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What does Koolskools do?

AA: We are currently the only company in the UK that ONLY supplies school uniform made with Fairtrade cotton.  Our aim is to provide good quality and affordable Fairtrade cotton garments, while also offering an educational arm through speaking at assemblies, conferences and other school-orientated events.  Although this is an area we enjoy fulfilling, and would like to do more of, we must ensure that we offer this service only to schools that are customers or prospective customers, or we run a risk of losing sight of our business goals.

How do you operate?

We are based in Southampton and work with Fairtrade cotton co-operatives in India to supply the Fairtrade cotton for our garments, most of which is then sent to our principal factory in Mauritius, where the cotton is knitted into fabric, dyed and finished into school clothing and corporate wear.  We have embroidery machines at our premises so that we can maximise our supply and demand to schools and organisations across the UK.  By customising blank garments in multiple standard school colours here in the UK, we can offer schools smaller order quantities, reduced lead times and an online buying facility. We sell the uniform in three main ways: to the parents in schools on our doorstep here in Southampton at our retail outlet, or at school parents evenings; online to our client school parents UK-wide; or direct to our stock-holding client schools throughout the UK who then sell the uniform themselves.  

Why do you choose to be a fair trade organisation?

On a day-to-day basis, because it is rewarding and motivating to know that, for every item of Fairtrade cotton clothing we sell, we are doing some good in the developing world. We are supporting economically challenged developing country cotton farmers, their families and communities. We are also ensuring that our developing country clothing factory workers are getting a fair deal and decent working conditions, in an otherwise exploitative global clothing industry.

From a personal standpoint, as a former career diplomat co-ordinating small development projects in countries like Zimbabwe, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, I have seen just how far relatively small amounts of money can go in supporting deprived communities.  Consequently, when making the giant leap between the public and private sectors some ten years ago, it was probably inevitable that I would gravitate towards Fairtrade.  In terms of the motivations of my business partner, Mike Trodd, he tired of paying over the odds for school uniform for his children.  He also struggled with the idea that his children’s uniform could have been made by children in the developing world, so we decided jointly to act.

Andy Ashcroft

"We could clearly see how many different aspects of farming and community life had improved, including health, education, water wells, agricultural techniques, and improved usage of water." 

What do you consider Koolskool’s biggest challenge?

It is fair to say that Fairtrade cotton is one of the least commercially successful Fairtrade commodities. One of the main reasons for this is the complexity of the supply chain.  Every factory – from the ginners, the spinners, the knitters and dyers, to the finishers - has to invest in a Fairtrade Licence. This means that there tends to be a cost multiplier effect, so our biggest challenge is to keep our prices competitive. Thankfully, we have managed to do this over the first eight years of our business, and it is something that we are determined to maintain.

What has been your most inspiring encounter to date?

This would have to be meeting and working with one of the Fairtrade-licensed factory workers in Mauritius, Pamela Intelligent.  As with many of her peers, from the age of 13, Pamela worked in what we refer to as ‘sweatshop’ factories.  We met for the first time in 2013 during one of our ‘round-table’ sessions with factory workers to gain their views without managers present.

Pamela had been working in our facility for around a fortnight but she spoke compellingly of the difference between the factories in which she had spent most of her life, and the more comfortable conditions of her new working environment.  A couple of years later, the Scottish Fairtrade Forum asked us to recommend a producer as a speaker for Fairtrade Fortnight 2015 and we immediately thought of Pamela.

A few months later this remarkable woman, who had taught herself English as her third language by listening to the BBC World Service, found herself two days into her Scotland 2015 tour at the Glasgow City Chambers speaking to an audience of over 400 people.  Considering this was her first overseas trip, she did not falter while speaking about her previous working life.  This included her bravely explaining how she “spent 12-15 hours per day for a minimum of six hours per week on robotic production lines where I had to sew at least 1,000 collars on polo shirts before being allowed to go home.” 

It was an absolute privilege to hear Pamela speak of how her life had been transformed thanks to Fairtrade, and witnessing the huge impact she had on audiences that included the Lord Provosts of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the Minister for International Development.

What are your future ambitions for Koolskools and Fairtrade in general?

I would like the recent scepticism about Fairtrade in the media counteracted with some of the genuinely positive stories we see and hear on the ground.  For example, in 2014, Mike and I spent just over a week in India, including three days in Odisha, the heart of the Indian countryside.

In this region, hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers try to scrape a living from small plots of land. Cotton grows well so many people take a gamble and borrow money to buy cotton seeds, and fertilisers to plant a harvest in the hope that the cotton price stays high at harvest, which often it doesn’t.  Too few of these cotton farmers are part of the Fairtrade system, because less than 1% of clothes made with cotton carry the Fairtrade Cotton Mark.

It was great to meet some of the farmers that have supplied Fairtrade cotton for our project, working as part of co-operatives where, for example, women equalled men in committee member numbers.

We could clearly see how many different aspects of farming and community life had improved, including health, education, water wells, agricultural techniques, and improved usage of water.

In terms of hopes for the future, we would like to continue to grow our business so that we can help more farmers become part of the Fairtrade certification system.  We would love to help the hundreds of non-Fairtrade farmers in that Indian community in particular, who were literally queueing at the door, all wanting to join their local Fairtrade co-operative.

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