Not So Innocent Little Hats – There’s More

When I last blogged about this I hadn’t had a response from Innocent.

I’ve now heard back from Tilly, and I’m going to share both her reply and my response to it.

Here’s what Tilly had to say

Tilly (people’s champion) Aug 21, 14:18 BST

Hello again Joy, 

We’re really sorry for jumping to a bit of a conclusion there, and for taking a little while to reply. Thanks for taking the time to clarify what you meant, and especially for letting us know your thoughts. And just to reassure you, we’d never palm you off with a google response, which is why it’s taken us a bit longer to get back to you.

The tricky thing is, one of the reasons we may have jumped to the conclusion that you were anti-wool is because we often have people getting in touch to say it’s difficult to find ethically sourced options. For those people, acrylic and cotton tend to be better options based on what’s important to them. We totally agree with you that there are plenty of great, ethical sources of wool, but the truth is that not everybody feels that way. 

We do encourage the use of wool, and above anything the re-use of it, but we don’t turn away hats made with acrylic materials. Our amazing knitters and crocheters put a lot of love and care into making them, so we’d hate for them to think we didn’t appreciate it and to turn them down would be to take away donations to Age UK. Those donations are, after all, the reason we do any of this, and the campaign has raised millions for Age UK over the years. 

Our impact on the environment is something we take incredibly seriously, and it sounds like you do too. We’re chuffed to say that we get flooded with pictures of people using our little hats as bunting, Christmas decorations and gear-stick warmers, so we know the majority of them do get re-used. We don’t live in a bubble, though. We know there are the odd hats that get tossed aside, and we’ll always be open to ways we can be better. 

You’ve given us lots to think about so we’re grateful for that, and we’ll be sure to pass your comments on to our sustainability team. If you do have any ethical sources of wool that you wouldn’t mind sharing with us, we’d really appreciate it. We’re looking into things like bamboo, but there are tonnes of things to take into consideration for each material, so it’d be great to hear your thoughts. 

Thanks again for letting us know how you feel, and for fighting the good fight,

Tilly

I read. I digested. I started a couple of polls over on Instagram and asked how many people liked the hats and what they would do if they had one. There are a lot of great comments on that post and I’ll do a roundup on the blog of the main points.

Then I replied to Tilly. I had a lot to say.

Hello Tilly,

Many thanks for your reply.

It’s concerning that people are getting in touch to say that they don’t see wool as an ethical option – do you know why they feel that way? I’m going to talk through several of the reasons why I think wool is brilliantly ethical stuff, but if there’s something I haven’t covered please let me know.

I’m aware that PETA gained a huge amount of publicity with claims about shearing conditions.  This led to a UK retailer (Boohoo) to say they would no longer use wool. Boohoo changed their minds less than 24 hours later.   It’s fair to say that PETA found a horrendous example of someone treating animals appallingly – but that’s incredibly rare. It would be like Innocent saying they were never going to buy another strawberry because of something that happened on one strawberry farm. We all know that terrible things can happen, but they shouldn’t force us into making bad choices.

So – ethical wool. I’m going to talk about sheep wool here, as that’s the most common.

The first thing to say is that wool is inherently sustainable. Sheep grow more of it each year and they need to be sheared.

If you don’t shear sheep they continue to grow more wool and can overheat. They have to carry additional weight. More horrible is that unsheared fleece can become infested with maggots, and these can eat through fleece and attack the sheep. So shearing is essential to animal welfare as most of the sheep farmed today can’t self shed their fleece – so it’s not like a cat or a dog who shed their winter coat when they’re ready. Sheep shearing isn’t a modern phenomenon though – there are records of sheep shearing in the Bronze age, so sheep shearing has been happening for more than 3000 years.

I can tell you that we had a yarn spun with fleeces from two local flocks. We went to see one flock being sheared – and the sheep were treated well throughout. They weren’t distressed. They weren’t trying to struggle. They seemed very happy to be out of heavy woolly coats. Shearers who hurt animals are incredibly rare. Animals are valuable to farmers, and their welfare matters. Having that yarn spun let us support two local farms, a local scourer, a local carded and a local mill. The fleece travelled less than 80 miles from being sheared to coming back to us at yarn. That’s great for the environment.

Another brilliant thing about sheep from an ethical viewpoint is how they help to manage the landscape. The National Sheep Association says “
As well as creating beautiful landscapes, sheep also support wildlife and plant biodiversity. Without sheep our grassland, and upland land in particularly, would become overtaken by scrub and coarse vegetation, becoming less valuable to many types of plants, small mammals and ground nesting birds, and at risk of environmental damage by wildfires. These areas are also our biggest tourism areas, as sheep have created and continue to maintain our iconic landscapes. “

Sheep are often farmed on land that isn’t so useful for other things. So they’re using land which won’t support crops and which isn’t suitable for other animals. So asking farmers to stop keeping sheep deprives them of income – and at a point when many British farmers are struggling that isn’t a good move.

Wool is a natural substance which is going to break down in landfill (or even a compost heap).

The best way to know that your yarn is ethically produced is to check with the person you are buying it from. I can tell you that all of the wool we sell comes from flocks which are from the UK. The fleece is processed and spun in the UK before it comes to us to be dyed. So every bit of that process is covered by UK legislation – animal welfare, what chemicals can be used, how waste is disposed, how the people who do the work are paid and treated – it’s all controlled. If the seller doesn’t know then the label should say where the fleece comes from.

So all in all it’s pretty hard to buy wool that isn’t ethical in many ways.  

Cotton is another natural substance, but one with many problems once you start looking at it’s environmental costs. Cotton is a greedy crop in it’s use of water and pesticides. Growing a kilo of cotton can use between 7000 and 30000 liters of water (that would fill between 9333 and 40000 of your big smoothie bottles). So each 50 gram ball of cotton uses at least 350 liters of water. That yarn might make six hats. Organic cotton uses more water as it has a lower yield. If cotton was grown in places with too much water that wouldn’t matter so much – but it isn’t. Cotton likes warm sunny weather and those areas don’t have the water needed to support the level of cotton production we’re now demanding. A lot of cotton isn’t Fair Trade grown, so people growing it aren’t being paid properly.

Bamboo – on the surface this looks like a brilliant option. It grows like a weed. However there are a lot of chemical processes which take place to turn a woody stalk into a yarn and that’s not good. More concerning is that areas of rainforest are being cleared to allow the growth of more bamboo. That’s rainforest like the Amazon forest that’s currently on fire. So it’s probably fair to say that I’ll never think that a plastic bottle needs a bamboo hat.

Finally acrylic – or nylon. They have their place in yarn – and combining them with wool can make a yarn that is harder wearing and needs to be replaced less often. Once acrylic yarn is dumped as landfill it takes decades to break down. During that time it’s releasing tiny particles of plastic. These end up in the soil and then in our water systems.  So while it’s a great idea to use leftovers (and I’d always support that) anything that leads to possible plastic landfill being created isn’t good for the environment.

It’s great that so many people love the little hats and  keep them – but I’m not sure that’s a universal view.

Out of interest I started two polls on my Instagram feed yesterday evening – I’m @theknittinggoddess.

The account doesn’t have a huge following, and I’m not claiming that it’s a balanced section of your customers. Yet I think it’s worth looking at the response so far.

Question 1 – You know those hats that @Innocent put on top of Smoothie Bottles? Do you like them?

At the time I’m typing this 654 people have seen the question. 321 have voted. 260 of them don’t like the hats. (That was 1600 on 22nd August)

Question 2 – if you ended up with a little hat for a plastic bottle would you keep it or bin it?

621 people saw the question. 283 voted. 121 would keep the hat. 162 would bin the hat. That’s already way over the handful which you say end up in the bin.

The real story comes out in the messages. Almost 50 people messaged to say that they’d take the hat off the bottle in the shop or they’d recycle the hat or give it back to you. I can see which way people voted in the poll and almost all of the 50 people who are going to leave the hat in the shop or recycle it selected keep it in the poll.

I’d ask your sustainability team to have a look at the comments which people have left in the main grid on Instagram. There are a couple of people who like the hats but agree that there’s a better way. One person uses them as egg cosies. There’s one person who likes the hats because they support a charity she works for. Otherwise it’s a resounding chorus of people saying they don’t like the hats and they think there are better ways to do this. Even people who liked the little hats when they started feel it’s time for a change.

So here’s a thought. If you want to stay with the hats idea how about calling it a day with hats for bottles and asking people to make hats for heads? From premature babies to homeless folk there are lots of heads which would benefit from a hat.

But there’s a better way. We’re all aware that we’re consuming too much stuff. So don’t ask people to make things for the sake of a small donation to charity. Take the money that’s spent advertising the big knit, building and maintaining the website, printing posters, collecting hats, putting hats onto bottles, making adverts, paying for prime time adverts – and donate that instead.  Tell everyone it’s time for a change and you can see a better way.

The website says that almost £2.5 million has been donated to Age UK over the last 16 years. That’s about £156250 a year. I double checked my figures when I worked this out because given the amount of publicity this generates I expected the donation to be a lot higher.

I’d like to know how much  whole campaign costs are. Does it cost more to tell us that there will be little hats on plastic bottles than is donated to the charity? That would be really sickening, wouldn’t it? So how much does it cost to organise, advertise and implement the hats onto bottles?

I looked back at last year and found the tv ad which lasted just over a minute. I saw that ad on prime time Saturday night tv. I’ve just looked to see how much that advert might have cost and I found this “ A 30-second ad during ITV’s breakfast schedule between the likes of Good Morning Britain or Lorraine costs between £3,000 to £4,000 on average. For a daytime slot, ads of the same time length come in at £3,500 to £4,500, while a peak rate alternative can cost anything from £10,000 to £30,000.”

That would suggest that the ad I saw during peak time on Saturday cost at least £20,000 to run. That advert didn’t only run once. It cost money to make (and yes, I know you are part of a huge multinational company and you have advertising departments as well as people’s champion departments and sustainability departments) There were print ads. There were posters. Wouldn’t it be sickening to know that none of that needed to happen and you could have donated the same amount of money or more from money that was saved by not doing this?

I appreciate there’s a lot of information here, and that it might take a few days  to pull out the figures I’ve asked for. It would be great if there was real change around this issue. Innocent started as a business with real principles, and it would be fantastic if those were displayed again now.

Many thanks

Joy McMillan

So that’s where we’re up to. I’d love to see this change.

One thing that came out of the comments on Instgram is that Age UK isn’t just one charity. Each local branch is a separate charity and they don’t get funding form the National Age UK. So if you want to support the charity and the work it does locally then you need to support your local branch rather than the national charity.

I’m hopeful that Innocent will answer the questions about the cost of this campaign – and that they’ll take time to think about how they could do this better.

One last thing I’ll mention for now is that many of the comments focused on how it would be good if huge companies like Coca Cola (who own Innocent) paid their taxes. I wondered what I’d find online about Coca Cola and tax payment. Turns out it’s not pretty.

“Coca-Cola has agreed to buy Costa Coffee, Britain’s largest coffee-shop chain, from UK company Whitbread for a staggering £3.92 billion ($5.1 billion). It’s “great news for shareholders,” but critics say it’s bad for Britain.

Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research Tom Kibasi claims the deal is “bad news for Britain,” because “Coca-Cola is one of the world’s worst tax dodgers and least ethical companies.” Meanwhile, others on social media have alluded to a possible negative impact on local, independent coffee traders and the communities they serve.”

I don’t use Costa because I’m lucky enough to live somewhere with brilliant indie coffee shops. But it had completely passed me by that Costa were now owned by Coca Cola.

Comments on this post are open. If you haven’t commented before your post will be queued for approval and I’ll go through those comments when I’m home from the workshop tomorrow.

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