Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The high price of cheap stuff - what we can do

Not many people seemed to hear about the Tazreen factory fire that killed 112 workers and injured hundreds more last November. For a few months it was Bangladesh's worst ever industrial disaster; of course that dreadful title now belongs to the Rana Plaza factory collapse. As shocking as these catastrophes are, they don't come as a surprise to anyone who takes an interest in international workers' rights. These were accidents waiting to happen, and the companies who flog the products of these sweatshops to insatiable Western consumers knew it. The business models of Primark, Walmart, Matalan, and the rest, are built on a foundation of exploitation. They consciously, deliberately, put profits before human lives. And we know it too, but most of us prefer not to think about it.

In fact, modern globalised consumer capitalism is entirely dependent on us preferring not to think about it. Companies do their best to hide the environmental and human costs of producing the goods we buy, and for the most part we make this very easy for them by not wanting to know about it anyway. We don't ask the difficult questions because we like to get a t-shirt for £2 and since all the suffering is far away in a foreign country it's easy to keep our consciences quiet. We don't ask the questions because we know that if we did, once we'd seen and heard the answers, we wouldn't be able to carry on shopping for fun. The knowledge would make our lives more difficult, more complicated, and so we avoid it and willingly play along with the powers that want to keep us ignorant.

It's appalling that it's taken a devastating factory disaster to make it happen, but it's good to see the connection between cheap clothing and exploitation of workers being made in the mainstream media this week. It's heartening, too, to see sewing bloggers wondering what they can do. And yes, supporting a new workers' co-operative or donating money to a charity campaigning for international labour rights could help. Certainly we can all spare a few seconds to sign a petition. If you want to you can even use your sewing skills to protest. These are all good things to do - as steps on the way to fundamental change. I think there's a danger that one-off "actions" like making a donation or signing a petition, even done with the most sincere good intentions, become subtle ways to quieten our troubled consciences down again, so that we can return to business as usual and tell ourselves we've done what we can.

The trouble is that there's no simple answer, nothing's really black-and-white, and everything is connected. It's complicated, and that makes people switch off. Also there's the small matter of our society being so steeped in the toxic stew of consumerism that we're barely aware that it isn't the natural order of things. Big business rules, and our political leaders and the mainstream media never acknowledge the possibility of another way. We're constantly bombarded with our instructions: shopping is your patriotic duty; the Market is a mysterious monster that we must feed, because if it dies it'll take us all down with it; be a good little drone, work hard, then reward yourself by buying stuff - you're worth it - and p.s. just don't ask where it all came from or how we made it so cheap.

But hundreds of people have just been killed making some of that stuff, we see the wreckage and the blood and the bodies and the grief on our television screens, and we find that we can't help asking. Our innate care for our fellow people has been shocked into wakefulness, and just for a moment the clamour for the latest-bargain-must-have-celebrity-endorsed-whatever is seen in all its true crass irrelevance. Now we have to make sure that we really are asking, that we really want to know, and that we really are understanding the answers. It's not enough to just intellectually comprehend the facts; we have to take it all in and let it make us feel something, so that we can't ignore it. It's our responsibility as humans, I think, to do this work.

I was brought up in a household where at least some thought was given to what was bought and where it came from - for example, my parents never bought South African fruit when I was little and the reason for this was carefully explained to me - so responsible consumption was perhaps an easy idea for me to grasp. But I remember having a turning-point moment with clothes shopping in particular: it must have been spring 2000, and there had been something in the news not long before about big companies exploiting workers in Asian factories. It certainly involved Nike but Gap might have been implicated too (as they are again, by the way, in the Tazreen fire). I was visiting my grandparents in New York, and I was out shopping. Actually I've never been much of a shopper but the exchange rate was somewhere around $2 to £1, meaning that everything in Gap there was half the price it was here - too much of a bargain for a student to pass up. So there I was in Gap considering a little stripy vest top, and I looked at the label (I can't remember if I was actually looking to see where it was made, with the news story in mind, or if I was just checking the fibre content), and it said "Made in Sri Lanka". I remember having a physical reaction to that - just a small kind of sinking feeling in the stomach, nothing dramatic - because suddenly the people being paid peanuts to churn out clothes for Westerners in dangerous factories weren't just any people, they were my people. On one side of my family I'm Sri Lankan Tamil. Now, no close relatives live there, I've only visited once, and I'm not terribly invested in the idea of national identity (besides, the Sri Lankan government is doing its best to eradicate the Tamil population). But still, in that moment, the name "Sri Lanka" was enough for me to feel a human connection to the anonymous worker who'd sewn the vest I was holding. I could form a clear mental image of what that person might look like, and get an imaginary glimpse of their possible suffering. I had a thought along the lines of there but for the grace of [god?] go I. Reluctantly, I put the top down and left the store.

My consumption habits weren't revolutionised overnight, by any means (I brought home several new H&M purchases in my suitcase that time), but it was the start of something. I started to actively seek information about where and how things were manufactured, and gradually that knowledge has transformed the way I consume. I'm certainly not perfect and in fact I don't even know what "perfect" would look like - there are so many interrelated factors to consider and every solution is a compromise. All of the better alternatives are still part of the same socio-economic system, which is unsustainable and unethical at its very core. I don't believe that the world can be saved by merely tweaking consumer capitalism. "Ethical consumerism" is an absurd oxymoron. But...

What can we do? We do all have to consume, there's no choice about that. We need to eat, we must clothe ourselves, we have to build homes and maintain them, just for a start. So let's draw a distinction between consumerism and consumption, and perhaps that will be helpful. Be a human being who by nature must consume, but don't be a Consumer.

  • One of the most basic (and most difficult) things we can all do is to buy less unnecessary stuff. My favourite trick for making this one work is to not go shopping. There are so many better ways to spend your time! I now hardly ever go into a shop just to browse, and I even avoid jumble sales and the trendy vintage fairs. The less I shop, the easier it is to not shop. Watch The Story Of Stuff if you haven't before. Read The High Price Of Materialism to discover why shopping doesn't make you happy anyway (here's a video introduction). Know when someone's trying to sell you something (it's not always immediately obvious). "Mistrust all enterprises that require new clothes."
  • When I do buy something, I try to find a better option than the standard one. There are lots of different issues to consider and you'll have to choose your own compromises (here's an interesting post about one person's rationale).  Lots of things can be bought (or even got for free) second-hand. I can get almost every clothing item I need/want from a source that is at least either organic or fairly traded, often both: try People Tree, Liv, Frank & Faith, Gossypium. Most of these clothes are much better quality than the cheap high-street versions and last longer. Know that expensive clothes do get made in sweatshops too - the price tag isn't a reliable measure of exploitation, so you have to do your research.
  • I try to make myself picture the reality behind an "issue". So I don't just think of the issue of child labour, because that's only words; I try to summon up a detailed mental image of an actual child working on the thing that I find myself wanting to buy even though I know it's a product of exploitation. Then I don't want to buy it any more. Or I think of what I'm asking someone else to forfeit in order for me to have some trendy item that I supposedly "need". That word need can be a useful thought-tool in itself - my "need" for an item is hardly ever any match for someone else's need for fair pay and safe working conditions.
  • Make do and mend. Care for the things you own, and repair them to make them last as long as possible. When they can't be used any more salvage whatever you can for re-use - all those materials took resources and human labour and shouldn't be wasted.
  • Think back along the supply chain. The final manufacturing stage is only part of the story. I know a lot of crafters have felt a personal connection to the Rana Plaza victims because many of them were seamstresses, women sitting at sewing machines. Use that connection to motivate you, but think beyond the sweatshop seamstresses to the people in the fabric weaving/knitting factory, and even to the cotton farm workers. If you choose to do the sewing part yourself, that's great, but give some thought to the fabric you buy. There are plenty of better alternatives out there - perhaps I'll do a separate post about more ethical crafting supplies, but for now have a look at the Organic Cotton shop.
OK, this post has gone on long enough (hey, a diatribe was overdue) and I suspect I've waffled a bit and not made anything very clear. But as Kathryn said, one of the things we can do in response to the tragedy in Dhaka is to keep talking about the issues it raises, so this is my contribution to that. If you've read this far, thank you! And please do share your thoughts on your own blog or in the comments here.


  1. A thoughtful piece. Thank you. I'm one of those people advocating repair and mending as one way to be a conscientious consumer. Do check out my blog, if you have a moment.

  2. An interesting read. Thank you for the links in the article. I will definitely check them out.

  3. Thank you - This was a really good read for me! I so agree that the best way to curb consumerism is to just not go shopping. I too enjoy the story of stuff! But somethings I just do not make my self like cotton socks and the other day I had to pick some up at the H&M. The racks and racks of little children's clothes really bothered me, first of all where does it all come from and where does it go from here? Another issue of course is the suggestiveness of the little girl clothes. Does a 10 yr old really need a bra?
    We really need to find another way to consume. The way we live now is pretty much like a yeast culture and anyone who has left a bread dough to long on the counter knows what happens when the yeast run out of nutrients ...
    Its so hard though, to write and talk about these things - I so often feel like talking about "green" issues gets ridiculed and that those of us who do, get singled out as "crunchy", "liberal" , "alternative", "nutty" or "downers" The list could go on actually. But lets keep talking about it here in the blogosphere! Lets share and repost each other on these issues.
    I will certainly try to find the time to write about this even more directly than I have before!