Thursday, 13 September 2012

Brands, sweatshops, campaigning & consumerism

Recently, I visited London and as I walked down Bond Street I felt more irritated by all the designer shops than one person going shopping probably should. As if ridiculously priced clothing wasn't enraging enough, I became even more annoyed as I started to think about where the garments originate from and their line of production.

Whilst shopping, I usually assume that the majority of clothing is produced in sweatshops. Think about it: surely if the clothing was ethically produced, the brand would strive promote this fact and it would be pretty easy to identify which items of clothing are ethical. Lo and behold, I didn't see anything about ethical clothing mentioned anywhere. Somehow I think the high market brands, like most companies, are more concerned with profit.

Why do we spend so much money on designer brands and labels? This is one thing I cannot comprehend and probably never will. We, the consumers, fork out huge amount of cash to buy a bead for a Pandora bracelet, a Superdry hoodie, an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt or a pair of Hollister tracksuit bottoms. I don't understand. Essentially, you're paying the company to advertise their brand your clothing as you walk around on the street. Last time I looked, companies are meant to pay the people doing the advertising. It doesn't make any sense, but it still works. Everyone sees everyone else walking round with Superdry hoodies and then everyone wants to wear them too because everyone else is wearing them. What?! Whatever happened to being unique and individuality?

One thing I can understand is that if you spend more on an item, you're probably going to get better quality and it will last longer. I'm one of these people that can't spend a large sum of money on one item of clothing, hence my clothes, most of which come from Primark, fall apart fairly quickly.

Maybe I sound a bit hypocritical talking about the importance of ethical shopping when I shop at Primark, which is renowned for unethical clothing and I have an iPhone when workers in factories supplying for Apple have been committing suicide due to the bad treatment they receive. Apple's solution? They put up nets outside the factory building to stop people jumping to their deaths

Some people believe boycotting is the answer. As a vegetarian I see myself as boycotter of meat, but sometimes I wonder if it really is making a difference to both the environment and animal welfare, as so many people eat animal products from unethical sources. I tried to boycott Primark, but as a student it’s quite difficult to afford to shop anywhere else. A pathetic excuse, I know, and there is no excuse for buying unethically as much as there's no excuse for the companies to treat its workers unethically. One way to buy ethically and environmentally is to buy second hand. However, if I had more sufficient funds in my bank, one of the first things I would do is change my buying habits. At the end of the day, as I said, most companies are unethical. I prefer to shop at the cheaper ones because then the company receives less money than the higher market stores and I save money. Sure, boycotting can work but really you need a large group of people in order for it to be really effective and it’s difficult to persuade people to get involved.

What I think is really effective to make a difference creative campaigning. Protests and occupations can work but there are so many these days that sometimes people don't always pay attention and the media often just misrepresent what we are doing and miss the point. Recently, I've gotten into the TV programme The Revolution Will Be Televised, in which 2 men use comedy and satire to raise awareness of issues internationally and in the UK. I think it works really well, because they do strange things that grab people's attention and then make their point. One example is that one of them visits a Bentley store and complains that their new car isn't helping them to pick up girls. Another time he walks down the street topless spraying ridiculous amounts of Lynx on himself and then wonders why he isn't attracting women. It just shows how manipulative and unrealistic advertising can be.

What people don't realise is that we as consumers do have the power to change things. We control what companies produce by popular demand. If we don't buy something, the company loses a lot of profit. If we do, the company gains loads. We have the power to make change. Many of these companies are owned by rich and influential business people who think they have the power to dictate what happens. What we don't realise is that we can change the directions of their decisions and we can make or break their plans. They profit from our money and they know it, but they act like they own all the power. They're treating us like total idiots, raking in all the profits and evading taxes whilst we struggle to pay our bills and the workers wonder where their next meal will come from. Boots, EDF Energy and Vodafone and many foreign embassies in London are all guilty of tax evasions and get away with it because we allow them to have so much power. Watch The Revolution Will Be Televised if you don't believe me. Yet, if one of us tries to evade our taxes, chances are we'll get thrown into prison.

The reality is that consumers are at the top of this upside-down pyramid of power that I have constructed (I've borrowed and slightly altered this idea from People & Planet). The workers who collect the raw materials for products and the workers who turn those raw materials into the desired products are at the bottom. They don't have a say in how they are treated and what kind of condition they work in because they are only given two choices: work and have a bit of money or don't work and have nothing. The companies know that and take advantage. Maybe these workers don't have much power to make change, but we do. As consumers we can demand that these companies provide us with products that we want which have been produced in a way in which we want. If we unite with the workers and campaign against companies, they don't have a choice but to give in to popular demand. How can they make any profit if they have nobody to produce their products and nobody to purchase them? They can't.

Of course there are some ethical companies in existence, but there are very few these days and they aren't widely recognised because everyone's so busy purchasing from the big brands without a second thought. Perhaps local, independent businesses are a better alternative to high market corporations. At least that way the balance of power is distributed more in favour of equality.

Since starting university I've joined an organisation called People & Planet, which is national network of students campaigning to end world poverty, defend human rights and protect the environment. One of their campaigns is the Buy Right Campaign, which focuses on campaigning for change in the supply chains of universities. When you think about the amount of money, power and resources that universities have they are actually very powerful and have a big influence on supply chains. This is a perfect campaigning opportunity for students.

Part of the campaign involves a campaign against Adidas, which is a big supplier in sportswear and universities are big consumers in sportswear. According to reports from the Worker Rights Consortium, Adidas have refused to pay redundancy money owed to 2,800 workers in an Indonesian factory which produced goods for Adidas, Nike and the Dallas Cowboys.

A creative campaign: Changing the logo or slogan
of a company can capture attention and
people become curious.

The owner of the factory fled the country with the profits, leaving the factory to be shut down, and its workers unemployed and without compensation. The other companies that bought supplies from the factory have paid up, but only Adidas is refusing to take responsibility. People & Planet is organising a Week of Action Against Sweatshops later this year. Activists are being encouraged to protest against Adidas because of their disgraceful behaviour. What makes me even angrier is that when deciding the costs of products, Adidas are so ignorant that they don't consider cost of paying the workers fairly and their products are still relatively expensive. 

It’s not like they can't afford it either. People wonder why I wasn't really supportive of the Olympics. Adidas spent £100 million on sponsoring the Olympics, which is around 100 times the amount that they owe to the Indonesian workers (£1.1 million). It’s clear that they have the money, but aren't prepared to use it for anything other than profit or promoting their business. Funnily, another sponsor of the Olympics was McDonald's. Despite being in a nation fighting obesity and at an event promoting health and well-being, a restaurant was placed in the centre of the Olympic Park. Somehow I doubt that most athletes eat McDonald's. It seems that most of the sponsors for the Olympics, as always, do not need to be relevant to the event but whoever can pay out the most cash will be given reassurance that their advertisements will be in every direction that the eye can see. On top of all that, countries are ridiculously misrepresented when you compare the amount of athletes that developed countries can afford to enter as opposed to those entered by developing countries.

Other than the above reasons I think the Olympics was great for celebrating international talent in sport, celebrating British culture, boosting British economy and most importantly bringing countries together and giving the developing countries a chance to become champions.

Many people tell me that I'm wasting my time and that I'm not going to get anywhere. You're wrong.

Fruit of the Loom, another clothing company is an example of a success story. It illegally close is factory in Honduras in November 2008 in response to workers who formed a trade union. The workers were simply trying to organise fairer conditions for themselves, but as a result 1,800 people were left unemployed.

Students in the UK, USA and Canada pressured their universities to boycott Fruit of the Loom and the boycott became the largest garment boycott in history. A year later in November 2009, Fruit of the Loom agreed to meet People & Planet's demands and reopened the factory, rehired the workers, paid compensation and ended the prevention of the formation of trade unions in any of their Honduran factories.

Without all those activists, the lives of those workers would not have been changed.

I have a passion for justice burning deep in my heart. It is my life, my degree, my hobby. I'm not going to give up and it’s not going to fade with age. I will stop at nowhere. There are people who have given their life in an attempt to bring justice to the world and I refuse to let their sacrifice go unnoticed. Anna Politkovskaya was a Russian journalist and human rights defender who gained coverage of the human rights situation in Chechnya. The Russian government imprisoned, threatened and poisoned her because she was revealing the truth about the corrupt state of the country. She was mysteriously shot in her home in Moscow in October 2006. I think it’s fairly clear who is responsible for her death.

When I feel like giving up, when I feel like no one will ever listen and when people tell me that I'm just one person and that I can never make a difference, this video motivates me to keep going:

There are some of us that care, even if sometimes it seems like the rest of the world doesn't.

You don't have enough time for this kind of thing?

Do you think I have time? I'm trying to do a degree and find a job, but I make time. To me, it’s worth the sacrifice. You only live this life once and I'd rather use my time making a difference.

The revolution is coming. Big things are going to happen and changes are going to be made. Watch this space.


  1. Great entry - quite thought provoking.
    I am going to watch that TV programme now.

    Good point about time - we can only lose it so I agree we should certainly use it to support worthwhile causes! The video encapsulates that nicely.

    Overall well done, must have taken you some time to write this!

    1. Thanks Jonathan!
      Good to have some positive feedback!
      It took me about 5 hours overall, crazy! I've been planning it for ages though :)

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great effort! Read some of your other entries as well, very interesting - I'll have to discuss them with you :)

    Looking forward to more in the future - keep it up!

  3. Lauren, this blog post (and blog as a whole I'm sure!) is so inspiring, thoughtful and challenging!

    It encourages me that I am not the only person who cares about these big issues and is bothered by mainstream shops and consumerism (especially when clothes shopping!), yet wonders how she can afford to be 'ethical'. And then you often hear scare stories with labels like FairTrade etc. I must admit I often end up shopping in charity shops (but then am I actually helping change the injustices by 'opting out'? Also the second-hand clothing industry is huge and itself causes problems!). Basically our current trading system is broken, things should and must change for the benefit of the poorest. We can make a difference and it is great to hear about People and Planet being involved in that!

    "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
    (Margaret Mead)

    I believe many people are concerned about others and wider world and find websites such as a great way to link with others and be part of campaigns!

    Thank you for the video as well - it reminds me that I do have a voice and a responsibility. For mankind and to God. So lets speak up, change thinking and change lives!

    So keep going, don't give up and all my best to you and Chester People and Planet!
    Annabelle :)

  4. Also think I need to check out that television programme you mentioned now!