Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cheap fashion - what does it cost?

We have an insatiable appetite for cheap fashion. I've heard friends say, "This store is great for throwaway clothes." I've seen fashion magazine covers scream, "Guilt-free buys under $20." I've seen a lifestyle journalist comment (repeatedly) that fashion purchases are so cheap, they're "practically free."

These comments assume that the only cost of cheap fashion is the cost to our wallets and that the only reason we may feel guilty about purchasing cheap fashion is that we're spending our potential savings or racking up more credit. The Australian mainstream media today ran a "cheap fashion" story, with the long (and poorly punctuated) title "The twin test: One twin is wearing a $199 Cue dress the other is in a $50 Target dress. Can you tell the difference?" The focus of the article was the aesthetic differences between the two dresses - the fit, the cut and the feel of the fabric. While mention was made of the country of manufacture (the $199 dress is made in Australia by an accredited Ethical Clothing Australia brand, whereas the cheaper dress is a cotton/elastane mix and was made in China), no comment was made about the possible implications for labour conditions.

One reason the "Twin Test" article resonated so much with me today is that it was juxtaposed against the horrific news of more than one hundred deaths in a factory fire in Bangladesh. Twelve of those people died after jumping from windows to escape the fire (due to a lack of emergency exits). I'm not trying to suggest that the cheap Target dress in the article above is linked to factory worker deaths, or even that Target uses factories with unsafe labour practices and conditions. Target Australia, like many big brands, has an Ethical Sourcing Code, which is very easy to find and download from their website. This is self-monitored, as per the guidebook to their code:

"Target will monitor compliance with this Code, and we, or our representatives, may visit factories to ensure compliance with this policy. Any violations of our Code will be reported to the vendor for follow up and corrective action. Vendors are required to cooperate with the entire process. Where there are egregious violations and/or the vendor/factory does not demonstrate a willingness to comply, Target reserves the right to discontinue business with the vendor/factory."

This monitoring seems pretty wishy-washy to me. They "may" visit factories to ensure compliance, they "reserve the right to discontinue business" in the case of "egregious violations." I'm not trying to pick on (or target) Target in particular. I only mention them because they are featured in the "Twin Test" article and I thought they would be fairly representative of other big Australian retailers. (Out of interest, I spent a few minutes searching the Myer and David Jones website but was unable to find any ethical sourcing policy, just mentions of their philanthropic works. K Mart has an Ethical Sourcing Code, similarly worded to Target's, which is unsurprising as they are both subsidiaries of the same company. I could not find a similar policy on Big W's website.)

What I am saying is that our appetite for cheap fashion, and retailers' desire to feed that appetite, means that manufacturers have to produce garments more and more cheaply. This inevitably means that somewhere along the line, corners are cut, and the least empowered workers are the ones who ultimately suffer. Most (nearly all) big labels and chain stores out-source the production of their garments to third parties. This way, when disasters such as today's factory fire occur, the label can protect their brand name and wash their hands by severing their ties with that factory and condemning its unsafe practices.

How do you ensure that the people who made your fashion did so in a safe working environment, under fair conditions? Unfortunately, this sort of information does not appear on a clothing label along with the washing instructions. There is nothing to distinguish whether it was made in a "good" or "bad" factory. When I'm in a store and spot clothing I like, the first thing I look for is the place of manufacture (yes, even before the price). Unless it's made locally or fair trade, I will avoid it. Individual items of clothing may be more expensive but I am buying far fewer clothes than previously. The only way to ensure that workers are treated fairly is for consumers to demand it and to be willing to pay more for fashion that is produced under better conditions.

Even the "Twin Test" article concedes, "...cheap clothing can often cost more in the end because enthusiastic bargain-hunters buy more items than they really need." It's a pity the more important, human, cost is not mentioned.

As usual, this post is longer than I intended, with half the content. Another post on this topic, and a page with reading suggestions, coming soon!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Buy Nothing Day

Today was Buy Nothing Day. I bought nothing. I feel that I cheated a little, in that I didn't go near any retail or entertainment districts. However, yesterday I did brave the one day sale "event" of the big department store here in Perth. Whereas in previous years I would have fallen victim to heavy discounts on electronics, manchester, luggage, cosmetics and fashion, yesterday I just felt a bit ill about joining in the consumer frenzy and accumulating more stuff. I am finding it very easy to avoid buying new clothes, as I am currently reading To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? by Lucy Siegle, about the environmental and human costs of garment production - not only of cheap, "fast fashion" labels but also of luxury brands.  I thought I already had pretty strict criteria for new clothing and accessory purchases (ethically made in Australia, made in a developed country or fair trade) but reading about the cotton and leather industries has put me off completely. 

Even staying away from stores today, I was bombarded via my RSS feeder to SAVE SAVE SAVE in online Black Friday sales from the USA. Black Friday sales occur in the USA (and even Canada) on the day after American Thanksgiving - Friday 23rd November this year. (Buy Nothing Day coincides with Black Friday in North America, as opposed to other countries where it is held on Saturday.) This year, some big businesses commenced their Black Friday sales on Thursday (Thanksgiving). The Seattle Times interviewed some people who left their family celebrations early to line up for sales (probably to buy gifts for the same family members they've abandoned with the cold turkey). Consumers will have a little time to rest up over the weekend before the onslaught of Cyber Monday online sales (an event that Australia's big retailers tried, and failed, to emulate this week with "Click Frenzy" aka #ClickFail).

Buy Nothing Day is not the only protest against Black Friday. As I mentioned in my previous post, Occupy Christmas is a movement to encourage consumers to purchase from local, independent designers and retailers, instead of "big box" retailers and global brands. Small Business Saturday, the day following Black Friday, also encourages North American consumers to patronise their local businesses. (It was founded in 2010 by American Express - think what you will about that.)

Online lifestyle retailer Holstee are promoting the idea of Block Friday to replace Black Friday, encouraging consumers to be mindful of how they spend their money and "seizing an important chance to spend quality time with friends, loved ones, and ourselves". True to their word, Holstee take their store offline on Black Friday, to allow their staff to spend time with loved ones. (Discovered via Unconsumption.)

This year on Black Friday, there were multiple demonstrations outside Walmart stores, protesting for better wages and conditions for Walmart's employees. You can support them here via the Story of Stuff site. Time will tell whether pay and benefits for employees of America's big retailers, many of whom live under the poverty line, will improve.

As for me, I will be following up Buy Nothing Day by attending local handmade design markets tomorrow, followed by a community street festival. I don't think my wallet will stay closed for long but at least the purchases will be thoughtful.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Occupy Christmas

A wise colleague told me earlier this year that we must "decry the rampant materialism" that has led to individualism.

The local TV news last night reported that there are 39 days until Christmas, then warned those us who have not commenced Christmas shopping that we had better start now. They also reported that residents of my state (Western Australia) are expected to spend $5 billion this Christmas (based on this report by the Australian Retailers Association). While I don't begrudge local retailers and producers a living, I do wonder how many Christmas gifts, decorations, cards and other purchases will end up in the bin long before next Christmas rolls around.

In 2012, Saturday November 24th is Buy Nothing Day. I first heard about BND via Adbusters magazine, which I used to read in Borders on Oxford Street. (Appropriately, I never purchased it.) BND is a protest against consumerism. It will be nearly impossible for most people reading this blog to buy nothing for one day because most of us are continuously paying things like rent, mortgage, insurance, utilities, education fees, phone bills and so on. However, it is possible to plan your day so you are not buying any food, drinks, fuel or "stuff" on BND.

A variation on BND is Occupy Christmas. This movement encourages us to purchase locally produced goods from independent retailers. Visit design markets, small independent stores and farmers markets and you won't be disappointed.

Will you give Buy Nothing Day or Occupy Christmas a go? I've found that participating in Buy Nothing New Month is still having a positive influence on my purchasing patterns.

I leave you with the words of the "world's poorest president", Jose Mujica of Uruguay, who decries the model of consumption in rich countries. He is interviewed in yesterday's BBC News Magazine:

"I'm called 'the poorest president', but I don't feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more. This is a matter of freedom. If you don't have many possessions then you don't need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself. I may appear to be an eccentric old man... But this is a free choice."

Friday, November 2, 2012

Meat Eater

This is the first of a series of posts about food. My diet has changed considerably over the past few years, largely informed by various books and documentaries about food politics and food ethics. I postponed reading Peter Singer and Jim Mason's The Ethics of What We Eat until last year, concerned that it would "turn me vegan" (in the way that I was moved by Singer's The Life You Can Save). I admire my vegan friends but I'm still eating meat, despite compelling arguments against it and pretty unsubstantial arguments in support of it. Here I try to figure out why.

Growing up, I ate what was probably a standard Aussie diet - meat and two veg every evening and the occasional meat product in my lunchtime sandwich (although polony and chicken loaf are stretching the definition of "meat"). Typical dinner offerings from mum's kitchen included pork chops, lamb chops, spaghetti bolognese, fish fingers, grilled chicken wings and, for special occasions, steak and eggs. For most of my life, I felt that a lunch or dinner without meat was incomplete.

I remember the meat industry TV advertisements of my childhood. like the catchy "Get Some Pork on Your Fork" (and the less catchy "Pork - The Other White Meat"). There was the one featuring a before-she-was-famous Naomi Watts turning down dinner with Tom Cruise* because "Mum's doing a lamb roast." Then there was Sam the sexist butcher and the dorky Dad cooking an exotic beef stir-fry.

I don't notice as many meat ads now (except a dancing Sam Neill praising red meat for its "evolutionary benefits" and that angry racist lamb guy) but I guess the meat companies don't need to push themselves in TV ads because they can get to us through our voracious appetite for fast food and TV cooking shows. In the Masterchef All Stars Finale (one of the highest-rating TV shows in Australia), the first challenge was to cook a "family feast". When eventual winner Callum Hann announces that he is cooking a vegetarian feast (because his sister is a vegetarian and they always have vegetarian meals at family gatherings), some of the other contestants are incredulous (skip to 10:25 in this video). The judges eventually persuade him to cook a meat dish, insinuating that he cannot win if he cooks a vegetarian meal. I was very disappointed by this. Surely it would demonstrate superior skill to cook a vegetarian feast to satisfy fourteen meat-eating judges?

So, why should I meat? (Hmm...insert graphic of tumbleweed...crickets chirping too...)
  • Um, it tastes good and I enjoy it. Not a very convincing argument. 
  • I've heard arguments that farm animals will go extinct if we don't eat them - that seems pretty silly. Some of the animals that have been selectively bred to maximise meat production in the shortest lifespan have horrible, painful lives because of their bizarre anatomy. Also many non-farm animals are made extinct by clearing farmland to farm animals. 
  • Yes, meat is a good source of protein but most of us eat many times more meat than is required for adequate protein intake. A vegetarian diet can easily provide adequate protein.
  • One of the best arguments I've seen for (or at least to justify) meat eating is one by Jay Bost that won a reader competition in the New York Times earlier this year about the ethics of eating meat (and judged by some of my heroes including Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and Peter Singer). He sums up the purpose of this entire blog post succinctly (had I known about it earlier, I might not have bothered).
I can think of many arguments against eating meat:
  • The cruelty (not just of killing animals but the inhumane conditions under which they are raised). 
  • The huge amount of water consumed, when millions of humans don't have access to clean water.
  • The huge amount of feed consumed, when millions of people are starving.
  • The massive amounts of pollution from factory farms.
  • The land cleared for farming.
  • The health benefits of a vegetarian diet.

My compromise is to eat less meat - once per week is my current target. I only eat organic or free range poultry, eggs and pig (which does not include "bred free range") and grass-fed beef. (Organic certification in Australia requires the animals to range freely on pasture.) I try to purchase this from farmers' markets, where I can talk directly to the farmer. My next aim is to visit some of the farms. When dining out, if the restaurant cannot guarantee the animal ingredients are free range then I stick to a vegetarian option.

I have not gone into seafood and non-farmed animals here - I'll save those for another time.

I have only been doing this for 18 months or so but I have found it easy to adhere to these rules and I find it has made my diet more interesting. I appreciate meat much more than I did previously. If I'm wavering over (non-free range) bacon and eggs on a breakfast menu, I just picture the cruel conditions under which these animals are raised.

Animals Australia recently launched a "Make It Possible" campaign to end factory farming, featuring (Australian) celebrities. You can take a pledge to refuse factory-farmed meat, eat less meat, go meat-free or donate to the cause.

*Younger readers: It is difficult to imagine but in the 1980s, dinner with Tom Cruise was considered a desirable prize for many women.