During our Friday sessions, some of our time has been set aside to discuss issues of social justice. Each of us will have the opportunity to lead the conversation on a matter that’s important to us, and Elisabeth continued the series by sharing about Ethical Consumption.
Growing up, one of my favorite family traditions occurred not on a holiday, but the day after one. Early in the morning, when it was still dark, my sisters and I would climb from our beds, bundle up, and jump into the car my dad had warming up. As we shook the sleep from our eyes, he drove us from store to store where we tracked down the deals we saw in store ads the day before. For a long time, Black Friday was almost as magical as Christmas for me.
I’ve retained my thrifty mentality and the fond memories I have of spending time with family, but I’ve also been challenged to interrogate the mentality that pulled me from my bed so early in search of more. As a kid, I didn’t give much thought to where that coveted Barbie toy came from or how it was made. Similarly, as I got older, it was hard for me to spare much care for anything beyond the price a tank top or cute dress. In the rows upon rows of businesses that stretch across our country, few dedicate attention to the narrative attached to merchandise that ends up on the shelves, and yet a story does exist whether we see it or not, whether we know it or not. Though it’s true that we need certain things to function in our lives, I have begun a journey to scrutinize the way that I acquire those necessities, finding that some of them are not necessities at all. This journey has expanded my network of awareness beyond my place in the aisle of a store, making me see connections I didn’t know about before.
Six Degrees of Separation
In the work, Six Degrees of Separation, playwright John Guare assembles a small cast of characters to grapple with the idea that any person can be connected to another by way of six connections between them. This belief creates a web that crisscrosses between all people, pulling us together from opposite ends of the world. One of the main characters, Ouisa Kitteridge, sums up the idea below:
Ouisa Kitteridge: ‘I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names…I am bound, you are bound, to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.’
– John Guare
With this in mind, think of yourself as a circle with numerous concentric circles surrounding you. Not only are other people six degrees of separation from you, but so are animals and nature. Aware of these connections, how do we answer these questions:
- What does it mean to be an ethical consumer?
- Who or what is affected by ethical or unethical consumption?
An Additional Perspective
(Click “Watch on Vimeo” if the link doesn’t show up)
*There are certain views expressed in this video that may be uncomfortable and footage that is not necessarily sensitive. In addition to the main points of the video worth pulling from, I think it’s worth having a conversation about the moments where the producers could have made different choices in their video so as not to enforce stereotypes and to preserve the dignity of people they represent.
Ethical Consumption: “Being an ethical consumer means, at least, understanding something about how the products we buy were made and then brought to market.”
Who’s responsible for creating an ethical work environment, and what factors influence those decisions? (Below are some of the actors in the supply chain):
- How does the video display cultural difference explicitly? Implicitly?
- Who has power in the supply chain? How is power handled?
Just One Angle
From the moment you become aware of these ethical problems, it can be overwhelming to think about how to go about changing your approach to consumption. One piece of wisdom I learned from a friend is to alter a little piece at a time. While few of us can completely overhaul the way we shop, perhaps all of us can think of one item that we can begin applying more attention to.
Maybe that’s coffee and tea. Maybe it’s chocolate. When we discussed this topic, my housemates decided to focus on fashion and look at the way familiar (and unfamiliar) brands measured up. You can do that here.
Additionally, you can read about some specific issues affecting the fashion industry below:
There is little or no transparency on the conditions behind common processes in most supply chains in the clothing industry. Baptist World Aid and Not For Sale’s 2013 document, The Australian Fashion Report, identified that out of 128 clothing brands, 61% of companies do not know where their garments are manufactured; 76% not know where their garments are weaved, knitted and dyed; and 93% do not know where their cotton is sourced from.
Conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop. (A global spend of $2.6 billion each year). This is more than 10 per cent of the world’s pesticides and nearly 25 per cent of the world’s insecticides. Many of these are the most hazardous pesticides on the market including aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos and endosulfan. These pesticides can poison farm workers, drift into neighboring communities, contaminate ground and surface water and kill beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms.
Sandblasting is what gives your jeans the worn-out look. Under the sandblasting process the denim is smoothed, shaped and cleaned by forcing abrasive particles across it at high speeds. This fashion however comes at a price: the health and even the lives of sandblasting workers.
Sandblasting causes silicosis which the World Health Organization states leads to lung fibrosis and emphysema. In later stages the critical condition can become disabling and is often fatal.
The International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation launched its campaign to eliminate the use of sandblasting in the garment industry in 2009. In 2010 both Levi’s and H&M jointly decided to eliminate the process from their supply chains representing a major breakthrough in the campaign.
Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth largest producer of cotton, and the fifth largest exporter. For decades, Uzbekistan has used the forced labor of its schoolchildren starting in the early primary grades, college and university students, and civil servants, to harvest that cotton by hand. The human rights concerns surrounding Uzbek cotton production has lead to a ‘call for a boycott’ of Uzbek cotton from Uzbek and international activists. Around 70 per cent of Uzbekistan cotton is sold to Bangladesh and China, where it is turned into fabric to be used in clothes, sheets and other cotton products to be sold into countries such as Australia.
There are 14 countries where cotton is produced using child labour. Child workers in the cottonseed industry are often in a state of debt bondage and work at least nine hours a day. Pesticides used during production cause health problems for the children and they report experiencing headaches, convulsions and respiratory problems. The long-term effects of exposure to toxic chemicals have not been measured.
There is little transparency as to which clothing items are made by workers who are paid fairly and which clothes are made in sweatshop conditions. Modern-day slavery, which currently affects more than 30 million people, is used throughout the production of many clothing products sold on Australian shelves.
WORKING HOURS. Long working hours and forced overtime are a major concern among garment workers. Factory managers typically push employees to work between 10 and 12 hours, sometimes 16 to 18 hours a day. A seven-day working week is becoming the norm during the peak season, particularly in China, despite limits placed by the law.
WAGES. The majority of workers in the global fashion industry, rarely earn more than two dollars a day. Many have to work excessive hours for this meagre amount and struggle to properly feed, clothe and educate their families. The problem is complicated further when the millions of piece- rate workers and homeworkers within the industry are considered. When workers are paid by the number of garments they produce, rather than the number of hours they work, it becomes near-impossible to earn a living wage during a working week.
Women in El Salvador are paid just 29 cents for each $140 Nike NBA jersey they sew. To pay them a living wage, they would earn 58 cents per shirts, 4/10ths of one percent of the retail cost of the shirt.
*From Shop Ethical
Just the Start
We’ve come a long way from the aisle of the store, expanding out to see how many forms of life —people, animals, nature— are affected by the choices we make in the marketplace. But it’s not all despair. Even with giant corporations and government influences on the way the market runs, we should not underestimate the power and responsibility we have as consumers. This is just the start—next week we’ll continue the discussion as we consider just how much power we do have, how we can use it, and some other complications that factor in to the way we can change this system to no longer do damage to those around us, to those with whom we are connected.
Please join the conversation in the comments below. Have I missed something or misspoken? Please let me know!
Above image by Neon Tommy, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.