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What does ‘certified fairtrade’ mean when it comes to clothes?

It is a long supply chain, but we have it covered.

It is a long supply chain, but we have it covered.

While I have always been what you would call a ‘fairtrade motivated’ consumer, and I was pretty clear on what buying fairtrade certified food products like coffee, chocolate, bananas, sugar meant.  However, the picture was a little less clear when it came to clothing, and actually I hardly even considered it as an issue really.

When I started on the muka kids path I knew that fairtrade certification would be more complicated for clothing than the for the direct commodity products where the route from farmer to consumer is short. However, sorting out in my own mind what certified fairtrade clothing actually meant did require doing quite a bit of digging. I thought it would be useful to share what I found.

Figure 1 (I can’t help myself, it is the researcher in me coming out!) is a simplified but pretty accurate idea of the chain from the food commodity farmer to you (e.g. coffee, banana etc).

Fugure 1. Farmer to consumer chain for simple foods

Figure 1. Farmer to consumer chain for simple foods

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Sustainable Business and the Ladies

Chatting recently with another parent, who is also in the social enterprise line, we were reflecting on the difficulties that women with kids have in finding a place in the whole ‘start-up’[1] business culture. I say women with kids because the reality is that women remain the primary caregivers of children in our society even when they work (working part-time more than men etc).

It gave me pause to reflect about our global need to move to economies based on sustainable businesses (business that works with and for the environment and people), and whether we are failing to address a rather large impediment to getting there: the ladies, or rather the lack of the ladies.

So my thinking goes like this. There is a huge market out there providing resources and support for start-ups, but the support that is offered, is in the main structured towards the lifestyle of the young, childless bloke. So all weekend workshops run till 1 am, 6 month incubator programmes, fulltime and more, the full total immersion approach… you get the idea, not a scenario many women with kids can fully embrace, but one which the young and childless can. It will be no surprise to most of you when I say that generally, business (including the new models of start-ups) is structured in a way that does not take into account how a lot of women currently work and live in our society. While there are plenty of young women out there without kids that can do the start-up thing equally with men the reality is that a start-up is often not a single enterprise. Rather multiple business and entrepreneurial adventures are entered into across a lifetime; meaning that eventually most women involved in the start-up life are going to experience the sharp end of this particular stick.

Where the picture looks slightly different is in social enterprise – essentially a social enterprise is a start-up with a social, ethical, environmental mission at its core. In the UK twice as many women run social enterprise than lead small business. Which makes me wonder if there is something about the social enterprise culture in particular that presents fewer barriers and more levers to women when compared to traditional business models, or just that it is easier to push through the existing barriers to business as a woman if you have the extra motivation of a social or environmental mission you want to achieve?

So where am I going with this? Well here is the crux of it: if starting up in business is more difficult for women because of the way the current model of support and incubation is constructed, and if more women are involved and interested in starting up sustainable and social business, then to be really successful at turning our economy into one built on social and sustainable business we need to better understand (and do something about) what impedes or assists women in starting up in any enterprise.

Interested in this issue? here are some more resources…..

Start-up funding success and gender

Why women offer something a bit different to business

Some cool social enterprises for women and girls


and here is some of my many different types of work..

and here are just a few of my many different types of work…..

[1] “a company, a partnership or temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. These companies, generally newly created, are in a phase of development and research for markets. …” (thanks Wikipedia).

The Rich Tapestry of Fear

One of the things about starting a new business, especially in the ‘rag-trade’,  is there are a lot of people who love your idea, and a few people who look sceptical and then put the fear of death into you. I figure that some of the former and a little bit of the latter is a good thing.

Today I met with a woman with a ton of experience in the industry, she talked of the small margins in clothing, the overcrowded space that clothing is, the tough market where people ultimately, despite what they say,  buy based on the look of clothes and the perception that they are getting a good deal (so price really). She talked of the many (mainly women) who had tried and failed in this business, and she put the FEAR into me.

But here is the thing, the fear is good, the fear makes it real, and it makes me think long and hard about what I am prepared to risk and what I value. In a funny way it gives me confidence that win or lose I am at least clear on why I am doing this. What the fear also and most importantly does is  remind me that above all I need to be a really good businesswoman if I want muka kids to be a leader in sustainable business. As fundamentally, muka kids is about trying to show leadership in ethical, social and sustainable business, and to do that I need to have the FEAR along with the fun.

The story behind the name muka kids

Muka is the thick thread or twine created by hand processing the cut leaves of the flax or harakeke plant that grows in abundance throughout New Zealand. It is used (among other things) to weave and create the base of traditional kākahu (cloaks), worn by Maori.  Muka is more than just a thread however, it is a powerful connecting material, with great spiritual significance.

‘Muka creates … connections – through the stories that cloaks carry. .. muka links the ancestors who made or owned them with their descendants today, drawing together the past, present, and future’ (

maori woman preparing muka 2000.018.0063a

Maori woman preparing flax fibre for weaving. Horowhenua Historical Society Inc.

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Where it all started

So you know the moment you are in a shop, in some hideous shopping complex, which seems designed to bring on a state of panic through extreme lighting and bubblegum pop music? All you can think is “buy the stuff, any stuff, all the stuff and LEAVE! RUN!” Well that was me. One moment I was staggering under a mountain of gender-stereotyped, bright, cheap kids clothing and the next I had dumped it all and RUN madly towards freedom and blue sky. The 19-year-old shop assistant looked bewildered (and I noted with no small amount of envy utterly bereft of any understanding of what sleep deprivation and the resulting crazy can lead to). So there I was free, but somehow I was also considering my place in the universe. This I knew could not be good. Really. Seriously. Not Good. Here I was a professional thinker and scientist, years of experience juggling high pressure situations, brought to the edge of crazy by the experience of buying childrenswear; rubbish, cheaply made, kidswear.

So let me dial it back and explain…..

I like clothes and believe clothing is an important part of our identity, and self confidence. The same is true for kids clothes. A way for kids to dress up and down, to experiment with who they are, and really to just have fun. But outside that shop I was not having a lot of fun, rather I was thinking some heavy stuff . I was thinking ‘many kids clothes businesses leverage our selective blindness to the exploitation of women and families, their well-being and the environment, to give us a cheap and cheerful choice and healthy profit for them, and hold on a minute how did I end up supporting this?’ It made me pretty feel rubbish to be honest.

and there it was the flashpoint for starting muka kids.

In truth a big part of this thinking travelled with me all the way back from India. In 2008, while backpacking, I was sitting on the platform of a Delhi Railway station. In front of me was a pretty common sight – a seriously grubby little girl with bells tied on her ankles, dancing for a few rupee, she was probably 6 or 7 , but looked 4. Later on I watched a woman in a flame sari, blurred through a bus window, carrying a pan of road fill upon her head. Her kids played on the roadside while the chaotic traffic of India roared by and covered them all in filth. It started me down the road of some pretty challenging thinking about the way I live and I guess you could say it culminated outside that shop. It was a pretty pragmatic kind of thinking, not based on any particular belief system apart from just being a woman in New Zealand confronted with what being a woman in other (in fact most ) countries was like, and how my choices meant I played a part in many of these women’s lives.

140411_Women in Orchha_blog 1

In India I also saw that the local environment and ecosystems were used and utilized in whatever way was necessary to make sure the people living off it did just that – live. I saw that given limited or no choice people just did what they need to survive and taking care of their local physical environment came a pretty far last. I also knew that it was probably not the small scale farmers and manufacturers that created the most damage, larger scale stuff was happening all over the place to drive profit and growth.

So back to that crazy woman outside the shop. The businesses that produce those clothes I knew, fed the very situations which made me as a parent, an enthusiast for biodiversity and a humanist, feel deeply uncomfortable, yet there I was supporting those businesses through the power of my purchasing. BUT in a fit of unusual optimism I saw no really logical, sensible reason for it not to be different. It was not rocket science, it was not the dominion of the soapbox loving environmental or humanitarian crusader. It was totally within my power as a parent, a consumer, a thinking person to make a small step change that might hopefully one day have a positive impact on that girl in Delhi (or one like her), and in fact all our kids.

And so began my adventures in sustainable business with muka kids, and helping buyers of kids clothing feel positive about their purchasing decisions.

I am edging very gingerly (frankly I am not much of a leaper) into building an ethical enterprise which I hope will address some of the problems I encounter in trying to live and consume more consciously. Fearful and anxious about what will be in the deep end, I have stuck my head under. My hope is, that in sharing some of my experiences in building and growing muka kids, others find it just that little bit easier to take account of the environment and people when they buy stuff. What I also hope is that muka kids becomes one of the cogs in the gears that help us grind our way to understanding that business can be part of the solution.

Thanks for reading and following my adventures