Social Fabric 2018.05.31

news

GOOD NEWS!

Every time I open my News app, Facebook, or, (why do i still?) Twitter, I find myself almost squinting one eye shut to avoid the latest evidence the world is spiraling toward oblivion. While we can’t bury our heads in the sand to bad news or real struggles, sometimes it helps to take a step back and realize that across the arc of human history, the world is actually getting better in many ways. Here are fifty bits of good news. Not one-off feel-good stories, but real hard data. From A Wealth of Common Sense blog.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

One part of the world that has definitely not gotten better is humanity’s relationship with its clothing. The price we pay for our clothes has fallen substantially in the past thirty years and we are buying five times as much as we did in 1980. While that might sound like a good deal for consumers, it’s also led to a toxic brew known as “Fast Fashion.” Faster, cheaper, more, repeat. Global brands have gotten huge almost overnight with this formula. But the hidden costs are huge too. From The Elephant Journal.

OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS?

Most of us have heard that learning a new language is hard after age 10, really hard after 18. It’s always been in the back of my mind as I’ve thought about taking additional Spanish courses. But a linguistics professor is blowing up these common perceptions. It depends on how we define “fluent.” When I’ve asked our Peruvian partners to score my Spanish, they are very polite and say it’s good. When pressed for a bit more candor, they admit I sound roughly like a Peruvian toddler with a cute accent (or one time, “like a Canadian who lived in Chile for a few years” ???).  In any case, they understand “I get taxi for hotel” really means “I’ll get a taxi to my hotel.” And it’s just fine. And now I feel almost as accomplished as the president of France. From Quartz.

LADIES WHO LUNCH

On my recent trip to Peru, one of our lunch conversations turned to a pilot project in a remote Pacific region where a group of women farmers are transforming their community’s school lunches to ditch processed and junk foods for nutritious organic meals. The women re-discovered the benefits to natural foods after a series of horrible weather events forced them to learn to grow new types of vegetables, just to survive. Their self-taught farming skills now form the foundation of their thriving enterprise. Way to go ladies! From IPS News.

 

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…

The “greenest” tees are the ones that last.

Image

There are countless ways to judge how environmentally responsible t-shirts are.

Does the t-shirt use organic cotton? What about the dyes and chemicals used in the processing of the fabric? How many miles did the tee have to travel on a boat, plane, or truck to its end user? What kind of packaging did it arrive in? On top of these, who certified the cotton organic? Whose organic standard was used?

While these are all important, one of the most overlooked measurements is this:    how long will this t-shirt last?

We don’t know of studies showing the average life of a mass produced tee, but we know instinctively it’s shorter than it was years ago. That $12 tee you bought three years ago? Exactly. There’s not much sustainable about a disposable organic tee.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the lifespan is a year. Imagine the impact of building a t-shirt that lasts 4 years or longer. That’s 75% less cotton. 75% less water. 75% less packaging. 75% less fuel.

So when we set out to create the World’s Finest Tees (dresses & skirts too!), longevity was top of mind. Here’s what we do:

1. Start with pure organic Peruvian pima cotton. The Andean climate of Peru yields irresistible pima cotton–among the finest in the world–renowned for its sublime softness, brilliant luster, and resistance to breaking down and pilling. Rare organic pima is even softer. With no pesticides or chemicals getting in the way of its natural goodness.

2. Build in shape retention. This may irk some purists, but we add a dash of spandex to many of our tees. It allows the tee to hold its shape beautifully over time, not stretching out. (For purists, we do offer a collection of 100% pima organic cotton tees, dresses, & skirts too).

3. Pre-wash the fabric. Before we cut the fabric for sewing, it’s gently washed, extracting almost all of the shrinkage before sewing. This is a much more expensive method than the typical garment wash. But it insures that tees will fit consistently from batch to batch. And, critically, that the tees will have very minimal shrinkage over years of washing so they’re not catapulted into the disposable category.

Image4. Build in economic sustainability. In our view, environmental responsibility goes hand in hand with economic and social responsibility. Making organic tees in a sweatshop to keep their prices lower is simply misguided. All of our tees are made by a small group of workers and cooperative owners like Viviana. Workers paid living wages and treated with respect and dignity.

 

foundation5. Pay it forward. Proceeds from Fair Indigo’s profits (along with $5 donations at website checkout) support the Fair Indigo Foundation. The Foundation supports education in the communities where our products are made. Because we firmly believe…no, we know because we’ve seen it…that besides paying living wages, the best ticket out of poverty is education. (Read more).

With premium ingredients, fashionable yet timeless designs, and values you can wear on your sleeves, the World’s Finest Tees will be spot on trend this season. And the next and the next and the next.

Partners in Good

Meet Rowena and Sergio, wife and husband (and business partners) living in Lima, Peru. There is no other way to say it. Without these two incredibly dedicated and incredibly generous souls, Fair Indigo would not exist today.

Rowena and Sergio, partners in good

We met them way back in 2005, when they were both (unmarried at the time) working at our dress shirt factory in the Chorrillos neighborhood of Lima. Yes, a real life dress shirt factory romance that you see on TV all the time! Shortly thereafter, they married, started their own sourcing business, and had two beautiful sons, Joaquin and Sebastian.

Rowena, Sergio, Joaquin, Sebastian, Christmas 2010
Along the way, Sergio’s brother Nicolas has also helped Fair Indigo, especially in our relationship with Angeles Anonimos, our fair trade jewelry partner that trains artisans with disabilities in life and work skills. Nicolas took the Angels under his own wings and made a difference in many lives there.
Brothers, Sergio and Nicolas

And what exactly do these fine people do for us? Every fair trade facility we work with in Peru, they helped us find. Every shipment that leaves Peru, they arrange inspection. Every English/Spanish technical translation that needs to happen to create a garment, covered.  They are our eyes and ears on the ground in our most important production region outside the United States and have welcomed us into their business and into their homes.  We will soon feature more stories about some of the adventures we’ve shared along the way and the heartwarming producers they have connected us with. To Sergio, Rowena, Nicolas…muchas gracias!

PS: Sergio and Rowena work with small companies like ours (and a big one now and then) but say their dream is to work with “10 Fair Indigos.” They are true fans of underdogs in an apparel world dominated more and more by giants. If you know someone who has some organic clothing sourcing needs in Peru and can place decent size orders, we can connect you!

Cotton’s Perfect Storm

As commodities go, cotton has not been that different from others on the open market. The weather and worldwide government subsidy policies fluctuated within a fairly narrow range while worldwide demand slowly increased from year to year.

Today, that model has been turned on its head. Unprecedented bad weather (severe droughts and floods) has devastated crops in almost every major cotton producing region in the world including near complete and heart-breaking washouts in large parts of Australia and Pakistan. All in 2010.

Burgeoning middle classes in large developing countries like China, India, and Brazil have kept demand growing at its fastest pace in years. And the demand for organic cotton is growing even faster.

Last last year I got a call from Sergio, our partner on the ground in Peru. “We have never seen anything like this,” his voice had a sound of impending doom. We produce our entire line of organic baby gifts as well as some of our women’s organic tees  in Peruvian cooperatives. Sergio suggested that we buy enough cotton to supply an entire year’s worth of production because of predicted further price increases, something that is extremely difficult for a company of our size.

While spending time with our other partners, Jim and Sandy of Green 3 Apparel in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, they talked of “getting killed” by cotton prices and how challenging 2011 was going to be because of it. Green 3 supplies us with almost all of our USA-made clothing.

Headlines talk of big companies being squeezed by cotton prices. If big companies are being squeezed, small companies like ours are truly being choked.

The bottom line. The price of cotton clothing is going up this year. There is no way around it. We pledge to do everything we can to create other efficiencies in our business to keep prices as reasonable as possible. Fair Indigo has always been committed to the concept of “sustainable pricing.” Setting prices that are fair to workers (supporting living wage jobs) and provide just enough profit to continue to develop new products and find new customers. Long-term, this is the only sustainable economic model that will support workers and consumers here and around the world. Something we strongly believe in.

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).

A Promising New Partnership

First-time meetings with potential suppliers are usually pleasant enough. It’s usually a polite get-to-know-you type of meeting, with a mix of softball and hardball questions, exchange of business cards, and a “we’ll call you” ending.

When we heard about Jim and Sandy Martin of Oshkosh, Wisconsin and their 3-year old business called Green 3 Apparel, we were as intrigued as our somewhat jaded sourcing brains allowed us to be. We had pushed out the meeting for weeks, because, you know, priorities.

I remember the day well because I was uncomfortably over-dressed having met with “the bankers” earlier in the morning. This is nothing against bankers, only against tucking in my shirt.

By the time Jim had left our office, Jody, Katie, and I were buzzing around the room like insects figuring out how we could partner with Green 3 as quickly as possible. So amazing was their story, so wonderful was their product.

They had everything we stood for under one roof. Organic cotton, fairly made products (in a USA factory to boot), a design aesthetic that was modern but not edgy, fabrics like butter, eco-friendly dyes, prints done at a facility powered by wind and solar?! And, often forgotten, years of experience making apparel. And yes, they were a mere 2 hours away from Madison in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (yes, it’s a real city).

Sandy cultivated her green values first as a midwestern farm girl, then as an apparel industry insider, traveling the world and seeing first-hand the destruction caused to the environment, workers, and communities by the simple act of producing t-shirts.

Her heart told her there was a better way and we couldn’t agree more. Here’s a sampling of some of the Greenest Tees we could ever even hope to imagine…many more to come.


See the entire selection of USA-made T-shirts.

Hello from Winter in Uruguay!

Summer may be the height of sun and fun, but at Fair Indigo we are itching for fall…new products, fresh air. In our fair trade sweater plant in Uruguay, at the southern tip of South America, it’s the middle of winter and pretty chilly. As we ride through the countryside we’re surprised how similar the landscape looks to our Wisconsin home (even lots of cows).

The factory here in Montevideo, the nation’s capital, just won 4th place in a national innovation contest from the Ministry of Industry. For the $10,000 prize money, Gregorio, the owner, decided to give it to the employees. Here’s an iPhone shot of the party they had to celebrate the award.

Gregorio and Andres (below center and right) are the father/son team who have made this workplace so positive that over 30% of the staff has been here at least 10 years. The fact that they distributed their award to the workers is not surprising to anyone who knows them.

Andres will be visiting us in Madison this December…we’ll compare cows and snowfall totals. He also says Uruguay cheese is the best in the world, but we doubt that. Still–pretty gutsy challenging a Wisconsinite on cows, snow, and cheese.

While not partying with the award-winning staff, employees like Alejandra and Cristina are at work finishing up Fair Indigo’s new line of organic cotton sweaters launching this September. In a week or so we’ll even be able to show you a sneak peek of the the sweaters in the finishing area.


For a look at our current sweaters made in Uruguay, here’s a link.