One of fashion’s most respected and outspoken figures has given her support to the International Year of Co-operatives and called for more UK co-operatives to enter her industry.
Iconic designer Katharine Hamnett, best known for her bold slogan T-shirts, has teamed up with Co-op Italia to create a range of sustainable clothing for men, women and children, including T-shirts which bear the slogan, “Together It Is Possible”.
That the range has been produced at all is testament to the power of the United Nations’ year.
“Co-op Italia first approached me to work with them about ten years ago, but it was not practical on an organic cotton level due to the small quantities involved,” explains Ms Hamnett. “When they came back and asked if I would do something for the International Year, we looked at it again and agreed a contract for a sustainable clothing collection that will be available in 142 Co-op Italia stores.”
She’s come to love the co-operative model. “We’re seeing capitalism collapse while the co-operative model is working. It spreads wealth equally, rather than concentrating it in the hands of the few,” she says. “It is the way of the future.”
As the Italian project got under way, she met co-operators across the country. “It was very moving,” she says. “It showed me that even if the industry doesn’t care about issues, ordinary people — co-operative members — do. And they can make a difference. I don’t think we hear enough about co-operatives in the UK. I know that they’re doing great things, working away in the background, but they don’t seem to get the exposure they deserve.”
And she feels that co-operatives can offer some hope in current troubled economic times, arguing: “With so many people losing their jobs, now is the time for people to come together and start new co-operatives.”
The democratic structure of the co-op also chimes with Ms Hamnett’s own worldview. “I’ve never liked bosses,” she recalls. “I didn’t even want to be a prefect at school and I’ve never really enjoyed being a boss – I’m far too lenient!
“If you look up the definition of democracy it doesn’t mention leaders, it’s about the people.”
And she’s not impressed with the way democracy is working in the UK right now. “We need to put pressure on our MPs and tell them how we want our money spending,” she says. “They need to know that we are watching how they vote and that we have the power to re-elect them.”
She also worries about the erosion of civil liberties – which is perhaps not surprising when her own T-shirts are covered by article 13 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act which forbids the wearing of politically contentious T-shirts – and wants more power given directly to the people, citing the Swiss model of regular referenda.
Her link-up with the Movement seems a natural one, considering Ms Hamnett’s own idealism. For more than 20 years she has campaigned passionately for organic cotton, following research she commissioned in 1989 into the social and environmental impact of the clothing industry.
“I didn’t expect it to uncover anything significant in what I’d always thought to be a nice, frivolous industry that wouldn’t harm anyone,” she says. “It turned out that the industry is a living nightmare.
“The farming of conventional cotton represents ten per cent of world agriculture and uses 25 per cent of all pesticides. Cotton farmers suffer terrible living conditions and appalling wages.
“Every year, 20,000 people in conventional cotton farming die from accidental pesticide poisoning and nitrates are a major source of collapse of aquatic eco-systems.”
Shocked, she visited cotton farmers in Mali to learn more. “I met some of the poorest farmers on Earth,” she says. “People were starving. I was enraged and knew I couldn’t continue to make a living from such human suffering and environmental degradation.”
The answer, she discovered, is organic farming. “By farming organically, not worrying about the 60% that they’ve previously spent on chemicals, and receiving an additional organic premium, farmers can increase their profits by anything from 50–500 per cent.
“Organic farming is helping families to feed and educate their children and access healthcare.”
When she insisted on only using organic cotton, Ms Hamnett was told she risked “commercial suicide”. So she ripped up her existing media contracts and insisted that all interviews focused on the issue. She would only work with companies that backed her stance. She had — and retains — more hope in individuals than industries. “The clothing industry isn’t bothered about human rights,” she says. “We still have riots in clothing factories that are suppressed by police, but people are more aware of the issues now and that’s reflected in their buying patterns.
“Consumers can insist that their clothing manufacturers address human rights and environmental concerns.”
And she believes that, despite the economic downturn, the UK’s clothing industry still has a future.
“Across Asia, the phrase ‘Made In England’ is still seen as a mark of real quality. We should build on that. I would love to work with UK manufacturing co-operatives on producing clothing here — and also work with retail co-operatives to sell our ranges. From next year we’ll be working with more co-ops throughout our supply chain including South American knitwear co-ops.”
She does worry whether we have left it too late to right the environmental wrongs inflicted on the planet – but, even if that is the case, she is “determined to go down fighting.”
And together, perhaps, anything could be possible.