I want to tease out a little more this concept of ethical consumerism and what it means for those of us that are crafters, but before I do I want to share with you a little tale.
This tale involves a wee confession. I'm ashamed to admit that when it comes to clothes I do suffer from a bit of brand snobbery. My snobbery is directed at big chain clothes outlets like Target, K-Mart and (shudder) Big W. While I will totally admit to shopping in at least one of these stores occasionally (Tarjay is the only store that stocks kids clothes in my big girls' size in our town apart from the op shops) I try to avoid them as much as possible. Why? Honestly, I do worry about how they manage to produce such cheap clothes. "How can that be possible without someone along the chain of production being ripped off, underpaid or even in slave conditions?" I ask myself. Seriously, I don't want my kids wearing clothes that were made under slave conditions where the cotton was harvested by kids their own ages. So when I do shop there, I feel a huge sense of consumer guilt in relation to the cheap prices and my imagination runs wild.
This is a tale of where my snobbery comes undone and bites me on the bum.
On our recent holiday to South Australia, Lily ran out of clothes. Someone hadn't quite packed enough warm gear. So after trying the op shops to no avail we popped into Target to pick up a few pieces. As I walked in the door I saw an almost identical pair of pants/trousers to the ones I was at that moment. This pair were my current favourite and I'd recently purchased them at a local boutique store. The pants in Target were cheap, dirt cheap; under $20. My pair was about $100. Feeling a little ripped off, I consoled myself by thinking about what seemed to me the obvious production chain.
And then last week, the Australian Ethical Fashion Report was released. I read it. In fact, I read the whole report, rather than just the condensed report card. And guess what? Target got a B- on the report but the company who made my pants, F. Crap. Sure, they got an F because they didn't respond, but that in itself is pretty telling. Three different forms of contact; phone call, email and written letter, and no response? Seriously, what does that suggest? And as for Target? They actually include a whole heap of information in their website about their increased endeavours to source ethically.
The lesson learn from this report is that the price of the garment is absolutely no reflection of the ethics of a company. And you know, I know this but... there's still that niggling question in the back of my mind. And as the report shows, it's really only a handful of Australians, if that, who DO actually pay a living wage. This is quite different to the minimum wage of a country, this is the wage which makes it possible to survive. Regardless, I shall work hard to break my prejudice down further, as some of the worst performing companies are certainly those who charge the most!
In the wake of all this, it's Fashion Revolution Day today. A day when we're invited to show our labels and challenge the brands who made our clothes with the question "who made my clothes?" The hope is that this world-wide movement will encourage clothing brands to be more responsible for the people and the environment that their business exploits.
As crafters, it's easy to be snug and say, "I'm ok. I made my clothes" and give ourselves a tick. But how much do we know about the process and the journey of the raw materials that make up our supplies. Sure we know that that we made our clothes but do you know where your knitting needles, your sewing machine, your crochet hooks, and even your yarn and fabric were produced? What about the raw materials that make up those supplies; the cotton, the wool, the nickel, the steel?
One of the startling things that came out of the Ethical Fashion Report, was that the over-whelming majority of brands DID NOT know the source of their cotton. That means they didn't know the conditions it was grown in. They didn't know the conditions of those workers; whether they were underpaid, child workers or even slaves. There are more slaves in the world (approximately 30 million) than there are Australians, and quite a few of these slaves are FORCED to work in such industries. I don't know about you but I find it unfathomable that a situation like that can still exist.
These questions ring true for fabric and yarn manufacturers. In terms of yarn, there is a great deal of yarn that is processed in China. Under what conditions? Are these workers well paid? Are environmental concerns considered in the scouring (a very water intensive part of the production) and yarn dyeing process? What chemicals are used? How safe are these? This is particularly relevant to superwash yarns, where a virtual cocktail of nasty stuff is used for the convenience of being able to throw something in the washing machine. I honestly don't know what the answers are or even where to start asking, but these are questions that I would like to know the answer to. I think these are the questions that we NEED to be asking of our industry's yarn producers.
I'd love to know your thoughts on this. Are these concerns something you've thought about? How do you feel about this topic? Does it affect your buying habits?
I've been thinking about the concept of local quite a lot over the past six months or so, and then a post I read on Truly Myrtle's blog about community a few days ago reignited a few things I've been pondering and mulling over. Libby's post explores aspects of the knitting community that are important to her, and it's these thoughts on community that kept drawing me back to the local question and I felt a need to get some of it down in written form.
The knitting community, while it is a worldwide community, does have a sense of closeness and familiarity to it. The prevalence and popularity of indie designers and yarnies I think enables it to feel like a much smaller place than it is. The power of the internet facilitates a connection with those we share a similar interest, regardless of their geographical location. We feel like we know people despite the many miles separating us. Images on social media such as Instagram, Twitter and even Ravelry invite us into other people's lives and give us a familiarity with them that we may not even have with some of the immediate neighbours in our street.
This got me thinking about some of the similarities between this knitting community and the everyday communities that we live in.
One of the aspects I find most interesting is the embrace and rise of the buy local campaign. Farmers markets, local craft markets and small independent businesses have all fuelled the push to support local production over the ever encroaching reach of big businesses and supermarket duopolies. It's a campaign that has a great deal of credibility and makes a lot of sense environmentally, ethically and financially. Ethical consumption is increasingly becoming a big business as more and more people embrace this lifestyle. Eating local and in season in particularly, leaves a much smaller carbon footprint on the earth. As does supporting locally produced wares instead of the cheap mass produced stuff that is imported and fills the giant chain stores in our cities.
Along with this buy local campaign, I think there's also been an increasing awareness of the benefits of organic produce. Just about every farmer's market now proudly boasts of produce that is spray free, pesticide free, biodynamic and organic. This, I feel is a good thing. I am a big fan of avoiding unnecessary chemicals in every facet of my life. (I want to explore a little more the disconnect I see between the value we place on what we fuel our bodies with and what we apply or put on it; but I think I'll save that for another post. There's a whole lot of complex and interesting issues that I want to raise when I look at this.)
So how does this all correspond to the knitting community?
What has buying local and in season food got to do with buying yarn?
Quite a lot actually. I think the reasons to do so in each case have similar merits in terms of supporting the farmers local to us and minimising our own carbon footprint.
In the US market there has been a definite trend that embraces the local American raised and produced yarns. Think Quince and Co and Brooklyn Tweed. These two brands perhaps best epitomise the yarn companies who have built their brands by focusing on the origins of their yarn and celebrates their unique US heritage. Increasingly, yarn consumers in the US are looking to support and buy local; yarns that are tied to geographical locations that are familiar to them. If there's mention of a farm gate involved, even better.
Connected somehow with this local yarn love is a subtle increasing awareness of the diversity of sheep breeds available. Sectors of the knitting community are increasingly piqued by talk of Cormo, Gotland, Polwarth, Targhee, Blue Faced Leicester and Romney sheep. Just like in the food industry, source of origin and breed specifics is becoming increasingly important to some knitters. We want to know what the breed is that we're knitting with. We want to know where the sheep came from. In some cases, we even want to know about farming practices.
This direction is being echoed throughout Europe where the focus is increasingly directed towards locally raised yarns and rare breeds. More and more farmers are taking the leap into manufacturing their own small label yarns with breed and locality again being the selling point. Take the example of Blacker Yarns who boast a yarn which is made entirely from fleece that was farmed within 100 miles of the mill.
The food industry's love for the paddock to platter philosophy is indeed taking hold as knitters embrace their own version of the farmgate to FO. Is it a natural progression from the food industry or is it more about the increasing familiarity within our industry? Ravelry and social media has created this community where we are familiar with designers, we KNOW their names, we know plenty about their lives and loves. We can interact with them. We can know them. We can follow them. Designers are no longer anonymous. Some even have celebrity status. Is it only natural then, that the next step in this development of community familiarity is that we want to know more about the yarn we are knitting with and the sheep it came from?
Now to bring it back to this question of local, I want to think about the Australian perspective. We have absolutely no shortage of good local yarns that fit the criteria of the farm gate to FO trend.
When Kylie Gusset launched her Ton of Wool campaign way back in 2011, it was a campaign that focussed on both the local aspect of yarn and the distinctiveness of the breed. Cormo is a rare sheep breed that was developed in Australia. This was to be the first time Cormo yarn was produced in such a manner in Australia, with the real kudos being that this yarn was sourced from the very family who created the Cormo breed.
Similar credentials apply to the glorious Polwarth yarn from Tarndie where sheep wear little jackets to protect their precious wool. Polwarth wears the badge of being Australia's first breed of sheep. The Dennis family, who still operate the farm near Birregurra, and have done so since 1840, produce and sell their own yarn and their very specific story via their farm gate. If you've never visited the homestead and wandered through the wool room and studio, I suggest you do so.
A more recent yarn line to enter the local Australian scene is White Gum Wool, a beautiful supersoft Saxon Merino that is ethically farmed in Tasmania. Nan Bray brings a very special kind of attention to detail to her farming story; her sheep are neither mulesed nor have their tales docked and she follows the principles of nutritional wisdom and maintaining natural social structure within her flock. There are a couple of fabulous interviews with Nan on her website that are well worth watching.
These are just some of the Australian yarn stories that are all about source, breed and locality. Beyond the stories though, all three of these brands produce wonderful amazing yarns. This is just the tip of the flock and there are many more local stories to be found and I am hoping to explore such stories in more detail in the future. I feel these are stories that need to be told, explore and shared. I'm hoping to share a series of blog posts under the title Local Love. Watch this space as this could be a long term project.
So are Australians embracing the buy local principle when it comes to yarn purchasing?
I'm not sure. I do think Australian knitters suffer a wee bit from a grass is greener syndrome and some of the "celebrity" type yarns from overseas woo them effortlessly, while equally fabulous locally produced yarns (with a much smaller ecological footprints I may add) are overlooked. This concerns me. Our fall from the sheep's back has been quite a disastrous one. Our industry here is small, but there is diversity, plenty of it if you care to explore and look for it. Our sheep farmers face the same prospects as those in food production, possibly a more difficult scenario with the competing interests of overseas production taken into account.
I'm not saying you should never buy overseas yarn. There's certainly a place for that. My goodness, where would we be without our fix of Noro (which incidentally is spun from Polwarth raised in Australia for Noro)! But if your beliefs embrace ethical consumption and you are conscious of supporting local farmers when it comes to your food choices, I do ask you to question whether you are knitting local?
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, as to whether or not you knit local and why or why not. I'd love to hear from you regardless of your location (Australian or overseas); I want to know what is local to you and what that means to you, if anything. How do you feel about the concept of knitting local?
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Textile artist, knitwear designer and teacher.
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