Thankfully for us, Morris was a prolific public speaker, writer, and a prolific letter writer to boot. So we know a lot about his business as well as his world views and political ideas.
His correspondence with Thomas Wardle during the time the two experimented with natural dyes for Morris & Co prints at Wardle’s dye-works in Leek gives us a fascinating glimpse of the way he pursued his vision of manufacturing processes and product quality. Morris was totally obsessed with quality, as poor Wardle found out during their collaboration. 99% was just not good enough – Morris would not rest until he was 100% satisfied. What Morris does NOT mention in this context is any issues relating to the grey cotton cloth used for his prints. I think this is significant – if he had been unhappy in any way about the quality of the cloth he would have been quick to point this out to Wardle. So we can conclude that obtaining sufficient supplies of the types of cotton cloth he wanted was not a problem.
Morris was, of course, also a passionate campaigning socialist, and it was the poor, exploitative working conditions and miserable, unsanitary worker housing in Victorian England’s industrial heartlands that epitomised the ills of capitalism for him. So why did he never discuss the fact that his own business depended on the very system he was fighting?
One reason becomes evident once we compare his position with that of modern textile retailers: The big clothing brands that dominate our high streets did not suddenly, out of the goodness of their hearts, become concerned about poor working conditions in the factories that were making their clothes – they became concerned because they were getting bad press and were attacked in high-profile anti-sweatshop campaigns. So for modern retailers, attention to working conditions in supplier firms makes good business sense: they do not want their reputation tainted by being linked to sweatshops. Morris did not have this problem. Sure, many of his customers would have been aware that life was tough as a mill worker, and some may have been very supportive of legislative and/or philanthropic (“CSR” in today’s speak) measures to curb the excesses of industrial mass-production, but people did not appear to expect retail companies to use their business relationships to bring about change in their supply chains.
Given Morris’ strong socialist convictions and in particular his vision of meaningful, decent work as opposed to “useless toil” in “temples of over-crowding and adulteration and overwork”, let’s assume for a moment that he did indeed consider whether he should try and reduce his firm’s dependence on the mills he hated – maybe by trying to get his supplies from mills that offered better than average conditions (because there was undoubtedly a variation of conditions between individual mills, depending on the degree of the owner’s paternalism). What, if anything could he have done?
One thing is certain: as a small business, he would have had no leverage whatsoever to ask a spinning of weaving mill to change the way they treated their workers. He would have been one of a large number of customers, so if a mill lost Morris & Co’s business for not meeting Morris’ standards that wouldn’t have had any impact on its profitability. Plus the presence of the cloth agents as middle men meant Morris would have difficulty even finding out which mills were producing the cloth he wanted.
In theory, he could have travelled around Lancashire, visited factories and possibly identified those that offered comparatively better conditions to workers, but the cost, time and effort involved in this would have been completely disproportionate to the impact he would have had. In fact, he would not have changed anything amongst suppliers – his only achievement would have been to be able to say that his company was not benefiting from the worst practices in the industry. But most importantly, Morris would have had no interest in rewarding individual “less bad” mills – he wanted the whole system to change. That’s why he chose to spend a huge amount of time campaigning for the overthrow of capitalism, rather than demanding a “somewhat nicer capitalism”.
Of course, there is another way of reducing dependence on suppliers that do not meet your standards: bring it in-house. And this is what Morris did when he set up his production facilities in Merton Abbey, which housed not only dyeing and block-printing, but also carpet weaving and weaving of specialist fabrics such as silk brocades, silk/wool and silk/linen damasks, and Utrecht velvet. Morris brought dyeing and printing in-house because (a) he disliked the look of chemical dyes (b) he wanted to use traditional hand block printing techniques that had largely been displaced by industrial, multi-colour machine printing and (c) he wanted complete control over the process and outputs.
Hence, process and quality control – not working conditions – were the primary drivers for bringing dyeing and printing in-house. However, for Morris these aspects were intimately linked: the production of genuine, top-quality products in smaller quantities, using natural materials and craftsmanship, would by definition offer better work than factory mass production. Good working conditions in production certainly contributed to the ‘special’ image of Morris & Co prints – visitors would remark on this when they were shown round the Merton Abbey workshops: They were not nearly as cramped as an industrial shop floor, they were light and airy and the work, whilst often repetitive, did not approach the level of drudgery in the mills. Morris also prided himself of paying higher than average wages to all his employees. However, his correspondence, e.g. with Emma Lazarus, shows that he considered even his own workshops as falling short of his ideal of “useful work” and that he was frustrated that his firm was part of the capitalist process.
In many ways, Morris & Co was not unlike many modern-day ‘ethical’ textile entrepreneurs’: a relatively small business producing high-quality , relatively expensive products for a niche market, using excellent materials and environmentally friendly processes, and offering decent jobs. What is new today is that textile retailers are expected to look beyond their own production facilities and not use suppliers with bad labour practices. Morris’ customers did not have that expectation.
Morris’ challenge was not that labour issues might affect the brand reputation of Morris & Co (although some of his contemporaries argued he could have done more in his own workshops e.g. offer profit-sharing to employees). It was almost the reverse: the fact that he was a well-to-do capitalist could at times affect the credibility of his socialist campaigning work. On the other hand, his wealth allowed him to finance his activism, and his status added weight to the struggle. Morris acutely aware of this dilemma.
PS: If Morris & Co had been selling dresses, Morris might have had to consider reputational risk associated with immediate suppliers. The plight of Victorian needlewomen received much media attention in its day; this included including exposing the greed of retailers who paid self-employed seamstresses a pittance. Garment making is of course exactly the stage of the textile supply chain that also gets most of the attention today; the 19th century needlewoman in the garrett is now a garment factory worker in Bangladesh. I think there is something about the physical closeness of the clothes we wear that maybe makes us more thoughtful about who sewed them. Victorian consumers were ready to pity the poor, exploited, starving seamstresses and hope for their ‘salvation” by a do-gooder (usually a man), but much less likely to call for real measures that would systematically improve their conditions. And they would still expect the lowest price for their dresses. Plus ca change…