This is the post promised in my quick mention previously of the wool campaign of HRH the Prince of Wales.
Chapter 3 of V&R is about “feel good fashion” and mentions briefly a couple of Belgian companies trying to ensure fair dealings both with customers and suppliers. Belgium has a long tradition of business following what the Germans call Mittelstand. A good summary of Mittelstand and its anchoring of the German economy is found at (http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703509104576329643153915516). It might be summarized as “community first economics.”
I am not sure what regulation, inheritance law, and tax policy makes this model of business possible but its ethos is reflected in Scheler’s idea of the estate, a model of business I defend extensively in Chapter 5.
Wool for Millicent is a start-up by a Belgian designer and entrepreneur, Kat Lauwers. Her business is young but continues Belgian tradition. I have known Kat for many years. Her business has a cool logo, I think:
Kat shares a sensibility with Prince Charles. Her business website explains: “The creations of Wool for Millicent are simple-hearted, refined, and sustainable.”
Distributist ethics – developed at the start of the twentieth century by thinkers like Belloc, Chesterton, and Scheler – was surely influenced by Mittelstand. Contemporary Belgian “feel good fashion” shares an axiom with distributism: “Wool for Millicent works with sustainable suppliers for the wool and is committed to uphold socially and environmentally responsible business.”
Another axiom of distributist ethics is localism: business should be in the community, its production and service affirming the lives of locals. This simplifies supply-chains, aiding sustainability. Tolkien’s Shire, a reimagining of his childhood and a celebration of non-industrial farming, offers a handy visualization. In his Letters, Tolkien points to Wiltshire villages as his inspiration for Hobbiton. The layout of these villages is very much in evidence to this day though the luxury living they now represent is surely very far from the distributist ideal of community business. It is highly likely that fully paid up members of the global economy now populate the most pristine Wiltshire villages.
The localist axiom sets a high bar. The Prince of Wales supports Corgi, the Welsh sock company. It is a family-run company manufacturing in the same town where it began selling “Sunday Best” socks to miners over a hundred years ago. Wales provides ready access to sheep and surely the company meets distributism’s localist criterion (the website offers no details of its business plan but I assume Prince Charles’s patronage and the fact that sheep are found in most fields of Britain means that its wool suppliers are local).
In Belgium, matters are trickier and Kat Lauwers has had to develop an “extended” model. She gets supplies of wool from Italy, Ireland, and Peru, and because the latter involves high transport and environmental costs she gets supplies there just once a year; pointedly, the company she works with there has a vision and mission for its local community.
Even the wool from Italy and Ireland has an “extended” component: the wool comes from Australia though it is washed, dyed, and spun in Europe. For production itself, she relies on a business owned and run by, and employing, women, in a rural and undeveloped part of the Czech Republic. All other services, like publicity, folders, boxes, pins, labels, are sourced from suppliers in Belgium.
Though not localist, Wool for Millicent has nonetheless worked hard to partner with companies that are socially and environmentally responsible in their own locality.
To move more directly to a localist ideal, and to better understand the supply chain of wool handling, Kat Lauwers has recently been buying merino wool from a French shepherd in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and has it washed, dyed, and spun in a micro mill in Namur, in the French-speaking part of Belgium, not far from her home. This is a recent innovation and the wool from this source only forms a small part of her current collection, but the model has worked well and will be repeated.
Distributist ethics has other features and I will discuss these some other time. Wool for Millicent is a young company with a moral centre and though it does not match exactly Scheler’s estate or distributism, it sits firmly in Belgian tradition, inspired by Mittelstand.