Saturday, October 06, 2007

On ethics

I've been sitting on this post for a while; I began it in July, when I got an interesting email from Rebecca, who writes:
I was recently perusing your very witty blog, "footpath zeitgeist". I've always loved your writing and your critique is excellent, from a cultural perspective, but I had a niggling feeling of discomfort as I read your descriptions of fashion trends and merchandising techniques. I got the impression that you accept that consumption, on the whole, is a good thing. Is this right? - please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. :)

I see shopping and fashion as being about much more than self-expression. It is a process of moral decision making. Everything we buy has an effect on other people and on our natural resources. The fashion industry is notoriously bad at recognising this and promotes, I think, a very selfish mindset. Think about how clothing is made - mostly it is produced in appalling factories in developing countries or by (mostly migrant) outworkers here who can get paid only $2 an hour and work up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. By buying this stuff, we are giving tacit approval to the perpetuation of these practices. There is also the environmental cost of subscribing to an essentially trend-based ideology that constantly requires the acquisition of new pieces. The energy and materials needed to make and transport the amount of clothing and accessories we currently consume is totally unsustainable.

Should we be considering these things as we window shop our way down Swanston St?
Yes, we probably should. But mostly we don't. I should say off the bat that this blog does not celebrate consumption in itself, and Rebecca is quite right that we need to consider its wasteful and exploitative aspects. My interest is in the ways in which people choose their clothes, and the ways that clothes make us feel. Sometimes people shop thoughtlessly, selfishly and with an eye to convenience, 'bargain-hunting', 'luxury' and distinction; and I tend to find these interesting in themselves (as opposed, I stress, to condoning the system that gives rise to them).

I also tend to emphasise the playful possibilities of dress, whereas Rebecca is saying that this play is a privilege that comes at the cost of the economically disadvantaged and the environment. Again, that's true. But her email did remind me of the idea of 'fashion levels' - the idea that some people buy their clothes purely for utilitarianism whereas others negotiate the fashion industry's cycles of novelty and obsolescence. You could add that the ability to shop ethically (choosing organic materials, non-sweatshop products, etc) is a very high-level fashion practice in that it requires knowledge and judgement.

There has been more and more mainstream media coverage lately about issues of ethics in fashion, which is giving consumers this kind of knowledge. Sue Thomas's opinion piece lays out most of the main things that consumers should consider, and there was a recent Sunday lifestyle story (which I can't seem to find online) directly comparing the environmental footprint of various fabrics (taking into account the water and energy needed to grow and/or process them into fabrics, the energy to transport them to factories and retail outlets, their durability (hence how often they'd need to be replaced) and the energy, water and detergents needed to launder them. I remember taking from this article that organic cotton used extravagant amounts of water and that polyester was surprisingly environmentally friendly because of its durability and the fact that old garments can be broken down and recycled into new synthetic fabric.

But the thing that strikes me is that all this still takes place inside the same consumer logic. For many people, ethical choices confer a positive range of affective states, but I'd argue that ethics is a still relatively small consideration when shopping for clothes. Even second-hand clothing exchange systems, as advocated by Sue Thomas, are shaped by similar decision-making processes to first-hand systems. Introducing their 2003 British study, Secondhand Cultures, Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe write:
When we set up the research, we expected to encounter a lot of [ethical and environmental] talk (and practice), especially among certain facets of the 'critical' middle classes, and we anticipated that 'second hand' goods and their consumers might be seen, and see themselves, as part of an alternative, critical consumer culture. What we actually found though was very different. ... Instead, consumption through the second-hand market turns out to be shaped by many of the very same motivations that shape consumer culture more generally. We see here then how thrift - saving money by working at consumption - is a prime imperative. About capturing relative value through the 'bargain', this works in much the same way as in first hand exchange ... 'Distinction' too figures. Indeed, what is being sought through 'second-hand' frequently bears a marked similarity to the practices that shape designer purchasing and consumption in the first cycle: difference, taste and individuality. (11)
The second point about distinction seems particularly pertinent to hipsters, who tend to use secondhand shopping as an exercise of two kinds of distinction: a demonstration of their bricolage skills (a way of being 'in fashion' without having to resort to visiting high street stores that only offer mass-produced interpretations of current trends) and a method of minimising the number of other people who will own that item, thus ensuring singularity.

In The Rebel Sell, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter offer the provocative contention that the counter-culture that sets itself up as a more conscious 'alternative' to consumer culture in fact is not revolutionary and poses no threat whatsoever to the capitalist system; instead it feeds that system:
...fair trade and 'ethical marketing' are hardly revolutionary ideas, and they certainly represent no threat to the capitalist system. If consumers are willing to pay more for shoes made by happy workers - or for eggs laid by happy chickens - then there is money to be made in bringing these goods to market. (4)
So 'ethical' consumerism is still an exercise of cultural capital; in this instance it demonstrates the consumer's 'thoughtfulness' or 'consciousness'. That's interesting, I guess, but it's still only one iteration of dress among many, and it's certainly not enough to make me abandon my posts on mainstream shopping and trends.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Hi Mel,

I am very pleased that you don't condone the system that gives rise to the fashion industry, but there are still a couple of points I would like to take you up on.


You say: "I also tend to emphasise the playful possibilities of dress, whereas Rebecca is saying that this play is a privilege that comes at the cost of the economically disadvantaged and the environment."

I'm wondering what makes you think that? I am a big proponent of play! Far from being a privilege, I think play is necessary for human wellbeing. I love novelty and creativity as much as I am concerned with ethics and I believe it is possible to be both playful and ethical.


You say: "But the thing that strikes me is that all this still takes place inside the same consumer logic. For many people, ethical choices confer a positive range of affective states, but I'd argue that ethics is a still relatively small consideration when shopping for clothes."

The first principle of ethical consumption is: consume less, so in that sense it is outside the usual consumer logic. It also goes a fair bit deeper than affective states because it's really about living in a state of connectedness - connecting to the processes, people and resources involved in creating and delivering the clothes to you - which seems to me to be something beyond making ourselves feel good. It's also not always a comfortable state to be in, because there are still very few ethical choices in the market so compromises must often be made.


You say: "the counter-culture that sets itself up as a more conscious 'alternative' to consumer culture in fact is not revolutionary and poses no threat whatsoever to the capitalist system"

I, personally, have not made any claims to being a revolutionary. At present, it would be very difficult to survive without engaging the capitalist system, but if we can make that system less harmful, why not do that?


You say: "it's still only one iteration of dress among many, and it's certainly not enough to make me abandon my posts on mainstream shopping and trends."

I'm pleased to hear it as that was never my intention! :) I appreciate your taking the time to discuss this topic.