Oct 30, 2013

Bittersweet Times. Cheap and Cheerful?

In the words of Tony Abbott, these are bittersweet times for Australia.  After 12 years, Australia is withdrawing all its troops in Afghanistan by Christmas.  It's a bittersweet return because the war that was fought saw 260 Australian soldiers wounded, 40 killed and neither a victory nor a defeat in the battle to reshape and control a country that has refused to yield to the ideas and will of the outside world.  For many of us with no direct connection to the conflict, these statistics and widely held beliefs are all we perceive Australia's role to have been.

Beyond Tony Abbott's words though, are some hopeful statistics.  Australian funding and resources have helped improve the quality of life of the most vulnerable citizens of Afghanistan - its children.  It has been estimated that child life expectancy and standard of living indices have improved in the time that Australia has intervened in the conflict.  Perhaps this is a victory after all and evidence that all was not in vain.  Hopefully this is a legacy that will continue to reap benefits to the community in ways that war could not.

I'm drawing a very long bow here but our role in Afghanistan got me thinking about how Australia interacts with other parts of the world.  Like Bangladesh.  The country which now has the dubious honour of being home to sweatshops for many global brands.



I posted a photo of these tops I found at Kmart on instagram this week.  It was a mindless post, like practically all my contributions to instagram are.  $6 for a top to easily inject a bit of colour into my work wardrobe.  Not quite disposable fashion but the price enabled me to buy the top in a selection of colours to get me through the next few months.

My question is about the deeper implications of these cheap and cheerful finds I'm celebrating.  Cheap for everyone involved but cheerful?  The consumer and the retailer are both obviously grinning all the way to the bank but how about the people who actually produce the clothing.  On the one hand the retailer provides employment and pay (granted it is pay at the minimal legal rate of the host country) for the people who need it most but at what long term cost to the community and the environment?  Kmart is one company that has signed an agreement that attempts to protect the rights of workers (thanks to L for drawing it to my attention).

An extension of this thought is the fact that practically everything I own was at least partially made by someone on a minimum wage in another part of the world.  Is it 'more ethical' to own certain items over others?  Take my iPhone for example.  That was made in China and I've seen official video of what the accommodation and working conditions for factory employees looks like.  People sleep in dormitories housed in ugly blocks in sterile industrial parks.  It looks clean and from a distance (or perhaps it's the lighting) you can't see 'pollution'.  It could be argued that what you can't see should worry you the most when it comes to manufacturing.  Are deaths from staff suicides related to quota pressures and social isolation any less or any more than the death of staff in a factory fire?

My solution does little more than soothe my conscience.  I will buy only what I need and not use price as an excuse to buy more.  How about you?  Can we be ethical consumers in these times of disposable fashion and rapid cycling technology?




Before I go, thank you to everyone who made dishwasher suggestions.  I ended up getting a Bosch from Appliances Online.  It's amazingly quiet, quick and my dishes are sparkling.  The kitchen is slowly but surely moving into the stainless steel age.  The fridge will be next.  But not too soon, I hope.  Better not have jinxed myself.



5 comments:

  1. The most recent fire (the one that occurred a couple of weeks ago) happened in a factory that is used by Australian stores that actually did sign that agreement. It is a similar situation to the 'fair trade' coffee. Australian companies are only buying from the factories and farms that treat their staff and suppliers fairly (well, they tell us they are) but those factories and farms subcontract to places that don't treat staff and suppliers fairly and this is what keeps the prices low and the Australian public happy and guilt-free.

    The signed agreements and the terms used (like fair trade) are created to keep the Australian consumers buying: not to help the people in the sweat shops in Bangladesh or the cotton farmers in India or the coffee bean farmers in South Africa and South America.

    Holding back from buying, though, is a bit like turning vegetarian to 'save the animals'. Hopeless. Trade policies, raising minimum wages, work-safety requirements are what will change it and I don't foresee that happening in those countries in our lifetime.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the thoughtful and informative comment, Kacie.

      SSG xxx

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    2. Turned out to be quite the essay, ;-)

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  2. I think the best thing to do is buy from local companies that manufacture overseas, when you know their practices to be sound and safe for the workers. 1st world work environments are the best export to developing nations that we've got.

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  3. You might be interested in the Ethical Shoppers Guide (available as an app) and Ethical Clothing Australia. While I am yet to find a guide that is 100% foolproof because of the many steps in the manufacturing process, I do my best to support companies that are vocally supportive of workers rights. The Ethical Shoppers Guide is my favourite as it says what the criticisms are.

    Personally I was shocked to see some expensive brands have very poor ethics. I sort of expect that from a $4 t-shirt, but not a $300 pair of shoes.

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