meeting

Feeling better

organic cotton fabric

Ready for cutting and sewing!

Needless to say, this will add a couple weeks to our production calendar, but we should be still ok to have most fall goods in the door by September 1.

Why Made in Peru?

In our early years, Fair Indigo worked with several small-ish suppliers all over the world and in the US. We were country-agnostic. As long as you could produce quality products and pay and treat your workers well, we wanted to work with you. The universe of fair trade + clothing + quality was pretty small, however.

To be honest, at times it felt like we were flailing. Finding that rare supplier that fit the bill and jumping onboard with them quickly. It was a sugar high – always exciting. “Hey, we can finally offer jeans now!” Flash forward to today and “Made fairly in Peru” is printed on nearly all of our styles. Because as our beliefs about fair trade and sustainability have evolved, our sourcing has too.

 

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In addition to using organic cotton whenever possible and paying living wages, we’re now laser focused on reducing clothing waste – one of the biggest and least reported problems in the apparel industry. Since 1980, Americans are buying 5 times as much clothing and discarding it 3 times faster – mostly to landfills. All this Fast Fashion is an unmitigated disaster for the world’s resources (especially water) and for its low-paid garment workers.

Some days it feels like we’re a teacup trying to stave off a tidal wave but we’re trying to be part of the “let’s waste less” solution in two ways.

First, designing clothes that are Forever in Fashion. We don’t want you looking in your closet, finding a Fair Indigo item, and thinking “that’s so 2016.” It doesn’t mean we won’t nod to current trends, but our focus is on style that endures through multiple years. Minimalism, in many areas of life, can feel great! And do good.

Second, clothing has to last. You know that favorite tee in your closet you bought five years ago for $10? Yeah, that probably doesn’t exist. So we strive not only to design pieces you’ll want to wear for years, but to build in quality that insures you can.

Which is what leads us to Peru. Honestly, there is no better place on earth to make clothing. In terms of climate, Peru has it all. In fact, it contains 28 of the world’s 32 climates – more than any country on earth. The diversity of what Peru can grow, raise, and harvest is remarkable. “Coast. Mountain. Jungle.” It’s almost a national mantra seen everywhere from travel brochures to restaurant menus. Peruvians take great pride in their three regions, each with a rich and distinct indigenous history, several micro-climates, and a wonderful diversity of flora, fauna, and flavors.

One micro-climate (a quarter way up the hills from the coastal desert to the Andes) is literally the most ideal place on earth to grow organic Pima and Tanguis cotton. Their quality is unmatched, even edging out somewhat more famous Egyptian cotton. Its distinctive long-staple fibers endure beautifully for years without pilling. Add a dash of sustainably herded alpaca – stronger, warmer, and lighter than wool (without the itch!) and kinder than factory farm cashmere.

AlpacaYarn

Then there are the people of Peru. Friendly? Generous to a fault? Happy? Check, check, check. On top of all that goodness, their apparel making skills are legendary – handed down through generations, literally from the time of the Incas. There are thousands of workers here able, willing, and happy to make your clothes. They just need the chance to do so.

Rosa

But even in an ideal clothing-making place like Peru, things sometimes go off course. Which is why I’m here this week. Solving unforeseen problems is well over 50% of any apparel maker’s job (75%?). More on that in the next post…

Racky The Raccoon’s Journey Back to Peru

Racky the Raccoon and a few of his friends were privileged to journey to their home country of Peru last year. While the humans among us worked, their trip was purely for pleasure.

Racky got in a bit of trouble here and there, but then again…he is a raccoon so we went easy on him. He finally got around to uploading some pics from his camera.

Have you taken your Jooble anywhere? Post your pictures on our Facebook Joobles Around the World album! They’ve been everywhere from Disney to Central Park to literally inside the Stanley Cup!

Racky’s Peruvian Adventure

Reading guidebooks and brushing up on his Spanish.
All packed. Ready to go!
At the airport.
Friends Flop the Frog and Cutie the Lamb showed up too.
Seat 23C. Lots of leg room!
Racky looks a little green though.
Checking in at the hotel.
A nice shower after a long trip.
And a good night’s sleep.
Bonus! Flop the Frog is a big soccer fan and the FIFA World Cup was playing while we were there.
Making friends.
The Joobles were feeling very cosmopolitan at a German bar in Peru, watching a game played in South Africa between Spain and Netherlands.
Racky was thankful his designer didn’t design him with lederhosen.
Being amphibian, Flop the Frog was clearly more interested in liquids than the others.
Hamming it up with the waiter.
Ahhhhh, café.
On a park bench in Lima.
A beautiful cool day.
Knock knock. I need a ride
to the Inca Market.
Off to the Inca Market.
Racky kept sneaking out
of his car seat.
At the Inca Market, sneaking
his way into a picture that was
intended to be of this traditional
Peruvian doll.
Huacachina sand dunes!
Sand boarding at Huacachina.
Huacachina sand dunes.
On the flight to see the
famous Nazca Lines.
This is going to be so cool!
I see a spider, a monkey, an alien,
a bird. Why no raccoon!
Motion sickness sets in.
Taxi driver.
Bellboy.
At bakery.
At a shopping mall.
Shopping mall.
At the famous
Restaurante Jose Antonio.
Bartender.
Checking out. Adios!

Arequipa. Alpaca’s Capital City.

Situated at 2,335 meters (7,661 feet) above sea level in the Andes Mountains, Arequipa is Peru’s second most populous city with a population of nearly a million. Despite its location in the tropic zone, the elevation prevents it from exceeding 77 degrees Fahrenheit or dipping below 40 at night. At the higher elevations outside the city, the temperature drops much lower (as we unwittingly discovered on our last trip there…even our hearty Wisconsin skin was no match for the fierce Andean winds).

Andes Mountains seen through one of Arequipa’s narrow streets.

Santa Catalina Monastery, built in 1580.

Vicunas (alpaca’s cousins) grazing just outside Arequipa.

A woman sits outside her home in the Los Tambos neighborhood.

Arequipa’s Central Square

Santa Catalina Monastery

A colorful street.

A local resident watching a parade in celebration of Arequipa’s many weekend festivals (Peruvians are good at finding reasons to celebrate!)

See more pictures of Arequipa here.

Fair Indigo ended up in Arequipa because it serves as the regional hub for Peru’s sustainable alpaca herding and knitting. The ancient Incas called alpaca the “fiber of the gods.” We call it the “Cashmere of the Andes.” An ethical option for those who want something really special, but are reluctant to indulge in cashmere because of the factory farm model it usually adheres to. We’ve offered our Baby Alpaca Scarf (no, not from baby alpacas!) since 2006 and it continues to be one of our top sellers year after year. A classic gift, made fairly. Workers like Manuela below enjoy a decent living and upward mobility thanks to our customers’ continued purchases of this scarf.

Employees enjoy a free health clinic on site.

Employees enjoying a lunch of delicious Peruvian cuisine.

Here’s Manuela finishing up the “fringe” on our alpaca scarf.

These alpacas are herded and sheared sustainably and with great care. The market for their fleece in North America grows little by little each year but is dwarfed by the mammoth cashmere industry. We’re grateful for our customers who are helping to turn the tide. You can see our growing collection of alpaca styles here.

Ice Cream and Ed

I never would have guessed ice cream would work its way into one of our blog posts, not that I’m complaining. But this day tasted better than ice cream. Better than ice cream with sprinkles on top.

I’m in Raleigh, North Carolina with Sandy Martin (founder of our partner Green 3 Apparel) to visit the facilities that produce our organic US-made tees. I met so many workers like these today, each one with a different story of how they came to work for Ed. Their sincere smiles were contagious.

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Too many stories to tell in one post. I want to focus on one today. The story of a man who has gone against the proverbial grain. A man who boldly and confidently marched against every awful trend in American manufacturing, and succeeded.

Born in upstate New York, Ed worked for a large apparel manufacturer for nearly two decades in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This was a time when brand names owned their own factories, much of them in the Northeast and the Carolinas. A time when t-shirts weren’t considered one-season disposables. Ed made quite a name for himself as head of operations. But something gnawed at him the higher up the ladder he moved. He had always believed companies viewed workers as assets. But over time, Ed thought more and more companies, including his own, viewed them as liabilities, something to minimize. In 1984 he watched the movie Wall Street. It hit home for him. The movie memorably exposed a “greed is good” mantra (stock prices go up when companies lay off workers) and Ed decided then and there he wanted no part of it.

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In 1984, apparel factories in North Carolina were leaving in droves, but, at 40, Ed decided to do something about it, starting his own clothing factory in tiny Wendell, North Carolina. He was called crazy (his wife supported his decision but thought it might be related to a mid-life crisis). Today his company is thriving…one of the very few success stories in US apparel manufacturing we’ve found.

How? The question was burning up my notebook from the moment I started listening to Ed talk. But the answer would have to wait. It was time for us to visit his other plant in nearby Middlesex that does all of the fabric cutting. (And when Ed heard we were taking pictures, he said he wanted to stop home to get a tie, southern gentleman he.) He asked if I wanted to accompany him on the drive so he could continue his story. After some back and forth with office staff, he said we were taking the company’s delivery truck (the truck they use to deliver fabric from facility to facility). It’s not an 18-wheeler, but it’s quite a bit bigger than your standard U-haul. Yep, Ed drove the truck. I also helped him load a gurney full of what I assumed were supplies into the back of the truck.

So there I was driving along the beautiful green North Carolina countryside with the president of the company in the driver’s seat, operating a stick shift as big as a baseball bat. I commented “wow, you drive the truck in addition to your presidential responsibilities?” He said it only made sense.  We and the fabric had to get to the other plant at the same time so we may as well take the truck and save a little gasoline. I’ll get to the rest of his story soon.

It was time to unload the gurney from the truck. I watched with awe and, I’ll admit, a lump in my throat as Ed wheeled the gurney of supplies through the factory. Along the way, lots of smiles, waves, and “Hi Ed!”s. This was decidedly not a “boss is here, look busy” kind of place.

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And what was in the gurney? Ice cream! Ed decided since it was so hot outside, it was a good day for ice cream. Shortly after we arrived, the lunch hour bell rang and Ed played the leading role of head scoopsman.

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By that time I had heard Ed’s story in the truck, so the ice cream was no surprise. Ed, with a twinkle in his eye (I swear, I saw it), told me his secrets. First, a solid business plan. Second, no corporate overhead staff (everyone is productive). Finally, a modest salary for himself. He actually told me what he pays himself each week.  I won’t report it here, but it almost made me blush. “There’s no reason I need to make 100 times what my people make.” That was it. A good business plan and upper management that doesn’t demand outrageous compensation. When I dug a bit deeper on what makes a good business plan, he could only respond “put your ducks in a row.” Ed is a capitalist, not a charity. But his flavor of capitalism seems to be in as short supply as strawberry ice cream on a scorching day.

Not only does Ed’s model work on the basic stuff. He can also afford to provide an amazing benefit to his employees that few Fortune 500 companies even do. If an employee’s child is accepted into one of the four nearby state universities, the company will pay 100% of tuition and books expense. “The only hope these kids have around here is getting an education. So many in this area can’t afford it.” He added, “when I lay in bed at night, this is what makes me think I’ve done something good today.”

With 350 workers today, close to a new high, Ed’s made a big difference in a small town and once again proven that going against the grain can not only feel good, it can be good for business too. We are honored to be associated with such a visionary. Thank you Sandy for introducing us to Ed and thank you Ed for your determination to make a difference. Onward!

Peru Trip Day 6: Sand Boarding in Huacachina, Peru

We are lucky to work for a company that, despite very modest resources, encourages us to take a day on our business trip to do something fun and/or educational. To really dive into the culture and understand the people.

As veterans of larger apparel brands, I can tell you that typically the only culture we were able to absorb on our rushed trips was a quick couple of hours at a touristy market.

On the last day of our trip to Peru in July 2010, we made a journey four hours south of Lima to the Inca region.  A vast coastal desert with one of the largest sand dunes in the world at Huacachina.

But first, we toured a Pisco vineyard and winery.  Pisco is a type of grape brandy and the main ingredient in the Pisco Sour, the national drink of Peru. Some of us like this drink more than others.

Next we were awed by the mysterious Nazca lines…who do you think made them?  Racky the Raccoon loved the plane ride but was feeling a little air sick after so many twists and turns to see the lines.

But after six long and grueling days of work, what we really needed was to let off some steam.  Our steam letting took the form of sand boarding and dune buggying around the sand dunes at Huacachina. So remote feeling as to be almost cartoon-like, our dune buggy driver gave us a roller coaster-worthy trip of a lifetime.   We finished the day at the beautiful town of Huacachina, long considered the “Oasis of America.”  No really, it looks like a Roadrunner and Coyote cartoon scene.

Peru is truly a spectacular place to visit, for work, for play, and to live. The diversity of things to do and see is hard to find anywhere in the world in such a small area.  Did you know Peru contains 28 of the world’s 32 identified climates?  If you need suggestions, we are happy to put you in touch with folks who can help you plan a trip!

Peru Trip Day 5: How Joobles Help Fund Micro Businesses

On our final workday in Peru, we visited one of the cooperatives that makes our Joobles line of organic characters and accessories.

Carmela started her business five years ago with a single knitting machine.  Her home-based business is located in the San Juan de Miraflores area near Lima, one of the many hillside shanty towns where settlers from the countryside have landed in search of a “better life” in Lima.

Today she has 6 machines and has brought 8 workers into the cooperative. An inspiration to all of us, Carmela said her success really hinges on her ability to a) invest in new machines to expand the capacity of knitting, and b) to get bigger orders!  Because sales of Joobles have exceeded our expectations (what other $25 baby gift could you ever want?), we hope Carmela can soon reach her goal of doubling her knitting machines and workers.

Fair Indigo works with a company here in Peru that coordinates production with dozens of businesses like Carmela’s, providing each with vital pieces of the business pie that are often out of reach for traditional craft-based cooperatives: legal/accounting support, logistics planning, and most importantly a link to consumers outside of Peru.

This company also completes a final inspection on all the pieces that are knit in the cooperatives.

It was an honor to meet Carmela and her family and share a snack with them in their home.

If you know anyone in the market for a baby gift (ahem, we’ve noticed not only babies like the Joobles), please send them our way! Carmela and dozens more like her will appreciate it more than you would ever guess.

And what motivates Carmela to bigger and better things?  “Es muy sencillo” it’s very simple she says. She and her husband have two teenage sons and want to make sure they stay in school and on the right path for a better life. Carmela can think of no better way than to lead by example.

Peru Trip Day 4: Amidst Crushing Poverty, A Thriving School

The Fair Indigo Foundation supports children’s education in communities where our products are made. The Foundation is funded by 5% of Fair Indigo profits and by $5 optional donations in our website shopping cart.

Let me be perfectly clear. Those $5 donations are meaningfully and visibly changing lives here.

The Manchay neighborhood of Lima is one of Peru’s poorest. An overlooked desert hillside of makeshift houses, sparse utilities, and kids with little hope of escape. While we ponder the dents in our 401K’s, residents here ponder what they’ll eat tomorrow, and how they’ll get drinking water up the hill.

When we made our first donation to the Manchay School two years ago, it educated 80 children. Today, the school is thriving, with 350 students, two new classrooms, a new library, and a computer lab. The kids here in one of the most hopeless areas we’ve seen are receiving a solid education and looking quite healthy and happy.

This year, the Fair Indigo Foundation is funding a second floor addition to bring in even more of Manchay’s children. Our visit ended with a heart-touching song the kids performed and a rally on the playground with their fearless teacher Delia. We’ll share the whole story with pictures and video in the near future. A sincere thank you to those of you who have donated.

Peru Trip Day 3: Building a Better T-shirt

Yesterday was about working with a very small fair trade group (Angeles Anonimos) to literally figure out a way to keep them alive. Today we worked with a second type of supplier…a medium sized modern clothing factory that makes garments for Fair Indigo, in addition to other clients in Latin America and Europe.

Diana, the factory’s founder and owner, has been quietly practicing fair trade before she had ever heard the term. We sensed something special here two years ago on our first visit. Diana was running late. As she arrived, what we saw on the sewing floor was remarkable (having worked in the apparel industry most of our adult lives).  Under the din of the salsa music on the sewing floor, several employees dropped what they were doing to greet Diana with a hug, a kiss on the cheek, a warm smile. Quite the opposite of “the boss is coming, look busy.”

Two years later Diana is one of our most important suppliers.  Bringing us organic pima cotton tees, dresses, skirts (and next year pants!).  She has also created a great place to work.  Employees like Walter and Juanita (below) have been here for many years (11 for Juanita) and commute up to 2 hours a day.

With so many garment factories in Lima, why travel so far?  Chats with Walter, Juanita, and others paint a picture of of a place that not only pays fair wages, but also allows workers to truly grow.  Diana partners with a local technical school with donations of machinery and fabric and pays for employees to use the school to learn more advanced skills.  Turnover is a big problem in this business, but not here.

We have 8 styles going through production here today, in various stages. Very exciting to see it live…the styles are turning out gorgeous!

Thank you Diana and team!  And thank you Fair Indigo customers for continuing to purchase products from this wonderful facility.

Walter works on FI style #1400 while Juanita works on #724. From their hands to your back!

Diana, smart businesswoman, neighborhood employer of choice, and all-around nice person (with her new friend Flop the Frog).