Tuesday 18 January 2011

The Nature of The Beast

(image sourced here)

A couple of weeks ago via the medium of blogging, I raised the issue of consumerism and tried to provide a definition of it. I also attempted to indicate that it is one in a large group of interlinked issues that are contributing to potentially irresversible ecological damage and exploitation of some of the inhabitants of developing nations. The many thought provoking and heart-felt comments that blog post received (thanks so much! Keep 'em coming!) really emphasised to me this myriad of interwoven global concerns.

If it is at all possible to do so, I think it would be beneficial to attempt to outline these main topics that we are dealing with. As I say, these issues and problems are clearly entwined, some causing and/or perpetuating others. Therefore it is pretty much impossible to research or discuss one in isolation. That said, I do see it as advantageous to try to define particular topics and threads, because they can provide an 'in' for our investigations, self-education and discussions. Without having somewhere to start (or a key-word to type in!), the whole big mess looks pretty daunting, and even potentially hopeless.

So, as far as I can figure out, here are the main topics that those interested in sustainability are concerned with:

  • The exploitation of workers in developing countries, many of whom work in dangerous and unpleasant conditions for excessive lengths of time with little or no security, breaks, holiday etc. for very low wages to produce the goods that shoppers in developed countries are then able to purchase at low cost.
  • The disposibility of consumer goods, either due to their design and lifestyle application, or because of perceived 'value'.
  • Environmental damage resulting from the sourcing of raw materials, production processes and tranportation of products.
  • Insufficient recycling schemes in many areas.
  • Landfills, areas of countryside, towns and bodies of water clogged with discarded products and packaging.
  • Lack of agreement within or legislation from our governments and international organisations to enforce corporations or individuals responsible to implement positive changes.
  • The grip of power corporations have over our goverments and economies which prevents action in the interest of the environment or human rights over profit.
  • Lack of consensus about what, if anything, we can do as groups or individuals to change the current situation.
  • Lack of easily accessible knowledge on who/what/how to avoid the most damaging companies/products/services.
  • Limited or lacking education for young people on how to live sustainably and economically (for example, sewing, cooking, gardening or DIY lessons in schools).
  • The way in which the media and advertising (working for companies looking to expand market share and profit) invent, perpetuate and exaggerate both the view that we are entitled to whatever we want, and the confusion between the concepts of 'want' VS 'need'. Also, the perception that old and secondhand things are subsequently 'dirty' and to be avoided or discarded, and that new things hold a higher value, even if they are inferior in quality.

The comments I received from my 'Consumerism and Craft' post included many fascinating thoughts and ideas on what could be done to implement change, and lots of useful sources of information and links. All of this I will address and investigate in blog posts to come, which I hope will instigate more sharing of thoughts and information. This post, however, as you can see is basically just a list of issues. If you feel I have missed a related and important issue that doesn't come under the points I above, please leave a comment. Let's figure out what the hell we are dealing with here.


Anonymous said...

Here is a fantastic book that judges and grades companies and manufacturers. He does a good job and includes most of the problems you addressed here.

I shop fair trade or local whenever possible (Although I've cut back on my purchases of 'new' things). But this is a great book to have in your purse at the grocery store. It's nice to be able to avoid the Grade 'F's at the least.
Personally I've found it fairly easy to try to change one part of my life at a time. First to only fair trade tea, then accessories (which was really easy because I started volunteering at a nearby Ten Thousand Villages which has so much cute stuff), I've been working on cutting out bad clothing and shoe companies as well.

purpleshoes said...

This is something I basically went to university to figure out (I was a development studies/area studies major) and I still don't have it pinned down, which is frustrating. I'm not against, for instance, trading with Asia, I'm not against the existence of assembly lines, I'm not against factory jobs - I'm from the former sock-making capitol of America, I know the value of a manufacturing job to a rural town. The closest I can come up with is the speed question - whether a shirt is something made of polyester mesh that's cut and sewn by people who are also considered eminently replaceable. I don't want my shirts to be disposable and I don't want the workers who make the shirts to be disposable, and I don't want the land where the cotton grows to be disposable either. It's a problem to pin down, though, because it's a question of degree.

Thanks for your interesting posts on this - and this blog in general, I have finally gotten my sewing machine tuned up and set out due to this blog and a couple of blogs on your blogroll!

Anonymous said...

ohh can't wait! will be great to have a blog exploring these issues!

Isis said...

thank you.

perhaps a point to include is how people just Want. So. Much. Stuff. i think our desire to consume is completely driven by media which has basically brainwashed us. this is the cause for most of your other points

Ruby Star said...

Hi there, i totally love that you are covering this, i was just explaining to my kids about sweat shops etc and how buying from thrifts shops was the best thing for the environment. We turned on the TV this arvo and on the news we were told how Townsville residents are being urged to buy from thrift shops to cut back on land fill. Hooray!
I think the best thing I can do as a parent is to teach my children about this and to show them how to sew. We were taught in primary and high school how to read a pattern and make garments. I don't think i'ts taught these days :(
But my other issue is buying fabric from the massive fabric chain stores here. I can't help but feel that the fabric itself is made from unethical means. Am I just being paranoid or completely uneducated on the matter? Can you help out with the best places to buy ethic fabric from? Thanks Zo x

Sophia said...

I'd say there's something you missed off the list. Namely capitalism.

You can't have infinite growth on a finite planet and capitalism is a system which relies on the idea of infinite growth. We literally can't sustain it.

I also think that social justice is a, slightly nebulous but very important, aspect of sustainability. It is about exploitation, not just of the workers but of whole communities of people, species of animals, even whole ecosystems.

Catherine said...

I was just going to point out that there is a gap in education, but RubyStar already kind of said it. Even way back in the distant past when I was at school, we were taught how to cook economically, quickly, healthily, avoiding waste, but then they missed a trick with sewing wherein we just had to sew a few egg cosies - not the way to encourage a 14 year old to make and mend or be creative. I've thrown away loads of damaged stuff over the years due to lack of imagination and know-how. I don't now, I hasten to add! However, it does run deep as a lot of our views of success and esteem are centred around how much stuff we have.

Uta said...

Something I struggle with is "our" sense of entitlement. (I put the "our" in quotation marks because while I am aware of this and try to be "less so" I am also a child of my times and my prosperous country, and far from perfect.) I frequently hear "I can't afford this.." - high quality clothing, organic food etc. - from people who have two cars, own a house, have closets full of (inexpensive) clothes. The reality, as I see it, is that we believe the first world is entitled to luxury in exchange for a day's work, and if that exploits others/the environment/the animal world, so be it.

Martina Peebles said...

Like all social systems, capitalism has its detractors. But remember that capitalism, in and of itself, is the definition of prosperity and growth. Even in socialized and Marxist countries, the capitalist movement is the impetus for success. Can we do a better job? Absolutely. Do you understand the purpose and dynamics of capitalism? I suggest that one not merely repeat the most recent news-cycle mantra to justify political indignation. On a small scale remember that bloggers who use their site to sell products and/or advertise for payment or service are capitalists. Much to consider. Mz. Zoe, this is a Pandora's box, are you ready for this?

Zoe said...

Once again, thanks again for your comments. I have taken on board all your points and agree there a couple of points that I missed from the outline in my initial post and will edited it shortly.

As I said, this post was more about general subject headings to help us to find ways to start investigating and discussing, so I'll address many of the points you have been making in the near future, thanks for your thoughts.

@ Martina Peebles, you asked me directly do I want to open this pandora's box? Are you suggesting that I would be better off avoiding these topics? I feel no-one can ignore these issues which are directly effecting the present and future of everyone.

As for the question of the big C (Capitalism), I think, actually, that I do understand the purpose and dynamics of capitalism pretty well, though I have a stack more books lined up on this topic which I want to get through before I present the most balanced view as I can. Though I have to say, Sophia's statements on the subject look pretty undeniable from where I'm sitting.

pjfpotter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pjfpotter said...

"But remember that capitalism, in and of itself, is the definition of prosperity and growth."

This is simply incorrect. You are presenting a belief that you hold as if it were a fact. It is not up to self proclaimed experts on capitalism to define what prosperity is.

Growth and prosperity are in this context just different names for social value and that value is always contingent - defined by relationships between people and not absolutes existing outside of everyday life.

Basically I'm asserting that we have the right to define what prosperity means to us as a society through extended debate and experimentation. And that this process of redefining what we consider a state of prosperity is very necessary and time sensitive.

Prosperity and growth are not the same thing. A prosperous society does not have to be obsessed with growth.

Surely a prosperous society is a satisifed one? Not a society that has to manufacture it's own dissatisfaction just to continue to function. Which is exactly what we, particularly in the English speaking world are doing. That isn't prosperity - it's cultural schizophrenia.

We are in the business of manufaturing false needs to ensure that individuals never feel satisfied, what kind of prosperity is that?

It is vitally important that we don't get stuck, mired in old idealogical frameworks - we need a way forward and all ideas are welcome.

Don't try and shut people out of this debate by making out that they don't understand how capitalism works.

Buy for a dollar sell for two. Is that about it? I thought so.

pjfpotter said...

And another thing! jejeje

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the practice of trading, or using currency to make trading easier. Nobody here said that. Yet.

So don't be feeling guilty about making a living people! It doesn't mean that you're just as bad as Exxon just cause you have a few affiliate links on your blog.

Whatever pays the rent and saves the soul right?

You gotta have a system. We just need a better one. fast.

sorry, had to be said. said...

Uta, I appreciate that you might find a preponderance of people like that in your social circles, and I also appreciate that you aren't in the US, but as for my context, I look at this chart and think how many people are grateful to have inexpensive clothing, transportation to work, and a roof over their heads. I am making the upfront investment in learning to sew because I just can't count on being able to afford to buy clothing that fits me and suits me. I struggle with the idea that sewing is necessarily an ecological improvement - surely there are economies of scale involved, and while organic fabric may be lovely, I could easily spend $60 US on the fabric for a shirt by buying them. If you can afford that, more power to you, but it's not the general condition.

emily.marie said...

Zoe, I love that you're bringing some intelligent conversation about sustainability & consumerism to sewing bloggers. Good stuff. I think it's something that a lot of people who sew skip talking about because they think it doesn't apply to them. We're sewing, right? Being crafty. Making something instead of buying it. Good, right?

It's my opinion that lots of sewing people/bloggers are churning out clothes just to post, not because they are really in need of another new dress, sweater or 'one-hour skirt'. In lots of these cases these garments are being made so quickly it's hard to believe the stitcher's only goal wasn't simply to have the garment look good in a photo.

My point is that there are probably just as many throw-away handmade garments as throw-away factory made garments (in ratio to how many are produced, of course). Also, think about the copious amounts of horrendous synthetics and terrifying prints in your local fabric superstore... where does THAT go? Are we still feeling sustainable & anti-consumerist?

Sewing can be just as easily obsessed with consumerism as the fashion industry itself. We've just got to watch ourselves.

FYI- I LOVE sewing & clothing design, but tend to get terribly pessimistic at times. Sorry :/

Minnado said...

You have started a really interesting debate Zoe. I am also interested in how we can have such an emotional to consuming things, and how we can bring up our children equating material possessions with love, so that buying and having new stuff becomes linked with a whole range of complex needs. I also agree with Emily Kate's interesting point about sewing so fast to fulfill a need to blog about the finished item and how this becomes an end in its self.

purpleshoes said...

Well, I don't want to discount the degree to which people do sewing primarily as a craft or as an art, not as a necessity. I often hear from people in the sewing blogs that they have "enough" clothes, or that they sew things that they enjoy making as a way of exploring history or expressing themselves. Goodness knows those of us who quilt are usually not doing it because we're going to freeze to death if we don't spend $200 on whimsical quilting cotton, we're doing it for self-expression and art.

I have to say that I'm often suspicious at how it falls to women to make these sacrifices for the good of the environment - golfing is one of the most ecologically destructive sports in the world, and computers/digital equipment of all sorts are some of the most polluting, toxic, and politically destabilizing consumer products ever. And yet we self-flagellate over blouses - I'm not saying conscious consuming isn't good, but I think an eye towards gender is necessary here.

Ali said...

Wow! What a fascinating discussion. I heard myself in a number of comments. It's such a complicated issue that I rarely weigh in. Like purpleshoes, I have no problem with labor but the position that clothes (and people!) are disposable.

I will say, though, that I agree that sewing can both replace the desire to have AND be a creative outlet. And perhaps we shouldn't overlook the evolution of the individual/sewer/crafter/woman. We grow individually through our chosen interests. I'm only starting to implement what I've understood for a long time (that a little bit of consciousness goes a long long way, I also happen to live now in a community that makes that very easy). You have been sewing for a long time and it's wonderful to witness this part of your trajectory. And I look forward to following you forward.

Sigrid said...

I personally don't want to start making everything my household needs, but by thinking about where all the crap is coming from maybe I can slow down, consume less and demand more from my purchases. In our current system, the end product is separated from the producer, which isn't really a problem until we completely forget that there is someone, somewhere who is making the things we desire from limited resources.

I think that's part of the current problem, we are so removed from the production that we can't imagine all the implications of our purchases--and thus everything is supposed to be cheap and disposable.

A change in this attitude is transforming the way a lot of people purchase food, and it had the potential to change our other habits too. Interestingly, the "slow food" tastes a lot better too.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Saw this a bit later: http://syntheticpubes.com/post/438250182/words-of-wisdom-from-natalie-orme .
A bit crude, but true.

emily said...

Some great food for thought here. I'd have to echo what other posters have said, the idea of sustainablity has to start young. I was taught sewing in school but in possibly the most unenthusiastic way possible - very technical, follow the rules and don't deviate or try to get creative, teaching - and I was certainly never taught it alongside the ideas of sustainability and its place in the wider world. I'm not so sure what happens in schools now but there seems an amazing opportunity to reignite the make do and mend spark... x

Unknown said...

im so glad ive found this blog - someone creative who shares my beliefs. Patrick isnt getting the point of this discussion i dont think. What im gathering from it is that we waste far too much, the consumerism we are talking about here is the disposable version? I heard yesterday our economy was possibly going into a double dip recession which made me laugh. How can the government expect to grow when theyve done bugger all to boost the morale of the country into helping boost the economy and sustain our LIMITED resources. Everything i make is from second hand goods or produced as eco friendly as possible. My packaging is 100% recycled.
What happened to the days where you could return deodorant bottles, medicine bottles, cleaning bottles etc to the chemist and grocers for them to recycle?!

I also agree with what Emily Marie said - people are creating things for their blogs just for the sake of it. After reading "sucking eggs" by Patricia Nichol im going slightly more extreme. I realised that i waste clothing - like the rest, although 90% of my shopping is second hand, i dont need half the clothes i have.. so im doing the same as you. Upcycling and sewing if i want something else. Ultimately though im creating a 'forever' wardrobe and accessorizing to make things look different. Im basically rationing my life. I think I will adapt fine and dandy. Im also digging for victory and prepping all my seeds for a late spring harvest.
My next project is making a new blind for our house out of a valance sheet i found.

Anonymous said...

I would recommend that everyone who hasn't already, watch the Zeitgeist films. They are available for free here at http://www.zeitgeistmovie.com/. Some of what he discusses is not everyone's cup of tea, but he raises a lot of important issues. I think the most important thing one could do is simply have the courage to think critically. Corporations are always going to be looking out for their own interests, it is up to us to look out for our own and our planet. It is easy to understand how people have got sucked into this wasteful lifestyle, people are purposely kept busy, busy, busy. We fall into a lifestyle of convenience, not knowing that it is hurting us. I agree that there needs to be more education on these types of issues, but there isn't, so we have to do the research ourselves, and come to our own conclusions. It may be tedious to research the ethical practices of a company, but it is crucial information we need to have as consumers. It is our responsibility to keep informed, and not always take things at face-value. As for the waste issue, this is something that we are always going to deal with. We have created substances that will never biodegrade (plastic, rubber) and now we can't figure out what to do with it all. We cannot keep polluting our land and our water with this trash, it is only a matter of time before we will be living amongst mountains of our own trash. Anyway, I love your blog, and that you tackle sometimes difficult topics such as this. I tend to write about some of the same things. You should check it out. http://achangehastakenplace.blogspot.com/

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