Monday, 14 May 2012

Fair Trade & Philanthropy

Saturday was World Fair Trade Day.  Following my previous post, the parallels of the living and working conditions in British Victorian slums to today's exploited textile workers in developing countries has again been on my mind.

I met the OCA Yorkshire group at Salts Mill this month with the intention of seeing the David Hockney exhibition '25 Trees and Other Pictures'. However, after our group catch up, I got distracted by the Saltaire History exhibition.  I've been researching my husband's family history over the last few weeks and discovered that he is descended from generations of Yorkshire wool weavers. (He is far less excited about this than me!) I was also hooked in on reading that Sir Titus Salt, who built the textile mill and village at Saltaire, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was my neighbour.  He lived on an estate at Crow Nest in Lightcliffe, less than a mile from my home now.

Built in just two years, in 1853 Salts Mill was the largest factory in the world. 33000 yards of cloth was produced daily by 3000 textile workers.  

Titus Salt took over the reasonably successful family woollen business in 1833. That year he discovered bales of alpaca fleece in a Liverpool warehouse. No-one else had been interested in the consignment as the alpaca fibres were tricky to weave.  Through persistence he eventually discovered that an exquisite cloth could be produced by weaving the alpaca on a cotton or silk warp.  The lustre cloth looked and handled like silk and was suitable for making fine dresses for the upper classes.  It was much cheaper than silk to produce however and this was how Titus Salt made his fortune. By 1848 he was the extremely rich Mayor of Bradford and the owner of five textile mills in the city.       

Meanwhile, Salt's social conscience was developing and he became increasingly concerned about the welfare of his workers.  He vowed to get his workers away from the hellish slums of Bradford.  George Weerth, a Revolutionary German poet and later a representative for textile workers rights, wrote about the exploitation of the working classes. He lived in Bradford in the mid 1800s and in an article for a German newspaper describes the city:

"Every other factory town in England is a paradise in comparison to this hole. In Manchester the air lies like lead upon you; in Birmingham it is just as if you were sitting with your nose in a stove pipe; in Leeds you have to cough with the dust and the stink as if you had swallowed a pound of Cayenne pepper in one go - but you can put up with all that. In Bradford, however, you think you have been lodged with the devil incarnate. If anyone wants to feel how a poor sinner is tormented in Purgatory, let him travel to Bradford."

This statement reminded me so much of an extract from a newspaper article journalist Liz Jones wrote on her travels to Bangladesh more than 160 years later in 2010:

"I'm standing on the brink of hell.  I'm on the edge of one of Bangladesh's biggest slums, Kuni Para, in the north of the capital, Dhaka, and a tide of humanity is surging past me.  No-one is chatting. No one is smiling.  It's 7am and the workers, mainly women, are off to their shifts in the garment factories that litter the city.  In front of me are three pieces of bamboo, propped above a sea of raw sewage and garbage, reaching into a warren of corrugated iron. It's already nearly 40 degrees, and the stench is overpowering.  It's drizzling and the bamboo is slippery: one false move and I will tumble into the fetid soup....."  

Extract from Article: Daily Mail (London) | July 19, 2010


Titus Salt may have had money but he still could not influence the politicians or other employers to take on his suggestions to improve matters.  Of course, besides the humanitarian aspect, he also appreciated that his workers were not much use if they were too sick to work.  Life expectancy for the children of Bradford textile workers was just eighteen.  Salt decided to move his workers out of Bradford to a healthier environment.  He began building the largest mill in Europe complete with many innovative features that vastly improved safety and reduced noise and air pollution.  A station was built to transport the workers in by rail from Bradford. Then came a purpose built village. A reservoir provided running water for 850 homes, each with a separate living and cooking area, its own privy and gas for heating and light. He built a school, church, wash houses and hospital.  The injured and elderly were taken care of in rent free almshouses and workers had pensions forty years before the state pension was introduced.  Keen for the workers to keep healthy and develop themselves intellectually he also gave opportunities for learning and pastimes with a library, community hall, public baths and park.    

Victoria Hall built for Salt's workers in 1869 with a lecture hall, library, sprung dance floor and games rooms. Today, it is still a thriving centre for learning, recreation and culture.
The textile workers houses were a vast improvement on the Bradford slums

By the time Titus Salt died in 1876, he had given away most of his personal wealth to charitable causes.  100,000 people were said to have attended his funeral.  On the drive to Salts Mill, I was listening to the radio and Chris Evans was talking about David Hockney topping the 2012 Sunday Times Giving List after giving away paintings worth more than twice his personal fortune to his charitable foundation.  It made me chuckle to think that Yorkshiremen are often typecast as tightfisted!

So who is going to take responsibility for improving the life of today's textile workers?  From what I have researched recently, as a consumer trying to make ethical choices, I need to wear clothes for longer, buy second hand and upcycle.  Developing countries still desperately need us to buy from them and when buying new, Fair Trade is the best choice I can make.  However, it's not been as straightforward as I thought.

To be on the safe side I bought myself an organic Fair Trade dress for my holidays from Ebay. ('What if it's stolen goods?", I worried, deciding next time to go one step further and look for second hand organic Fair Trade clothes to upcycle from Oxfam!) The dress arrived and it's far too big.  At least I'm going to give the local dressmaker some business having it altered.  My eldest daughter is also in need of some new clothes after a growing spurt and there's really not a lot of choice out there.  Quite a bit in women's clothing, particularly if you like shapeless sacks or the ageing hippy look.  There's a lot for babies, but hardly a thing for nine year olds - unless you want a load of t-shirts with slogans. We don't. I could get one or two parts of her school uniform but nowhere near everything we need. The proportion of Fair Trade garments on sale really is tiny.  I'm starting to feel like an activist and can feel a letter to the head teacher coming on with some suggestions about uniform suppliers.  We could start with PE T-shirts, then who knows!   

Reading List
Minney, Safia (2011) Naked fashion:the new sustainable fashion revolution. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications


Buying Fairtrade

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