The global manufacturing industry is so huge that individual consumers feel relatively detached. There are still places where you can buy a loaf of bread or knitted scarf from the person who made it. But typically, clothes are purchased from large stores – and these in turn are often part of even larger multinational corporations. The advantage is that large orders translate to a lower price per item. The disadvantage is an ever-increasing separation between production and the final garment wearer. Numerous middlemen along the way mean that no one person is willing to take responsibility for ethical business choices and quality control – there are just too many players involved.
A New Zealand company, Icebreaker, is setting a new business model. If you are interested in sustainable choices and responsible companies, then perhaps this approach will resonate. Each wool garment carries a Baacode. Typing in the unique code on the company’s website allows access to information about the original owner of the wool. Not only can customers see where the sheep come from, but there are photos and videos of the farm, individual farmers, and the geographical region.
If you are curious to see how it works but have no Baacode product, the website provides sample codes. Their ethics policy includes both environmental and animal welfare considerations. Icebreaker uses wool from merino sheep farmed in fragile ecosystems using low-intensity traditional techniques. With a modern emphasis on more and faster, this approach needs stewardship. Compare the fate of Scotland’s knitwear industry, which is increasingly contracted out to Asian garment companies to the detriment of traditional techniques and sheep farmers.
Grazing sheep at low-density allows vegetation to regenerate. Farmers ensure that sheep are raised with animal welfare considerations such as free-range movement, winter food supplementation, and conscientious veterinary treatment. In return, Icebreaker provides a reliable wool market at a fair price, creating a stable economy for farms and consumers.
Down the production chain, although the wool is shipped to Europe and other regions for further processing, ethical guidelines are followed. Recycled waste and energy, along with alternative power sources, are important considerations. Adhering to global quality assurance standards, such as ISO 9001, is a requirement. Fair and sustainable working conditions are also considered.
If making ethical decisions – considering the environment, animal welfare, and working conditions – works on a small scale, why can’t the approach be used on a bigger scale? While large companies often claim that such policies would be both expensive and difficult to enforce, such protestations are probably just heel-dragging. Consumers need to demand change – and sooner is definitely better.
Photo credit: Henning Schmitz