October 28, 2017

Is Batik Fair?

Guave presented their Batik cap collection at the Fair Fashion Festival 22 October in Utrecht

Wastra Indonesia event at the Indonesia Embassy on 24 July

After seeing Batik being presented as Fair Fashion a couple of times, I think it is a good moment to dive in this terminology. It seems Fair is the magic word right now in fashion, design and food. I heard during a talk, I believe it was a one of the Meet Up's at Centraal Museum, that food is a good indication when it comes to what people want. And that you can predict what people want fashion-wise in the next decade. Fashion is the last to join the party when it comes to trends even though it presents itself as being the first.
In the food section we already are aware of and are choosing more and more fair, organic, eco friendly, local and vegan products. Where first we look at our wallets, more people now start making a choice for healthy, sustainable goods. The shift in fashion is becoming visible as well. But with a big difference. In the supermarket you have to make choices between organic flown in strawberries from Spain or pesticide covered ones from the farmer in the area, but in fashion industry these little, big impact distinctions are harder to spot.
Take for example Adidas. I visited their website a while ago to see if I can find if they make Fair, Sustainable, Eco friendly Fashion. I mean a big brand like that surely has the money, and therefor knowledge and opportunity, to make their product in a responsible way. When I look at their sustainability progress report I see a lot of "We will"'s, but not many "We have"'s. At the same time their 'We will''s give them this free pass to produce in the fashion they are doing. I'm not saying Adidas is evil, but they are not anywhere near being sustainable either.
In my previous post A search for sustainable shoes, I already wrote about brands that are considered fair or sustainable and mostly are selling us their good intentions. So what is fair fashion and how does it apply to Batik?

My Batik Buketan temporary carpet at Museum Batik in Pekalongan, Java 
made from materials used for natural dye, 2016

Fair Fashion consist of many labels, which are mainly freely interpretable. Most are based on improving labour standards such as a living wage, a fair price for the product, reasonable hours. Also no discrimination or child labour are strong points in Fair fashion. Sustainability or how eco friendly the fashion is made is mostly linked to safe and healthy working conditions and respecting the environment. There are no actual standards for when is it a fair price or what are reasonable hours.
Mostly this depends on what is the standard in the country where the product is being made and therefor with a little extra a fair label is easily reached.
Also when we hear Fair, we not only think of Fair Trade, we also think of how sustainable the product is. So Fair is also used for products which are bio or organic, an eco friendly alternative or produced with zero waste, cradle to cradle, zero emission or with re-used materials.
Next to this we als think that handmade is also more fair then mass-production and if only one part of the entire process had one of the elements I mentioned above, it can be Fair Fashion (or design, or food).
Now, I'm not saying something can only be Fair if it good on all fronts. If you try to truly make a Fair product, you will decide to make nothing. When I'm talking about Fair, I'm more referring to the choice of the buyer. If you are a conscious consumer you already know that labels are guidelines, even marketing tools, but not the whole story. And before you can make a good choice, you need to inform yourself.
And what is important to you can be different to what I find important and it can vary per product. For example, I find a natural, biological, eco friendly made products super important, but when it comes to Batik, my idea about it is different.
During the Mini-Batik Symposium in Köln I met Reynold Rudyismanto. Reynold is studying his Master in Law researching how and if Indonesian batik should get a “Voluntary EU-Ecolabel”:

The EU Ecolabel scheme is part of the sustainable consumption and production policy of the Community, which aims at reducing the negative impact of consumption and production on the environment, health, climate and natural resources. The scheme is intended to promote those products which have a high level of environmental performance through the use of the EU Ecolabel. To this effect, it is appropriate to require that the criteria with which products must comply in order to bear the EU Ecolabel be based on the best environmental performance achieved by products on the Community market. 
The core purpose of the research is to find the most appropriate policy the Indonesian government can make to support the batik industries with natural dyes which in the end could increase the export value of Indonesian batik textile in the international market, especially in European Union, where it is believed to be a very good market for environment-friendly products.

Reynold concludes his research that there is a market for Batik and especially sustainable Batik on certainly the Dutch and probably the European market. But my question is does promoting "sustainable Batik" help Batik makers or the Art of making Batik?
I asked this question, because when I met Reynold again it was at the 'Wastra Indonesia' event organised by the Indonesian Embassy. Promoting "Sustainable textiles" and getting an eco-label for Batik were part of the program. Nothing wrong with that and some lovely Indigo, Blue and Sogan, brown Batiks were presented. My problem, or better my concern is with the makers of these textiles. I already noticed on Java that producing with natural dyes was something celebrities and royalties were doing. I noticed that so called natural dyed Batiks were extremely expensive compared to chemical dyed ones. The colours mainly consist of vague brown shades and Indigo. I was already warned that most natural dye is not really natural dye, because part of the process is still chemical or chemical dyes are mixed in to get a lasting colour. The lasting of the colour is a problem. Where chemical dyed Batiks can keep their colours for decades, natural dyes fade quickly. If you want a good price for your Batik, the consumer wants a Batik that keeps its colours. The story on that it is better for the environment, which can be argued about, is only reaching those who can afford it. Afford to make it and to wear/use it. The Batik makers I met 7 years ago switched back to using chemical dyes after not being able to make a good quality, good priced product with natural dye. And here lies the problem. If celebraties and royalties with the right connections and right price, because I'm sure they are getting more than a fair price, can make Batiks that fit the eco-label, because they use natural dyes, what effect will this have on the Art of Batik and its makers? How will this effect the price Batik makers get for their chemical dyed Batiks and how does it improve their chances on making their product more sustainable? Who will benefit from this? If you consider that the maker is getting the least paid already, how can this improve with an eco-label on the market?
There is a true problem with chemical dyes and the waste produced with making Batik and there is a true health risk involved. But this will not disappear by introducing something unreachable for many. It can disappear by education, support and sharing knowledge. The Art of dyeing with natural dyes has been lost almost a century ago on Java and it's not getting restored by trying to re-invent it. Get people from all over the world who do know how to use natural dye to the Batik makers, get people who can make safe drainage, who can help with waste-disposal. People who can inform Batik makers on how to get a fair price for their products. And what is a fair price? Put money in making it better for the makers of Batik, Pembatiks, not in Batik product placement and "Fair" market expansion.
And besides, isn't there a bigger, more polluting industry that you should be dealing with? People are pointing fingers to Batik makers, but they are not making the rivers red, or blue or purple. It is our "normal" textile industry who does that!

So is Batik Fair Fashion, or can it be Fair fashion? Yes and no. Batik is fair when it is bought for the right price and from the right person, preferable directly from the maker or from a seller you can really trust. Batik is fair when it is handmade under the right conditions. Batik is not necessarily more fair when it is made with natural dye although I hope in the near future there is more being done on improving the conditions in which Batik is produced as I mentioned above.

Thanks Reynold for sharing your research with me!
Lets see how this develops, I'll keep you updated here on The journey to Batik!

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