Stitched Up have been proud members of the co-operative movement from day one – co-operation is central to everything that we do. But this month, it’s been even more of a theme than usual!
On 2nd July we celebrated International Day of Co-operatives with 1 billion other co-operative members around the world. Later that week, we held an Open Day as part of GMCVOs week of action on the inclusive economy – we showcased community-led projects, helped visitors to repair/rework their clothes, and shared information about our structure as a Community Benefit Society. The following week, we were delighted to spend the day at the Co-ops UK National Youth Summit with co-operators of all ages, discussing fast fashion, textile waste and the solutions we could action today. And last week we had a conversation with Mancunian Matters about fashion and sustainability in the context of co-operatives.
Lots of people we’ve met in the past few weeks have been interested in our motivations for becoming a co-operative, and why we think co-ops hold so much potential to transform society – not least in relation to the way we produce, consume and use clothing. We wanted to take a bit of time to reflect on this and share some of our thoughts and inspirations with you here.
BIRTHPLACE OF THE CO-OP MOVEMENT
The British co-operative movement has its roots in this region’s industrial past, with the Rochdale Pioneers creating one of the first really successful British co-operatives in 1844, in order to help clothing and textile workers access decent, affordable food.
Wages were low for those labouring in the textile industry at that time, and unemployment very common. Shop owners often added non-food ‘fillers’ to foods to increase their own profit margins – at the expense of their customers’ health. And some workers were paid in tokens which could only be spent at the company’s own shops, rather than money. Because only landowners could vote at the time, the workers had no option to call on the government for change.
So the Rochdale Pioneers stepped in and set up a food co-op, with membership open to anyone who needed it (including women, a rare thing back then!), ensuring that people could access decent and affordable food. At first their shop only sold flour, oatmeal, butter and sugar, but soon the co-op grew and was able to support a bigger range of products. Because members were rewarded with a higher dividend the more the co-op earned, it incentivised members to shop there, creating an ever-better service for local people and helping the co-op to grow.
In setting up their co-op, the Rochdale Pioneers created the ‘Rochdale rules’, which provided the foundation of the principles used by co-operatives today.
You can watch the short film ‘Men of Rochdale’ free online for a history of the British co-operative movement.
If you’d like to steep in all this local history in person, the Rochdale Pioneers Museum is housed in the very same building that Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society started trading in, on 21 December 1844. We were there recently facilitating a denim upcycling workshop and highly recommend a trip over!
PROUD HISTORY OF WORKER-LED RESISTANCE
Our region has a proud history of worker-led resistance to injustice. One of our favourite pieces of local history is the story of Lancashire mill workers taking a stand against slave-picked cotton, at a time when they themselves were facing real hardship.
In 1862, during the American Civil War we were a year into Abraham Lincoln’s blockade of Southern cotton picked by slaves. As the Lancashire Cotton Famine took hold, 60% of mills across Lancashire ceased production, relying as they did on cotton imported from this region. This left cotton workers destitute. However, in a public meeting at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in December 1862, cotton workers voted to continue to support the blockade, despite their own personal hardship, in order to rid America of slavery.
There’s also a great episode of Radio 4’s In Our Time which goes into much more detail on this period of history.
CO-OPERATIVES IN CLOTHING
Co-operatives exist throughout the clothing supply chains, from cotton farmers to garment makers. The co-operative model is in direct contrast to the take-make-dispose fast fashion business model where profits are funnelled to a wealthy CEO at the top, while the employees manufacturing the clothes scrape by on poverty wages.
Fashion Revolution recently shared some great examples of artisan co-ops around the world. One of these is Manos Del Uruguay, a fashion brand and producer which has been running since 1968. It is owned by 12 women artisan co-operatives across Uruguay, two of whom specialise in dyeing the yarn, and the ten others which knit or weave the products. Any profits the brand makes are reinvested to grow the brand, which in turn benefits the artisans and their communities. As Fashion Revolution point out, these co-ops often lend themselves to low carbon and environmentally-conscious production, because they’re making products in their own communities – which of course they are invested in preserving. As a result, natural dyes, using readily available materials for upcycling and reducing waste are prioritised. When there is more than just profit at stake, things begin to look very different.
Inspiring fashion activist Hoda Katebi created Blue Tin Production Co-op in Chicago, a workers co-op which provides full-time employment to highly-skilled low-income migrant women making clothes for designers, brands and department stores. All of the members of the co-op, bar just one, are sewists who manage all the daily operations of the company as well as taking an equal share of the profits, which are distributed each quarter. The co-op also provides free sewing classes with a qualification, to local refugees and immigrants, giving them the option to eventually join the co-op themselves or find skilled work elsewhere.
The brand Andel, whose name means ‘share’ and is also inspired by the name of a Danish co-operative movement in existence since the 1900s, make single-fibre (to make for easier recycling at end of life), virgin fossil fuel free, ungendered clothes. Each company employee has an equal share in the business. They don’t say whether this includes their manufacturers, who they describe as a ‘socially engaged factory in Scandinavia’ whose skilled workers are ‘paid fairly’. That really would be an exciting co-op model!
While it’s not actually a co-operative, Community Clothing’s model is based on a co-operative approach, and would work brilliantly as a co-operative of clothing manufacturers (maybe something to consider for the future Patrick!). The company has long-term trade agreements with 28 producers who make fabrics, trims and garments. The company’s products are not trend-led, but rather offer timeless designs that will be sold year on year without changing. This creates an ongoing, reliable demand for the manufacturer’s products. The company also creates year-round work for manufacturers whose other contract work is very season-dependent.
While some people describe them as radical, we think co-operatives are just common sense in a world that’s gone mad.
JOIN STITCHED UP
If you’re interested in taking control of part of your clothing supply chain locally, why not become a member of Stitched Up Community Benefit Society! As a member you can feed in to our plans, vote on proposals at our AGM, including who is voted on to the Board of Directors. We’ll keep you in the loop via our quarterly members newsletter and invites to our Open Days. We welcome membership applications from anyone who is part of our community in its widest sense, whether you attend our events or just consider yourself part of our ‘community of interest’.