Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Quote From: An Essay on Trade and Commerce (1770)

I came across this wonderful passage from an anonymous work entitled An Essay on Trade and Commerce, Containing Observations of Taxes etc. published in London in 1770. The central argument the writer is engaging in is how (and if) workers should be made to work longer hours. It's a wonderful piece, not because of how much has changed, but just how strikingly similar it is to the speeches and policies made by our current Tory led coalition:

“If the making of every seventh day an holiday is supposed to be of divine institution, as it implies the appropriating the other six days to labour surely it will not be thought cruel to enforce it .... That mankind in general, are naturally inclined to ease and indolence, we fatally experience to be true, from the conduct of our manufacturing populace, who do not labour, upon an average, above four days in a week, unless provisions happen to be very dear.... Put all the necessaries of the poor under one denomination; for instance, call them all wheat, or suppose that ... the bushel of wheat shall cost five shillings and that he (a manufacturer) earns a shilling by his labour, he then would be obliged to work five days only in a week. If the bushel of wheat should cost but four shillings, he would be obliged to work but four days; but as wages in this kingdom are much higher in proportion to the price of necessaries ... the manufacturer, who labours four days, has a surplus of money to live idle with the rest of the week . ... I hope I have said enough to make it appear that the moderate labour of six days in a week is no slavery. Our labouring people do this, and to all appearance are the happiest of all our labouring poor... but the Dutch do this in manufactures, and appear to be a very happy people. The French do so, when holidays do not intervene. But our populace have adopted a notion, that as Englishmen they enjoy a birthright privilege of being more free and independent than in any country in Europe. Now this idea, as far as it may affect the bravery of our troops, may be of some use; but the less the manufacturing poor have of it, certainly the better for themselves and for the State. The labouring people should never) think themselves independent of their superiors.... It is extremely dangerous to encourage mobs in a commercial state like ours, where, perhaps, seven parts out of eight of the whole, are people with little or no property. The cure will not be perfect, till our manufacturing poor are contented to labour six days for the same sum which they now earn in four days.”

To this end, and for “extirpating idleness debauchery and excess,” promoting a spirit of industry, “lowering the price of labour in our manufactories, and easing the lands of the heavy burden of poor’s rates,” our “faithful Eckart” of capital proposes this approved device: to shut up such labourers as become dependent on public support, in a word, paupers, in “an ideal workhouse.” Such ideal workhouse must be made a “House of Terror,” and not an asylum for the poor, “where they are to be plentifully fed, warmly and decently clothed, and where they do but little work.”
Quoted in Marx's Capital Vol 1, pages 387-8

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Dirty Hands (Lyrics) by Harry Bird

i've always kept myself well out of trouble
i've always kept my tongue inside my head
i've always kept a clean cut reputation
and the good book somewhere close beside my bed
but there's only one thing i want
when my time on this earth ends
a pair of dirty hands, oh lord
and a clean conscience
well everywhere i've been i've seen oppression
and everywhere i've been i've seen abuse
and everywhere i've been i've put a blind eye on the table
cos it never costs you anything to lose
but there's only one thing i want
when my time on this earth ends
a pair of dirty hands, oh lord
and a clean conscience
lay lay lay…
they said jesus shouldn't heal a man on sunday
he shouldn't eat with sinners and he shouldn't have fun
well some rules are just waiting to be broken I guess
so i think it's time i started breaking some
but there's only one thing i want
when my time on this earth ends
a pair of dirty hands, oh lord
and a clean conscience
Click here to listen to Harry Bird and the Rubber Wellies play Dirty Hands

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Foolishness of Craft Explored: Part 6 Pleasure in Work

 This is the sixth of my posts looking in more depth at The Foolishness of Craft, a short story that explores the impact of global production and suggests a more local, sustainable alternative. If you haven’t read it yet, then it might be best to click here and do so, before reading on.

This is also the final one of three posts exploring the topic of work within the story and we are using William Morris' three requirements of meaningful work; hope of rest, hope of product and hope of pleasure in the work itself. If you missed the other two you can read the first one it by clicking here, otherwise it's on to hope of pleasure in work...
To say that work is good for us sounds worryingly like a right-wing newspaper’s headline and as though it should be followed by ‘and so is national service and the cane’, but in actual fact it is true, albeit for very different reasons than they might like to think. Inevitably many newspapers like to focus on the discipline it instils in our lives, the structure and order, which prevents society from falling apart from too much ‘free time’, the income (no matter how meagre) that means the state can be convinced that it does not have to provide support and the ability for each of us to ‘make something of ourselves’, as though a person doesn’t have innate worth whatever their position or talents.

All this is heavy baggage, to the point where I am almost scared to repeat again that work is good for us, or at least could be. We need to reclaim work from the right and draw on the positive aspects allowing us to show what work should and could be. Morris states that ‘it is of the nature of men, when he is not diseased, to take pleasure in his work under certain conditions.’ Work, when allowed to be undertaken in the right way, under the right conditions and within a community, can be a source of great satisfaction and even joy. It is an outlet for our innate desire for creativity and provides the ability for us to make a contribution to the welfare of ourselves, our families and our communities.

However, this is very different to the jobs that most of us do on a day-to-day basis, whose usual sole aim is make money for the company that employs us, often working under unsatisfactory conditions.  Morris, in a wonderful piece of hyperbole, is categorical in his belief that work like this is a such an affront to our humanity that ‘…it would be better for the community and for the worker if the latter were to fold his hands and refuse to work, and either die or let us pack him off to the workhouse or prison – which you will.’

This notion that our work should be pleasurable is so countercultural that to speak of it seem as though we are not grounded in the real world and instead hopeful of some fairy-tale land. It is an accepted truism of modern life that work for the most part is a chore, and we celebrate the heroic worker who each day rises to do battle in the name of commerce. Busyness is the great virtue. Ask someone how work is and watch as their face takes on the expression of great hardship as they tell you just how and why their work life is so busy. And no doubt it is true, but we celebrate this as virtue and something to be proud of, until the breaking point comes anyway. Try telling someone you are not busy and that work is pretty relaxed when they next ask and watch their reaction. Work has to equal suffering and noble is the worker who does not shirk.

But why shouldn’t work be pleasurable? What is stopping it? Morris suggests that actually true labour, as required by nature, is inherently pleasurable and satisfying and that anything less than that is distortion and corruption by those benefiting from our labour. To seek a new way of working is only to try and find the natural balance that nature provides.

 Morris talks of the ‘ornamental part of life’ and it is easy to restrict our thinking to design or patterns or even craft, when actually I think he is trying to express something much broader; no less than the richness of life. It would be a richer experience to make a jumper than to purchase one, for all the reasons we have explored. To care about the materials and their source, to think about the design, to actually spend and invest time in making it, is all part of the ornament of life or to put it in fashionable language part of an authentic life. To engage with others in learning and sourcing or making materials, is part of the ornament of authentic communities. It is the rejection of the utilitarian, which argues with it’s own logic called economics, which says that it is easier and cheaper to buy one made using labour and materials sourced from abroad, utilising the differences in expectations or tolerances of living conditions.

An ornamental life is one where we live with fewer, but much more beautiful things, endued with genuine creativity and love. In a moving passage Morris tells us that we can judge the conditions under which something was made by it’s ‘mark of pleasure’ and that to return that to our work will shine through as a ‘gift to the world’ in the things we produce. This is the great gift of craft and perhaps it’s defining mark.

"Now the origin of this art was the necessity that the workman felt for variety in his work, and though the beauty produced by this desire was a great gift to the world, yet the obtaining variety and pleasure in work by the workman was a matter of more importance still, for it stamped all labour with the impress of pleasure."

 I think for me one of the most exciting things about Morris’ critique of society and our treatment of the environment is it’s ultimate positivity, which contrasts strongly with much of the current discussion, characterised (particularly by those opposed) in terms of what we must ‘give up’. There is no getting around this inconvenient truth, but what Morris says is that actually much of this isn’t as good as we think and that a rebalancing, far from being a negative asceticism, can lead us to a much richer future. It’s this promise, this focus on the positive changes we can make, that makes his writing so attractive and I think contemporary writers and commentators engaging in these issues could learn a lot from that; we have to pull apart the status quo, but we must also present a viable and crucially an attractive alternative. Morris does this and shows that by restructuring our societies we can ensure that everyone has equal share of true wealth:

“Wealth is what Nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of Nature for his reasonable use. The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment and housing necessary and decent; the storing up of knowledge of all kinds, and the power of disseminating it; means of free communication between man and man; works of art, the beauty which man creates when he is most a man, most aspiring and thoughtful - all things which serve the pleasure of people, free, manly, and uncorrupted. This is wealth.”

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Foolishness of Craft Explored: Part 5 Hope of Product

This is the fifth of my posts looking in more depth at The Foolishness of Craft, a short story that explores the impact of global production and suggests a more local, sustainable alternative. If you haven’t read it yet, then it might be best to click here and do so, before reading on.

This is also the second of three posts exploring the topic of work within the story and we are using William Morris' three requirements of meaningful work; hope of rest, hope of product and hope of pleasure in the work itself. If you missed the first one you can read it by clicking here, otherwise it's on to hope of product...

The twin concepts that Morris gives us of hope of product and hope of pleasure in making that product are, for him, closely related; in fact we could say that it is this very closeness that is at the heart of the arts & crafts movement, and which strikes so many of us as so radical even now. Nonetheless in this article I want to try and tease them apart a bit and focus on hope of product, the idea that our daily efforts should result in something meaningful and useful, which helps meet our needs.

What did you make today I wonder? What will you make tomorrow? The answer to these questions might be quite simple; perhaps you made a loaf of bread or a chair, if you’re a baker or chairmaker. If it isn’t bread or furniture, perhaps you made something else useful, a lamp or a book, a film or a bowl. Maybe you did. But I suspect you didn’t.

On the other hand you could be a nurse or doctor and so you made someone better or comforted them. But even this is quite rare.

Instead I wonder if you did what most people do? Make money; not for yourself, but for the person or persons who employ you.

We all know that someone who works in a high street clothing store doesn’t make clothes, instead their job is to sell clothes or, to be more precise, to encourage you to buy clothes from their shop, rather than the one next door. Think about it next time you go into a clothing shop; what does the assistant actually do, other than encourage you to buy, ensure the clothes are on the rack for you to buy and then take your money?

The same is true for Hugo in our story of course. He doesn’t make mobile phones, he may pretend to advise customers based on their needs, but actually his job is to persuade the public that they should buy from his shop rather than the other three down the street and that you should spend as much as you can. His product is profit for a group of people he is unlikely to ever meet.

What a market economy does (even in its most basic form) is replace the link between what you need and what you then produce. So if I needed a bowl, in a non-market, non-exchange society, I have to make one. And of course for most of human history this is how life worked, but slowly over time (long before capitalism) people started to specialise in making certain things, like bowls, and it maybe that they would make them for certain part of the day/week/year and then exchange the bowl for food or other essentials. However, I think it is fair to say that it was a very, very long time before this transformed into a situation where people only made bowls and never made things or grew food to meet their own needs, which of course is where we find ourselves now.

Another crucial difference is that the bowl maker has need of his bowls – nothing leaves his hands that he could not use or own for his own use. Compare this with the current situation where so many workers are producing goods they could never afford to own or have no use of.

 And so we move onto a capitalist system, where the average worker has two products; whatever it is they do or make and the products that they buy to meet their own needs, with the money they are given for their work. This ever increasing disconnect between the two – the genuine needs you have and the tasks you perform on a daily basis – was a concern to Morris and should be a concern for us now.

Morris, in a wonderfully Victorian passage, describes the situation Hugo find’s himself in:

‘…living as they do on wages from those whom they support, [they] cannot get for their use the goods which men naturally desire, but must put up with miserable makeshifts for them…’

Even if we follow this thinking of a market economy and call the product of Hugo’s labour the money he earns with which to buy a jumper, that is only enough to buy one of poor quality. The jumper is entirely constructed from cheap materials (e.g. cotton) and hence quickly becomes misshapen and worn. The stitching is perhaps weak and done in such haste that it did not catch all along the seams. Because it is mass produced it is made to ‘fit’ as many sizes as possible and so hangs a little on him. But the alternative, a properly fitting jumper, of good quality, made over time from excellent materials would be unaffordable to Hugo. And this is exactly the point Morris is making. He continues:

‘…[they] must put up with miserable makeshifts for them, with course food that does not nourish, with rotten rainment [clothing] which does not shelter, with wretched houses which may well make a town-dweller in civilization look back with regret to the tent of nomad tribe, or the cave of the pre-historic savage.’

The language has changed, but sadly the situation Morris describes has not. Our Bangladeshi worker will almost certainly live in substandard housing, that may well make a tent look plush. She may well be clothed in, at best, her traditional clothing made in a sweatshop in her own country or at worse second-hand clothing the west no longer wants, and yet each day she walks to make jumpers she could never afford. Her actual product (the jumper) is poor and her rewards so meagre that her own living (her product) is pitiful.

Her housing is not made from scrap because it is effective at keeping out the weather and elements, it is because it is cheap. It is cheap housing, because that is all she can afford. It is not unheard of for those in developing countries to have to raise a mortgage to afford a few sheets of corrugated iron to use as a roof.

As ever Morris describes it best:

‘But it is a waste of time to try and express in words due contempt of the productions of the much praised cheapness of our epoch. It must be enough to say that this cheapness is necessary to the system of exploiting on which modern manufacture rests. In other words, our society includes a great mass of slaves, who must be fed, clothed, housed and amused as slaves, and that their daily necessity compels them to make slave-wares whose use is the perpetuation of their slavery.’

How often have you bought something, only for it to break, not work or just be horrible to use, or been constrained by money to buy something you know will not last? True quality is such a rare thing in our societies that it is almost impossible to find, and, when we can, the market system makes the time and care it requires unaffordable. This is one of the key problems that craftspeople face; how can their product, which often takes so many hours to produce, ever be affordable to the general population? And so instead we are presented with cheaper imitations to help us make believe that our lives are richer than they are. Some of this we can counter ourselves; buy less and buy quality, make it yourself so that you don’t have to pay for the time it takes and buy second-hand – where quality doesn’t often reflect the price. And we should do these things, but let us be clear that this is tinkering at the edges, our current system cannot allow us all to reverse this system of cheap manufacturing it relies on.

Planned obsolescence has become a much more widely understood term since Annie Leonard’s excellent ‘Story of Stuff’ (if you haven’t watched it do), but it’s true that in a consumer society, that works by citizens buying new products constantly, the idea of something of quality, that lasts, is against the very principle of the system. And so in short, things have to brake, have to be cheaply made, so that you buy new ones. This is also the reason for constant innovation, as it brings new products to the market – replacing those before. Considered refinement of quality and reliability is much lower down the pecking order than “new!”.

Let us come back to our story and just review where we are. Our Bangladeshi woman’s hope of product is extremely poor, whether we are talking about the poorly made jumper she could not afford, and which she has no emotional attachment to or the meagre shelter, food and clothing she can afford with the money she makes from working at the factory.

Hugo, of course, doesn’t actually make anything, his product is simply profit for his ultimate employers; his ultimate personal product is the jumper that will last one year, which he has no input into the making of and which he has very little emotional attachment to.

And what of Mary? Well her product is very different to the others, because she is able to meet her own needs, through her own effort and skills. The end product is one of excellent quality, fitted to her size and shape, of her own design and suited to her needs. Because of this she has an emotional tie and investment in it, which enriches her experience of owning and wearing it.

Morris isn’t saying (and neither am I) that each of us should be capable of making everything and meeting our every need. In fact Morris berates the fact that he has to learn so many crafts, a situation he blames on the way society is constructed. And this leads us nicely into the next blog post, hope of pleasure in the work itself, because we need to reconnect our work with the needs we are trying to meet and create a society where people can develop their skills to create beautiful products, of real quality, for their communities own needs.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Foolishness of Craft Explored: Part 4 Work & Rest

This is the fourth of my posts looking in more depth at The Foolishness of Craft, a story that explores the impact of global production and suggests a more local, sustainable alternative. If you haven’t read it yet, then it might be best to click here and do so, before reading on. 

Out of the blog posts I am doing on The Foolishness of Craft I think these next three are the ones I have been looking forward to the most. They give me a chance to delve into and share some of the work of William Morris, whose great understanding of social and environmental issues should be more widely known. Like Morris, I feel that the nature of what work is, and should be, is the great lynch pin that holds together an understanding of how we might organise ourselves, putting sustainability of both people and planet first and yet provide for our needs in a fulfilling and enriching way.

John Drinkwater, writing as early as 1912, said of Morris that he understood that anyone who is ‘overworked, or employed all the while in degrading work… cannot be [themselves]’ and that Morris’ philosophy is that ‘in bringing back joy to their daily work… [we could put our] feet on the first step towards… true dignity and pride of life.’

Perhaps William Morris’ key writing on the subject of work is in ‘Useful Work versus Useless Toil’, a speech first given in 1884. He opens with a paragraph that even today strikes one as being true. He says: 

“It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful …and that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it - he is "employed," as the phrase goes; and most of those who are well-to-do cheer on the happy worker with congratulations and praises, if he is only "industrious" enough and deprives himself of all pleasure…” 

Compare this with Iain Duncan-Smith, the British Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, writing in early 2012 and defending a system that required young people to work for multinational companies, for no pay, in order to receive their meagre job seekers allowance. 

“We find a commentating elite which seems determined to belittle and downgrade any opportunity for young people that doesn’t fit their pre-conceived notion of a ‘worthwhile job’… I doubt that I am the only person who thinks that supermarket shelf stackers add more value to our society than many of these ‘job snobs’… they should learn to value work and not sneer at it… [I] passionately believe that work in all shapes and forms can be valuable” 

The article is helpfully illustrated with an image of Terry Leahy, former CEO of Tesco, stating (misleadingly) that he started out cleaning the supermarket floors.

Mr Duncan-Smith, for pretty obvious reasons, is seeking -  like Morris’ “well-to-do” – to bolster a sense of phoney respect for those who stack shelves in Tesco shops. But is really what we want people to be doing? Is it really snobbery to suggest that each of us has it within us to use our genuine skills, talents and enthusiasms to make a worthwhile contribution to society? You only need shelf stackers if you have large shops and big businesses. A small deli or local shop doesn’t employ a shelf stacker. The owner puts the food on the shelf, often doing so to make it attractive. But that is only one part of their role, they have to know what local people like, have to understand food and, in the best shops, when food is in season and what works well together. We need food. We need somewhere to go and get our food and we need someone who knows about it. But society doesn’t need shelf stackers – only big businesses do. It is this transformation, usually through small scale, local, production and distribution that creates work that is meaningful and fulfilling, away from the divisions of labour.

The same attitude often prevails with regard to work in so called developing nations; I have lost count of the number of times I have raised questions regarding working conditions in certain countries, only to be told that they are lucky to have jobs and that the alternative for them is a life on the streets. And yet surely in the C21st after 6 million years of human development, 2.5 million years of using tools, 140,000 years of long distance trade and 5,000 years of writing, we can come up with a better system of organising ourselves than one where the only two alternatives for so many is poverty or slavery.

But let me stop there, because perhaps I am getting a little ahead of myself, a little steamed up, a little too political – there is time for that – but for now let us just reject this notion that any job is a good job, and instead recognise that with more thought the tasks that we spend the greater part of our waking hours performing can bring real satisfaction and worth to our lives.

So with that in mind let’s return to our tale.

Morris is clear that work should have three elements in order for it to be ‘useful work’; hope of rest, hope of product and hope of pleasure in the work itself and that these be in ‘some abundance’. In the rest of this blog post we are going to explore the ‘hope of rest’ and in further posts the other two.

Even the wonderfully romantic Morris might suggest that I have painted an overly rose tinted picture of Mary sitting in her garden knitting the jumper, as though she had not a care in the world. In his article he says that “whatever pleasure there is in some work, there is certainly some pain in all work, the beast-like pain of stirring up our slumbering energies to action”, which is a lovely image and one I suspect most of us can relate to. He continues ‘we must feel while we are working that the time will come when we shall not have to work’.

I firmly believe that such relaxed and enjoyable work as Mary’s knitting is possible and viable, but if she were forced to knit for long periods of time and not allowed a break what joy could there be in it? It is surely the freedom to pick up and put down (within the confines of what nature requires – e.g. the warmth of the jumper), that allows it to be pleasurable. Mary, of course, represents the ideal, free from contractual commitments to do as she wishes, but what of Hugo? There is still the hope of rest, once the shop closes he can stop and relax. But not until then – he has agreed when and where his work shall be undertaken and is kept strictly to that, with serious repercussions if he didn’t. Here rest does not necessarily come when it is needed, it comes when it is allocated; when it suits the employer. Within many jobs (mainly public sector) there is a genuine need to ensure continuous staff presence (e.g. fire service, hospitals etc), but it is hard to suggest that all work needs to be like this, where rules are set to suit the commercial interests of companies.

Morris goes further; rest is not enough. It is the quality of that rest that is also crucial. 

"The rest, when it comes, must be long enough to allow us to enjoy it; it must be longer than is merely necessary for us to recover the strength we have expended in working, and it must be animal rest also in this, that it must not be disturbed by anxiety, else we shall not be able to enjoy it. "

 I do not think that there is enough stimulation or interest in Hugo’s job for him to give it much thought when he has left for the night and we can be assured that his rest is indeed uninterrupted by work stress. But what of his boss? The constant phone calls from his area manager, demanding to know why sales for that quarter are down and informing him that his shop is now the lowest ranking in the county. This personalisation of his shop’s performance leads to a great deal of stress; which fails to simply vanish when the key is turned at night. There is rest, but this is not an anxiety free rest; it’s hard to switch off, tough to let go. Relationships at home strained by still speaking and acting as though in the shop. Course work brought back and studied in front of the TV; a pass needed to ‘get on’, if only those damn sales figures would improve. The next morning comes and he doesn’t feel much better than he did the night before – but still, it will be the weekend soon.

This is the modern malaise of the middle classes and Morris, in one of his more reflective moments, would perhaps recognise some of this in himself. But really this passage was aimed at the mass working classes toiling away in factories in slave like conditions. The last 130 years have moved these factories, but not capitalism’s need for cheap labour or it’s disregard for the conditions of its workers. Our Bangladeshi garment worker knows no rest. She has no hope of rest. What precious little time she spends away from the factory is either spent walking to and from work, looking after her family or sleeping. She cannot choose to work or when not to; she has to work every moment she can to feed her family and her set hours can be extended at a moments notice. Sleeping on the factory floor is no rest. How far removed her life seems to Mary’s or even Hugo’s.

Even this first condition, which Morris sets, casts into sharp relief the differences under which work takes place and we need to be radical in demanding true freedom and hope of rest; simply replacing the garment workers extreme lack of rest with Hugo’s boss’ middle class anxiety is not enough (even if it is an improvement). Morris, without using the word, is proclaiming that rest is a basic human right, a basic human need and a society that cannot provide it does not take seriously the sustainability of it’s people and needs urgent reform or revolution.

In the next blog post I’ll be exploring Morris’ second condition, that of ‘hope of product’ and we’ll see just how each of the characters in tale fares (although there are no prizes for guessing beforehand…)

Monday, 22 July 2013

The Foolishness of Craft Explored: Part 3 Mary’s Materials

This is the third of my posts looking in more depth at The Foolishness of Craft, a story that explores the impact of global production and suggests a more local, sustainable alternative. If you haven’t read it yet, then it might be best to click here and do so, before reading on. 

 In the last post I explored some of the environmental and social problems caused by the production of Hugo’s jumper and focused on the manufacture of cotton, nylon and wool from large-scale farms. It was a rather gloomy, but necessary, post. This time though we are going to explore the materials that Mary used and few she could have – its much more positive and forward looking article…

Mary’s jumper is made from local undyed organic wool, it has travelled from a field in the village (via the sheerer who worked at the farm) and has been washed in nothing more than soap and water. 

I am aware that this sounds a little idealistic and pastoral. How convenient that Mary lives next to an organic farm that happens to keep sheep that produce wool suitable for spinning and knitting into a jumper. And yet, is it really so impossible to imagine, at least for those living in rural areas? At the moment in Britain most sheep are breed entirely for meat, with wool being a secondary low value product, but this wasn’t always the case and several traditional breeds were dual purpose, for meat and fleece and even possibly dairy too.

The British wool trade has improved since 2008 when farmers were setting fire to their fleeces, because the low prices meant it wasn’t worth handling and transporting them for sale. Prices for this year are four-fold what they were then, but the quality of the wool is deemed by buyers to be only suitable for carpet making and that’s where 75% of British wool ends up.

And yet what I am suggesting isn’t simply pie in the sky; of course there is a historical precedent, but actually today you can buy organic, British yarns made from the most beautiful British wool and you can even get them dyed with organic dyes into range of colours. Likewise we have access to a number of animal fibres, such alpaca and angora, all produced in natural and humane conditions here in the UK, and this will be true in many countries throughout the world; there are local, sustainable alternatives to mass-produced wool. But these things cannot exist in a vacuum; no one will raise a flock of the finest wool-producing sheep using natural farming methods, if everyone is getting their wool from cheap intensive operations abroad. 

That said, it is important to accept that it is possible to have very poor welfare conditions on a local farm as it is on one far away. However, by buying as local as possible you have a greater chance of being able to assess the welfare conditions of the animals you are buying the wool from, either through direct personal contact, media or animal welfare charity reports or by looking for certifications (e.g. organic). The other important point is that in most countries there are also democratic and political routes to improving and monitoring welfare and so you can have a say in the conditions which form farm practice and law, if you purchase from the country in which you reside and have voting rights.

A slight side track, but if Mary couldn’t afford natural, local wool or was unable to get it, she could have used recycled wool. Almost any jumper or other knitted item can be unpicked fairly easily and the wool rewound to provide a good knitting or weaving yarn. If you get a larger jumper size than you are, even with the inevitable waste, you should have enough for a new one.

Of course it isn’t only wool that we are able to produce in Britain, there are a range of fibre producing plants that grow in our conditions. Flax (linen) is perhaps the most obvious and again this is a traditional material that was grown, spun and woven across Britain, often on a very small scale, requiring none or very little of of the pesticides and excessive water that cotton does. This is entirely possible again and there are small organisations and companies that are providing training and access to the tools to help revitalise the production and use of linen.

Even more than flax, hemp is being rediscovered as a commercial crop. In the C16th it was considered so vital to the British economy that Henry VIII passed a law stating that farmers had to grow a quarter acre for every 60 acres of arable land they owned. In China they have never stopped growing it and have a 6000-year history of production. Part of the problem has been the confusion between the innocuous hemp plant and the related cannabis plant – a confusion that still exists in Britain today where you need a licence from the Government to grow it. 

Hemp has deep taproots that penetrate down into the subsoil, drawing up nutrients and moisture. That means it requires none of the intensive watering of cotton and, when it is harvested, the roots rot down, increasing the humus and nutrient levels in the topsoil. Because it grows so fast it out performs weeds and therefore requires little or no herbicide. The outer shell, which is removed during the process of fibre extraction, can be used to make logs for wood burners – the ash of which provides a valuable plant food for the garden.

 Again this isn’t some fanciful dream, you can buy today hemp yarn, material and products. Even if, at the moment, this isn’t grown in the UK (although often it is EU produced) this is a huge improvement over cotton, the production of which causes so many problems.

Finally there is one plant that grows like a weed (because it is) and yet can also be used to make fibre; nettles. A few years ago there was quite a bit of discussion about the possible use of nettle fibre and De Montfort University had worked on some government funded research, as well as producing some example pieces of clothing. Since then the hype seems to have quietened down a bit and the only real world product as far as I can tell is a 75% wool and 25% nettle fabric produced by Camira in England. Nettle has less fibre content than say hemp or linen, but it is a very fine fibre and could potentially make a good yarn. There is also the added benefit that it is able to provide multiple products from one harvest, such as sugar, animal bedding and leaves for human consumption and, as everyone who has ever had a garden or allotment knows, it grows quite well in this country, with no pesticide, herbicide or fertiliser required. There is a fair bit of historical use to draw on (even as recent as the second world war) and surely this plant deserves more research and experimentation.  

There is no point in pretending that swapping to locally produced, sustainable materials is going to be as easy as it should be, but it is possible – not just in the future – but in the here and now. Mary could indeed knit herself a jumper from organic wool, even if she chose not to spin it and instead bought in the yarn. Likewise, many of the alternatives, such as flax, hemp and nettle provide fantastic opportunities for experimentation and discovery, even in a home or small group environment – the results of which could genuinely be new and should be shared with others. So why not go on a course to learn how to grow and spin flax? You know that patch at the bottom of the allotment that you never get around to weeding, well why not try growing some there? Perhaps get some hemp fibre and have a go at spinning it on a drop spindle or do up a chair with the 25% nettle fabric? Or simply buy in some organic wool and crochet a hat. You may not be able to make enough to clothe the whole family, but the possibilities are enormous and the discovery is half the fun, and every success you do have could make a huge difference to someone you’ll never meet.

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Foolishness of Craft Explored: Part 2 Hugo’s Materials

This is the second of my posts looking in more depth at The Foolishness of Craft, a story that explores the impact of global production and suggests a more local, sustainable alternative. If you haven’t read it yet, then it might be best to click here and do so, before reading on. 

Hugo’s Materials 

The materials that Hugo’s jumper is made of are a little more complex and the main material is cotton (60%)… 

It’s not for nothing that cotton has been called ‘The Worlds Dirtiest Crop’ and the shear scale of the environmental, health and social impacts are hard to take in. To start with, think of the number of items in your home that are made from it; bedding, towels, curtains, clothing, tea towels, dishcloths, furniture coverings, cotton wool - the list goes on and on. In fact cotton farming covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land. Of course that’s not an even distribution – I don’t see much of it growing here in Britain, despite the fact that Europe accounts for 20% of global cotton consumption – instead 75% of world production is grown in the developing world by 99% of all cotton farmers.

So why is it is so dirty? Conventional cotton growth uses a lot of pesticides, 16% of the worlds total release in fact, and these are some of the most hazardous pesticides ever produced. In India, where a third of all global cotton is grown, cotton accounts for 5% of land cultivated, but uses 54% of all pesticides used in the country.  As is mentioned in the story, Aldicarb is so strong that one drop absorbed into the skin can kill a person, despite this in 2003 almost 1 million kilos were applied to cotton grown in the US alone and it is used in 25 other countries throughout the world. The US have now moved to ban it by 2018, but in other countries, where such regulatory framework does not exist, its use will almost certainly continue.

Because of the conditions in the countries it is grown in and the low prices paid for the cotton, farmer workers lack the appropriate equipment and protection to apply pesticides. At least 1 million farm workers require hospitalisation each year with pesticide poisoning, according to WHO. And it’s not just the farmers directly who suffer, as the poisons pollute the land, water, food and air of the local communities. Children are often the first to be affected, as homes are built close to the fields and pesticide containers left lying around or reused. Of course in many countries children are directly involved in the cotton production and help harvest the cotton or even work in the fields whilst spraying is happening.

Cottonseed, more or less a by-product of the cotton industry, is fed to animals and used to make oil, both of which can then contain levels of pesticides, and tests by a university in Poland found them in the cotton clothing itself.

But it is not just pesticides that go into cotton production; it also takes up to 130g of fertiliser to grow 450g of cotton in the US, the production of which is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The run off from nitrogen-based fertilisers in particular causes problems with watercourses and wells etc, as it dramatically increases the growth of algae and other water borne plants.

Which brings us neatly on to water usage. It takes around 2,720 litres of water to produce enough cotton for one t-shirt. That’s equivalent to what you or I might drink in 3 years. The Aral Sea has shrunk to 10% of its former volume due cotton production, which is not surprising when you consider that Uzbek cotton farms alone consume over 20km3 of water every year. That is equivalent to the entire domestic usage of Britain (i.e. in homes) for nearly 6½ years. Access to clean water in Uzbekistan has actually fallen from 94% in 1990 to 82% in 2004 and of course a number of countries border the Aral Sea (I mention Kazakhstan in the story) and face similar problems.

Organic cotton is certainly better than conventional and obviously bans the use of pesticides and herbicides. Nonetheless the issues around water usage, monoculture (growing just one plant over a wide area), transportation and low wages remain. 

…30% of the jumper is Nylon… 

It is much harder to obtain concrete independent information on the impact of Nylon production than it is cotton, a point noted by Kate Fletcher in her book Sustainable Fashion and Textiles. Obviously the fact that it is a petro-chemical based material, that is non-biodegradable and that cannot be easily recycled means that it has quite a bit going against it from the outset. The process of manufacture is energy intensive when compared with other materials and also produces high levels of Nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas far more damaging than CO2. Although it is going back a bit, a single Nylon plant here in the UK in the 1990s was thought to have the global warming impact equivalent to more than 3% of the UK’s entire carbon dioxide emissions. 

Finally, like Mary’s, the jumper is also made of wool (10%)… 

The conditions at the giant ‘wool factories’ in Australia can be quite horrendous and no doubt many people who conscientiously buy free-range eggs and chickens would think again about high street jumpers if they knew the conditions under which the wool was produced. Until recently (June 2012) some sheep were kept in individual pens, 24hrs a day, 7 days a week for up to 5 years. No operator now produces wool under this system, but it is still not illegal and nonetheless many sheep raised for fine wool are housed in groups, indoors at all times and kept hungry, as sheep with a lower body condition produce better wool.

Because of the low welfare conditions and breeding priorities, some sheep are prone to fly strike, this leads farmers to perform an operation around the time of sheering called ‘Mulesing’. Essentially this is removing parts of the sheep’s skin and happens without pain relief. At the very least the industry should be working to get some form of anaesthetic approved, that can used during the procedure. The Australian government had promised to phase out Mulesing by 2010, but under pressure from the industry this pledge was abandoned.

When the wool is ready to be shorn, the speed at which this is done, on a piece payment basis, means that welfare can become second to getting the most sheep through in a day.

At the end of what is considered to be the most productive period for wool, the animals are sold for meat. Clearly Australia doesn’t have sufficient demand for such a large number of animals and so many are sold abroad. It is really hard to find any independent, referenced information on the conditions under which this transportation takes place, most of the commentary comes from vegan websites and it would be nice to find a more independent source. But nonetheless, it is hard to image the live international transportation of animals, in both lorries and ships, happening in very hot countries without welfare issues occurring. One source suggested a death rate of 28%. If anyone does know of serious research or investigative pieces on this, please do get in touch.

The wool is then washed at a high-volume processing plant, using a range of processes to remove effluent, pesticide residues, fat and other waster material. A typical wool-scouring plant can produce as much effluent as a town of 50,000 people and contaminated sludge from global wool production exceeds 930,000 tons annually. Some wool is then treated using a chlorine process to make it smoother and even machine washable. However, this process is so toxic that it is banned in the US, the waste products being deadly at levels below 1 part in a trillion. Nonetheless this processing does take place around the world, on products then imported into the countries that have banned it on their own soil. 

All these materials were then transported from around the world to Bangladesh for spinning together and dying… 

I don’t want to cover transportation too much here, as I would like to do a separate blog exploring localism. For now let us just recognise that these disparate materials need to come together from around the world and be transported to Bangladesh for spinning and dying.

A review of the local press in Bangladesh gives a confusing picture; certainly the government seems to be taking some action on contamination of water by dying effluent, but still one gets the impression that, just as in the rest of the world, mere environmental concerns should never come in the way of economic development.  The Daily Star is buoyant on the possibilities for Bangladesh in its textile industries, but grimly notes at the end of the paragraph that these same factories are ‘are hugely blamed for surface water pollution’. Of course it’s not fair to pick on Bangladesh, The World Bank estimates that 20% of global industrial water pollution comes from the treatment and dying of textiles. Sadly much effort seems to be directed towards removing the colour from the waste water, but not necessarily the actual toxins or heavy metals, making it harder to tell when the water has been treated. Again the dying and processing of fabrics takes quantities of water, particularly soft knitwear like Hugo’s jumper.


 Of course I have chosen here the worse case scenario, although the actual materials and their quantities came from a jumper I picked almost at random from a high end high street retailer. I have not been to Australia, Uzbekistan or Bangladesh in researching this article. I have not witnessed first hand the issues I have written about and I am only presenting the research I have done, bringing it together in one place. Some of the research I would suggest is from very reliable sources, Compassion in World Farming for example, whilst others come from a much more ideological stand point, such as the vegan information on the shipping of livestock.

I am sure that in some places in Australia wool is produced on a large scale commercial basis on farms that that many people would find acceptable. Likewise it is highly probable that some cotton, particularly US and Australian Cotton, is no where near as socially and environmentally damaging as plantations in developing countries. The problem is that often we just don’t know the conditions that a piece of clothing was produced under; it’s hidden behind a façade of glitzy marketing and almost impossible to untangle.

However, for the most part I think the evidence is really the process itself and for me I don’t need further evidence of abuse within the process. To give an example; nylon cannot be sustainable because it’s a plastic made from a finite resource, oil, that cannot easily be recycled. And although it’s important to raise the awareness of incidents of pollution arising from accidents or deliberate toxin release, I don’t need them to know that Nylon is not a good thing. Likewise with transport; you could have the most natural and organic wool farm in Australia, with fabulous welfare conditions, but whilst it’s there and the consumer is in Britain, that’s not a sustainable way of producing clothing. It’s the process itself that is unsustainable, besides any social or environmental abuse within it.

Of course much also rests on what our own view of what is acceptable. I am a vegetarian and so the idea of animals being slaughtered after a long journey is something that concerns me, but a meat eater may say that this is a sensible use of the animal after its useful wool producing life and that to simply kill it on site and not eat it would be a waste.

The other striking point is just how much danger and pollution the west outsources to developing nations. Can you imagine the uproar if the sort of industrial pollution took place in our rivers that dying yarn for our jumpers causes in Bangladesh? Likewise we ask countries to use products and processes that we ban in our own countries, because we deem the effects are too dangerous for our own people.

Just thinking about these issues makes us more sensitive to them and I know from my own experience that quite often once the genie is out of the bottle, once we understand the impact of clothing manufacturing for example, you cannot put it back and it becomes very hard to knowingly support companies that are causing so many global problems.

This has turned into a much longer post than I had anticipated (well done if you are still reading!) and I am aware it’s rather negative. The second half of this, which I have decided to post as a separate blog post perhaps after the weekend, is much more positive and explores Mary’s approach and all the exciting materials we can, and should be, exploring for a more sustainable future.