A trend in footwear is steadily spreading across the USA. Throughout malls and college campuses it is easy to spot the distinctive slip-on espadrilles, flat unisex canvas shoes with a neat blue and white striped Toms flag sewn across the backstay of the heel. Toms shoes are popular, comfortable and different – fashionable and affordable whilst embodying distinctive values associated with care and compassion. The Toms success story is an important new chapter in the annals of so called responsible capitalism. From the brand’s humble origins in 2006, this example of social entrepreneurship has become one of the most talked about instances of the contradictions of ethical consumption. The Toms model is simplicity itself: buy one, give one. For every purchase of Toms footwear a child in a developing country is given a pair of shoes. As the company’s marketing material proclaims: ‘When you buy a pair of Toms Shoes, you’re also helping improve the health, education and well-being of a child.’
Blake Mycoskie, the driving force behind the Toms project, is the epitome of a twenty-first-century socially responsible entrepreneur. Still in his thirties, with scruffy hair and a beard, Mycoskie has met the Clintons and has featured in Time magazine’s ‘How to Fix Capitalism’ feature authored by Bill Gates. He came up with the ‘one for one’ business idea when travelling in Argentina, where he found himself near Buenos Aires after Googling ‘polo lessons cheap’. Whilst hanging out with wealthy Argentines he saw that they donated their unwanted shoes to local villages. This provided him with the inspiration: ‘It just hit me,’ he says. ‘Instead of a charity with handouts why not create a company where that’s the whole purpose? I thought, you buy one pair of shoes today so we can give one tomorrow. We’ll call them Tomorrow Shoes. No we’ll call them Toms Shoes for Tomorrow.’ Blake’s business has been a runaway success, and especially effective at encouraging young consumers not just to buy shoes, but to buy into an idea. People like the shoes and the ethical benefits. The simple ‘classics’ design that is the mainstay of Toms product lines is modelled after the Argentine alpargata (aka espadrille) shoe, a basic timeless shape which both signals personal authenticity and has powerful social resonance. After going shopping and slipping their bare feet into a pair of canvas Toms, wearers can feel content with themselves, maybe even a little smug, as they imagine their poorer counterpart also happily pushing their toes inside a new pair of shoes.
What is special about Toms is that the brand has gone beyond being an ethical business and has become a minor cultural movement, particularly in colleges and among teens. A sense of community is fostered through the online presence: toms.com is half online fashion store, half social advocacy website. As well as shoes, the marketplace features sunglasses, scarves, laptop sleeves and clothes; and shoppers can choose to sort ethical products by cause, region of impact or brand. In a biographical section Blake Mycoskie is pictured tanned and smiling, fitting red and white striped espadrilles on a young Latino girl. Stories and videos from the global South look like materials from an up-market Peace Corps campaign rather than corporate advertising. In a crowded market, these images help differentiate the brand and are particularly in tune with the cultural moment. Toms provides information and direction for young people, introducing devotees to development issues associated with education, health and well-being, just like an advocacy NGO. Foremost is the annual ‘one day without shoes’ event, which is when the Toms community goes barefoot to raise awareness for children around the world who do not have shoes. Images show groups of students walking around college campuses barefoot carrying large Toms flags as if supporting a political party or radical protest movement, rather than endorsing a shoe manufacturing company. The appealing and simple message has inspired other interventions, and indeed Mycoskie has carried the idea further. Toms are sold in Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. Mycoskie has written a bestselling book, Start Something that Matters, and has made many media appearances. Somewhat inevitably there has been a backlash involving important criticisms of the ‘one for one’ model. These require close analysis to separate the myths from the reality.
The issue of the appropriateness of the donation is the first factor to consider. Do shoes actually satisfy a real need? Buying shoes in America leads to someone deserving getting shoes, but why shoes? Maybe something else, another item of clothing or cash, would be more useful. The poor are not consulted in the process and are cast as helpless, passive recipients of aid. Would it not be better to find target communities and identify what their greatest need is, such as access to clean water, or skills training, or debt relief, rather than arriving with a set ‘solution’ to a specific problem? A lack of footwear does not stand out as the most pressing development issue facing the poor in the global South.
Next, the detail of the system of provision must be explored. Toms adult shoes sell for between $48 and $140 in the USA, far beyond the cost of manufacturing the alpargata-style shoes, which retail for around $5 in Argentina (which includes the local seller’s profit). Without knowing the detail of private company accounts, there would appear to be plenty of opportunity for Blake Mycoskie to extract surplus from these sales, whilst maintaining the donation system. At best a $48 purchase of shoes represents a $5 donation. Additionally, the cost of distributing shoes in the global South is partly borne by the Toms ‘community’. Espadrilles are handed out in recipient countries through ‘shoe drops’ by Toms’ volunteers. Toms shoe drops are very popular, oversubscribed volunteer experiences. The young people who take part pay their own air fares and when they return provide testimonials, becoming brand ambassadors. The cost of intercontinental flights would be more effective ‘aid’ if the ticket price were instead donated and directed towards employing local people to distribute the donations, but then that would not help foster the sense of community which has become such an essential part of the Toms brand. The whole system of provision is self-financing and provides more good news stories for the Toms website.
The Toms programme has given away more than 10 million pairs of shoes across sixty countries, a not insubstantial number. The impact of this programme on global footwear production and markets is minimal, though, when we remember that there are billions of poor people in the world. Nevertheless, the potential economic relationships of the ‘buy one, give one’ approach are worth debating. As with the cheap imports of second-hand clothing, free shoe drops can displace existing footwear manufacturing in the target countries, reducing local markets and making it harder for industries which need protection to grow and compete. Research carried out in El Salvador by economists working in cooperation with Toms found ‘modest evidence’ that donated shoes had negative impacts on local shoe markets, but results were inconclusive. It is also important to consider scale: should the small percentage of affluent people in the global North be freely choosing to consume (or not consume) goods which aid only a tiny fraction of the impoverished majority of the global population in the South? Would it not be better to ask deeper questions about the inequalities of the global economy? Rather than providing products, people should be empowered to escape poverty and not become structurally dependent on handouts.
Fostering solidarity between different groups can be a powerful force for social change. Good intentions are laudable, but often there are complex motivations for participating in seemingly virtuous interventions. The ‘one day without shoes’ initiative can be considered an example of ‘slacktivism’, the type of easy politically unengaged acts which have become a marker of the digital age. In the global North people are able to access information about pressing social issues around the world, but we are not inclined to disrupt our own lifestyles to take direct action to alleviate poverty or environmental degradation. Concerned people just add their email address to an e-petitions, ‘like’ campaign posts on Facebook; buy charity music albums; or spend a day trying to walk around barefoot. Buying Toms is another slack attempt to change the world. Some consumers are motivated to buy ethical goods because they want to attach themselves to values of care and compassion. Young people especially compete to look cool; making distinctions is notably fuelled by particular brands which drive forward competitive consumption. Toms are associated with charity and poverty alleviation; people want to link themselves to these ideals, rather than their purchases simply being a moment of pure altruism. One can envisage that most Toms shoppers already have several pairs of shoes, and so this type of consumerism is arguably as much about offsetting guilt as addressing poverty. In contrast, some Toms customers may just like the espadrilles and not even be aware of or interested in the charity aspect. Criticizing Toms for being shoes which make someone feel good about themselves may sound harsh, but this is normal, for actually all individual consumption – beyond that which is required to sustain life – satisfies a desire. Yet, it is deeply problematic that the sale of a pair of espadrilles should give someone the feeling that they are actually curing a problem or addressing a social issue when they are not. This is a particularly fetishistic characteristic of so-called ethical consumption.
Another issue that has been raised in the prominent critiques of Toms is the conditions of production. Would it not be better to think first about the shoe factory workers and make sure that there is an ethical supply chain? The ‘trade not aid’ argument has been one of the major lines of denunciation. To give Toms some credit, their founder has embraced this criticism: ‘If you are really serious about poverty alleviation, our critics said, then you need to create jobs. At first I took that personally, but then I realized that they were right … using our model to create jobs is the next level.’ Toms currently make most of their shoes in China, but have plans to produce one-third in countries where they make donations by the end of 2015, and to this end they are establishing factories in Ethiopia, Haiti and Kenya. Arguably, addressing the exploitative relationships which exist between labour and capital at source offers a more promising opportunity to mitigate some of the causes and consequences of uneven development.
The arguments against Toms have been raised by numerous commentators on social media as well as news outlets. A counter-reaction quickly follows, which paints critics of the brand as particularly callous individuals. Armchair detractors are labelled hateful figures by the Toms community, envious because they have never started a business, launched a brand or empowered a social movement. Whether one believes Toms is ‘a step in the right direction’ or simply ‘a cynical marketing ploy’, the example opens up just one ethical dilemma associated with clothing consumption and production. The basic question boils down to this: should First World consumers of espadrilles be determining what footwear others in the global South access? Toms have harnessed a conventional fashion system of provision to a parallel supply system directed towards the deserving poor. This does not address the embedded inequalities of the linkages between clothing consumption and production and is not the solution to uneven development. Similar criticisms can be made of many other socially responsible brands. The further contradictions of ethical consumption are explored throughout this chapter.
Ethical consumption in theory and practice
Most Americans and Europeans love to consume. The great majority are largely uninterested in radical political change. Consumption means not just buying goods like clothes, but also eating out at restaurants, going on holiday, watching sports and movies, purchasing cars, carrying out home improvements and spoiling children with treats. Meanwhile, through the mass media and cultural globalization, people are more conscious than ever of global inequalities and of issues like climate change. Despite an increasing awareness of and a proclaimed concern for pressing developmental and environmental problems, widespread disenchantment with and indifference to conventional political processes are a hallmark of postmodern life. Capitalism, in partnership with liberal governments, has been effective at forestalling political dissent and inventive in bringing new forms of commodity to the market. The political importance of shopping and its role in shaping life in the global North seem to be increasing to the point whereby citizens have become defined primarily as commodity-choosing consumers. In the USA a potential Democrat or Republican can be readily identified by the ways in which they spend their disposable income. Vacation destinations, transport decisions, what we eat and the clothes we wear are all potential markers of political persuasion as well as social standing.
As consumption has grown and diversified, new politicized ways to exercise consumer choice have developed. Rather than engaging with formal political parties, progressive liberals are attracted to the fairly controllable and instantaneous consumption of new ethical products. Responsible capitalism has become a new means through which to promote environmental and social justice. Shopping for ‘good’ goods mediates our engagement with an ever-expanding range of economic, environmental and social topics. Wearing ethical clothes such as fair-trade cotton T-shirts, second-hand dresses from charity shops or organic woollen sweaters is a way to demonstrate solidarity with good causes. Buying commodities like recycled paper and fish fingers from sustainable maritime sources is shopping as a guilt-free and transformative exercise, marketed as a way to prevent deforestation, resolve overfishing or alleviate other global challenges.
Some clothing companies make ethics central to their businesses. Patagonia, an American outdoor appeal company, is a prime example. It promotes fair labour practices, provides mapping of the social and environmental footprints of its products, and uses fabrics like organic cottons and recycled polyester. Environmentalism is at the heart of the brand’s appeal. Images of people fly fishing and mountaineering in pristine environments in the company’s adverts help build associations with authenticity and the outdoor lifestyle. This extended to a unique ad campaign which featured the prominent strapline ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’, where the core message was that ‘customers need to think twice before they buy’. A self-serving connection is evident in the Patagonia system of provision. Buying ethically helps protect the environment; the consumer can enjoy both natural landscapes and the clothes when they go hiking and adventuring in nature. This type of consumption is distinguished by ethics, morality and the politics of responsibility, which motivate actions in a complex way. Whilst it is a growing sector, the power of ethical consumption should not be overstated. One of the most striking observations is that there is a large gap between intention and behaviour; people readily identify themselves as ethically minded consumers yet rarely purchase ethical products.
A more radical approach to changing shopping habits is pursued by anti-consumption and boycott movements. Examples of anti-consumption protests in the clothing sector include the notorious PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur’ photo shoots. Appearing in these anti-animal-cruelty adverts has become a near rite of passage for female celebrities, ranging from supermodels to reality TV stars. Such politicized acts are expressions of opposition to the consumption of specific types of unethical commodities resulting from ‘unmet expectations’, ‘symbolic incongruity’ or even ‘ideological incompatibility’. In contrast, consumer boycotts are a temporary suspension of consumption. What is interesting about a boycott is not the condemnation of market exchange per se but of a specific type of consumption. The boycott is an appealing option for commodity-choosing consumers to engage in discretionary politics and is a temporary measure, because explicit within a boycott is the principle that consumption will resume once conditions improve. Boycotts are thus in line with the mainstream idea of commodity-choosing citizen consumers opting to take individual responsibility for social and environmental issues.
Capitalist social relations are fundamentally ill-suited to resolving the problems of uneven development and environmental degradation fostered by the growth of free-market economies. Ethical consumption brings together morality and the market in what seems to be a contradiction in terms. To understand this let us first revisit the idea of commodity fetishism. One of the foundations of capitalism is that goods and services are purchased with money, a special type of commodity. Money always mediates relations between producers and consumers and in doing so creates a moral vacuum. Inequalities in exchange are concealed by apparently open and voluntary social relationships: one can choose to give Gap $50 and get a pair of new jeans; whereas if one ‘chooses’ to work sewing jeans in eastern China for eight or even ten hours a day one receives $1.80 a day. As the case studies throughout this book have demonstrated, different parties in systems of provision are unaware of the networks of exploitation and the various ways in which surplus value is extracted in the clothing trade. Commodity fetishism transforms the abstract and subjective value of Gap jeans, vintage dresses, Toms shoes or any clothing item, turning them into objective things which people believe have intrinsic economic value. This is true of any commodity, including that other special type of commodity: human labour. Commodity fetishism makes it easy to assign variable wages to different types of work. Throughout clothing systems of provision different subjective values are assigned to various types of labour, which are exploited to a greater or lesser extent, be they Malian cotton growers, Cambodian garment workers or Walmart shop assistants.
Ethically produced goods are an attempt to de-fetishize the commodity. The most prominent example is Fairtrade. Food and beverages were the first Fairtrade products; premium bananas, chocolate and coffee have widespread appeal and are growing in popularity among middle-class consumers in the global North. Fairtrade has expanded and encompasses clothing products from babygrows to waterproof jackets. Buying Fairtrade may be intended by the consumer to be an individual progressive political act, but does little to disrupt the pre-existing relationships between capital, labour and nature. Liberal-minded citizens in the global North can indulge in their consumption habits without calling for the large-scale structural changes that could threaten their own privileged status in global society. Fairtrade aims to modify market relations by providing a just pricefor Third World labour, but does not even produce the appearance of equality. The value assigned to Fairtrade labour is a small premium above the market rate, but often covers only subsistence plus the basic cost of health care and education. Capitalist social relations are complicated; they include diverse cultural perceptions of value, but the salient point is that they are modified and not transformed by Fairtrade networks.
Valuing Fairtrade clothes
Shopping for clothes in the global North is about much more than just choosing a ‘thing’. It involves either passively or voluntarily subscribing to a system of provision and buying into a lifestyle. The material culture that surrounds the consumption of Fairtrade garments is an integral part of the system. Links between spaces of production and places of consumption in Fairtrade networks are exposed through adverts, documentaries and packaging, which lead to the reworking and creation of new spectacles for consumption. Marx first argued that shopping is stimulated by narratives and aesthetics: ‘The need which consumption feels for the object is created by the perception of it. The object of art – like every other product – creates a public which is sensitive to art and enjoys beauty.’ So much of what determines the subjective symbolic value in clothing is the spectacular activities that lie beyond the narrow realm of physical production. Place can be influential in establishing value. With Fairtrade and other ethical goods, locations of production are often attractive parts of the global South, with which an enlightened and progressive consumer in the global North may be familiar, such as Himalayan blouses from the mountains of Nepal. Sometimes celebrity artists are able to play a key role in this performance and help modify the aesthetic narrative to make commodity-choosing consumers sensitive to different ethical issues. In adverts and documentaries they help create ideal images – such as visiting happy workers in stereotypical tropical landscapes – which are not an objective record of the conditions of production but, rather, a new fetish. As with other processes of image making in ethical consumption, this can serve to reinforce and perpetuate economic relationships that undermine other more radical efforts to address pressing social and environmental issues.
Yet political engagement has never been the only motivation for choosing ‘good’ clothes, as they also serve as means of making distinctions and class positioning. The premium pricing of most ethical garments excludes poorer consumers in the global North as well as the global South from choosing them. At worst they can be considered a petty-bourgeois indulgence. For capitalism ethical systems of provision are an elegant solution to the challenges and criticisms raised by the alliance of trade unions, NGOs, faith groups, celebrities and others. These sceptics and critics of globalization accept the limited progress and change that projects like Fairtrade represent and endorse such initiatives. Ethical trade offers a partial solution, whilst embedding the logic of inequality. Proponents argue that they are socially progressive, even though they also foreclose radical political possibilities. By absorbing some of the opposition to, and critiques of, capitalism – centred on the lack of care and compassion for labour in the global South and environments around the world – more radical alternatives are crowded out. This is not achieved by force or fierce competition, but by small-scale or ‘molecular’ social transformation as a tepid revolution in shopping without a revolution in society. Certain demands are addressed whilst at the same time international inequality between classes is encouraged.
Fairtrade and other goods signify ‘ethicalness’. The contradiction within Fairtrade is that, whilst partially acknowledging the inequity of market exchange and the reality of capitalist accumulation, this system of provision depends upon the persistence of the market and ordinary practices of commodity exchange. A voluntary premium is paid; yet, to maintain the price gap between conventional and Fairtrade products, consumption has to be further stimulated through the creation of symbolic use values. This results in the production of consumable adverts and producer vignettes which create a romantic and idealized vision of landscapes and livelihoods in the global South.
Vivienne Westwood and political consumption
One example of the performance of ethicalness comes from Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Made with Love in Nairobi’ fashion line, which is ethically manufactured in Kenya. Vivienne Westwood is an influential British fashion designer. In the 1970s she established her celebrity status and credibility by popularizing punk identity whilst highlighting the politics of social inequality in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Later, she became a celebrated campaigner on gender, social and environmental issues and has been a critic of overconsumption. During the London Occupy protests she proclaimed, ‘We were all trained up to be consumers … throw away the past, the future will take care of itself, catch the latest thing and suck it up. We don’t have any art today.’ Previously she had famously issued the rebellious statement ‘don’t buy clothes’, but this was also an inauthentic message given that Westwood is the head of a very successful clothing label with a turnover in 2011 of £23.8 million ($39.6 million). Through participating in countless seasonal fashion shows her brand helps inspire the fast-fashion system of provision, as Vivienne Westwood and other designer labels drive forward new clothing trends, which migrate rapidly from the catwalk to shopping malls. The conclusion to be drawn from Westwood’s grandstanding is that her commodities are not just clothes or handbags, but are something above and beyond that. They are commodified art and have symbolic value among an affluent audience which is excited by her rebellious ‘political’ messages as well as the new fashionable designs.
Westwood’s ‘Made with Love in Nairobi’ collection has been produced in collaboration with the International Trade Centre (ITC) since 2010. The ITC Ethical Production Model aims to reduce poverty by generating ‘trade opportunities for marginalized communities and micro-producers in the developing world’ and ‘enables international fashion companies and distributors to source from African communities’ by following ‘a rigorous code of ethics and gender equality’ designed to empower women and raise their incomes. Like Fairtrade the model is ‘not charity, just work’. ITC’s ‘Ethical Fashion Africa’ initiative connects international fashion designers to African producers and organizes manufacturing activity, which ‘enables some of the world’s poorest people to enter fashion’s value chain as producers, while also allowing designers, who want to source ethically, to do so’. In this scenario the emphasis is on liberal choice as individual designers have to ‘want to source ethically’.
In Kenya working conditions meet Fair Labour Association criteria, as a consequence of which craftswomen’s incomes have increased from $3 to $6 dollars a day, enabling them to pay school fees and medical expenses. This evidence suggests that the value assigned to labour in the ITC programme is comparable to Fairtrade: wages include a small premium above the market rate, but do not enable much more than the physical reproduction of labour power. The women work on designs sent from London to Nairobi, which require ‘community groups to be trained in the use of the specialised equipment needed to achieve them’. Westwood says the Ethical Fashion Africa approach ‘gives people control over their lives’. Yet control over the system of provision is constrained when they are unable to design and market the goods. Africans do not have access to distant international customers who have the power to pick and choose, and thus decide whether or not they support an ethical cause.
Through the ITC a new model of development is being promoted as a way to fuel African economic growth, but this is unlikely to lead to widespread poverty alleviation. There are three main problems with the economic geography of this type of intervention. First, rather than establishing ‘modern’ industrial patterns – as previously existed in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa – ITC advocates a fragmented approach to organizing production and ‘essentially spread[s] out the different parts of a factory over entire regions’. This promotes uneven development and amplifies spatial inequality by assisting only certain groups to enter the global capitalist economy on marginally better terms. Second, dispersed community-level production is also disadvantageous for labour as it reduces wage earners’ bargaining power relative to international buying firms. Third, the ITC wants to develop large-scale production, but does not promote state intervention, preferential access to overseas markets, industrial development, or production for local consumers, and only responds to ‘market demand’. The WTO sponsors ITC’s Ethical Fashion Africa initiative. Yet it is important to note that the WTO’s broad mission is to open up global trade, which is in line with the economic liberalization imposed upon Africa through the structural adjustment programmes that contributed to eroding industries and decreasing wage levels. Today’s ‘Made with Love in Nairobi’ craftswomen are the daughters of a generation which had an established clothing industry that proved to be uncompetitive in a globalized free market. This type of niche production and small-scale employment cannot contribute to widespread poverty alleviation; rather than well-intentioned market ‘solutions’, more radical shifts in the mode of production are required. The reestablishment of an industrial working class will be necessary before poverty reduction can be achieved on a large scale.
Marketing ‘Made with Love in Nairobi’
‘Made with Love in Nairobi’ has been promoted through magazine photo shoots, videos, Westwood’s personal blog and numerous interviews. Vivienne Westwood has made a big ‘media splash’. The images and personal vignettes represent a controlled attempt to de-fetishize the commodity. Nairobian craftswomen have identities which add symbolic value to the commodities. In Fairtrade the romantic commodification of production has been used to a similar effect. Vivienne Westwood amplifies this by using her celebrity identity to draw greater attention to the production location and shape consumers’ knowledge. A stylized vision of a de-fetishized relationship is offered, which is actually a caricature of reality. The creation of a new commodity fetish begins with the name of the products, ‘Made with Love in Nairobi’, which instantly draws attention to the conditions of production. The use of ‘Love’ cynically reworks the commodity fetish to capitalize on the notion of ‘caring at distance’. The acts of ‘love’ represent a two-way interaction: on the one hand, the bags are explicitly made ‘with love’ and carefully manufactured; on the other hand, the implicit subtext is that the consumer is performing a reciprocal act of love towards a deserving African woman by buying the bag. What could be a more effective way of obscuring the unequal relationship between consumer and producer? The name ‘Made with Love in Nairobi’ really says more about consumers’ construction of their own identity than about the producers’ situation. People are choosing a fashionable bag and aspiring to buy into a compassionate image.
The primary imagery used in ‘Made with Love in Nairobi’ projects a powerful message of lifting impoverished African female urban workers out of poverty. Photographs are shot in a ‘slum’ landscape of dusty and impoverished Nairobi streets, rubbish dumps and local workshops, showing where the goods are produced and who will benefit from their sale. In most of the photos local people are in the margins of the frames; Vivienne Westwood herself takes centre stage alongside established African supermodels. The promotional material presents a ‘one-way’ consumption of life. A new text is created by Vivienne Westwood so that the consumer can ‘know’ what life in Nairobi looks like, but this is uni-directional as the producer does not ‘know’ the consumer. In some of the images Westwood re-creates a typical African scene after recognizing the commonplace practice of selling second-hand clothes and accessories in open-air markets; ‘We brought so many accessories with us to Africa that Juergen [the photographer] suggested we pretend we had a shop and were selling things like everybody else. I think you can see that I’m having fun selling.’ Westwood seems to mock the situation of the people around her. She places the $300 handbags among secondhand clothes consumed by the poor out of necessity rather than choice. The imagery in the adverts follows classical European representations of the continent, where Africans are reduced to the role of bystanders. This marketing activity contrasts sharply with the livelihoods of African market traders, which are beset by risk, uncertainty and hardships.
Some of the revenue from sales may help alleviate poverty in Kenya on a small scale, but meanwhile the promotional campaign creates new commodity fetishes that undermine the broader efforts to challenge the politics of global inequality. The Vivienne Westwood stylized and romantic vision of Kenya is obscuring the inequity between global North and South in a manner comparable to that of other celebrities’ interventions in Africa, including Bono, Bob Geldof and Madonna. In this case study a celebrity personality is attempting to allow individual consumers to make moral and economic connections to African producers in a flawed effort to de-fetishize commodity culture. Rather than eliminating the commodity fetish, the celebrity artist conjures up a new performance. The knowledge flows – newspaper and magazine features and interviews, blogs, and the ITC and Vivienne Westwood websites – formulate a new fetish and create another form of ‘spectacle’ for Northern consumers.
As with Fairtrade and the other ITC products, ‘Made with Love in Nairobi’ offers a limited acknowledgment of the inequities at the heart of capitalism, but still depends upon the market and ordinary practices of commodity exchange. A voluntary premium is paid to the Kenyan labour force, but to sustain the consumption of this product the commodity-choosing consumers have to be stimulated to buy the good through the creation of material and symbolic use values which grab their attention and so commend high prices. The proclaimed aim to move away from a charitable discourse is contradicted by the images of Kenyans which fall into the category of deserving poor rather than equal partners. Westwood wants the consumer to help poor Africans: ‘It’s quite incredible to think that we might be able to save the world through fashion.’ Instead of providing something different to charity, the result of ‘Made with Love in Nairobi’ is itself a contradiction which undermines efforts to give greater recognition to workers in the global South.
Ethical recycling and new cycles of consumption
Consumer ethics also play a role in how people in the global North dispose of clothes. Getting rid of old clothes and making rubbish are firmly entrenched as part of the broader practice of everyday consumption and use. People are increasingly being directed towards ways to dispose of the masses of old, unwanted clothes that result from the global North’s overconsumption, especially the same middle-class consumers who enjoy buying ethical products. This includes the growth in doorstep and clothing bank collections already discussed, but also new ethical commercial solutions are emerging. The link between shopping and disposal is something that retailers are beginning to exploit as they mix fast fashion and sustainability. Foremost is H&M, the world’s second largest apparel retailer. H&M has initiated a garment collection scheme across thousands of stores worldwide: ‘customers are encouraged to bring in unwanted garments of any brand and in any condition to H&M stores in all 53 markets to be given a new life.’ Cecilia Brannsten, project manager in the UK Sustainability Team, outlines H&M’s aim: ‘Basically, we want to change the mindset of the customer [so they] see their old clothes as a resource rather than throwing them into the garbage or letting them pile up at the back of their closet.’ When customers visit H&M they can hand over their old clothes, for which they get a voucher in return to encourage more shopping. In the USA, H&M offers a 15 per cent discount voucher for every bag of used clothing, with a limit of two vouchers a day. This is an incentive to bring in old clothes, but is not very generous when one considers that the company routinely posts a gross profit margin of around 60 per cent and a net profit margin of 15 per cent. Clothes are sold on to I:CO, a Swiss headquartered textile recycler, which processes used clothing for second-hand markets in the global South, vintage retail in the global North, and recycling – just like the systems of provision which have already been discussed at length. The claim is that it is a non-profit making venture, with revenues covering H&M’s running costs. Donations are also made to charities: ‘for each kilogram of clothes that H&M collects 0.02 Euro will be donated to a local charity organization chosen by H&M’. This represents a small contribution when compared to the market price of used clothes.
Accepting donations of old clothes is not unique to H&M. Other retailers are establishing similar programmes, some of which involve closer integration with charities. In the UK ‘JJB Sports has launched a new in-store trainer-recycling scheme to raise funds for [children’s disability charity] Whizz-Kidz’ with each donor receiving a £5 [$8] JJB voucher in exchange for every pair of trainers they donate.’ The used shoes are sold by JJB: ‘All profits that JJB makes from the sale of the unwanted shoes for re-use or recycling will support many more young disabled people.’ A similar scheme has been operated between Oxfam and Marks & Spencer since 2008: ‘Oxfam and M&S have teamed up to help shoppers support the world’s poorest people. Just bring your old M&S clothes or soft furnishings to an Oxfam shop and we’ll exchange them for a £5 [$8] voucher to use at M&S.’ Donations then go on to be sold in Oxfam shops or processed at Wastesaver.
Getting rid of clothes makes more room for new consumption. Commercial recycling by stores like H&M explicitly links discarding unwanted clothes to a new cycle of consumption, demonstrating a direct connection between the new and used clothing systems of provision. Clothing retailers want to provide a virtuous outlet for unwanted clothing in the global North, without interrupting the sale of fast fashion. They have begun to develop their own solution to the problem of clothing overconsumption. As with other collection schemes, the marketing materials downplay the broader social and economic impacts of the second-hand clothing system of provision in the global South. H&M and I:CO place a special emphasis on textile recycling, stating that it is possible to recycle up to 30 per cent of textiles and highlighting how these can be ‘down-cycled’ in to materials such as cushioning, flooring or packaging, or alternatively ‘upcycled’ into new clothes of equal or higher value. Despite these narratives, profitability in clothing recycling is driven by the value of re-wearable garments rather than by remaking old clothes into new apparel or other goods. Closed loop recycling, where textile fibres could be reused and woven into new fabrics, is an appealing idea, but techniques and technologies are currently underdeveloped and not economically viable on a commercial scale. The complexity of the different combinations of materials used in new garments makes reusing modern mixed fibres very difficult.
Ethical recycling provides an appealing and intuitive solution to the issues of overconsumption, yet this does not address the myriad development and environmental problems that are formed through the interconnected new and second-hand clothing systems of provision. As has been shown in earlier chapters, second-hand clothing donations have diverse effects upon the economies and cultures of the global South. From an environmental perspective, the ‘clothes miles’ associated with the circulation of millions of tons of new and used textiles are a further issue that should be considered within any ethical audit of clothing systems of provision. Local rather than transnational commodity chains may offer Greener solutions. Furthermore, the environmental impacts of new clothing production need to be more extensively explored. Solutions are likely to require radical action. The challenges of making Green garments have become the preoccupation of a sustainable fashion movement.
Sustainable, Green or eco fashion is a design philosophy and part of a wider trend towards sustainable forms of consumption. From origins among alternative and counter-culture groups, sustainable fashion has spread towards the mainstream, finding favour mainly among the middle classes in the global North. The language, if not always the reality, of sustainability has been leapt upon by the mainstream fashion press, most notably Vogue, and collections have found their way into malls and department stores. The overall concept of sustainability rests upon three pillars: society, economy and environment. Within fashion it is fair to say that the greatest attention has been drawn to the environmental pillar. The politics of the environment are malleable and business can shape the eco agenda to dictate new ways of bringing profitable clothing goods to the market. In theory, through sustainable design, consideration is given to the lifespan of products, including the broad ecological footprint of clothes. However, there are many layers of engagement in Greening fashion. While the more committed proponents seek to dramatically rethink the relationships between design, consumption, use and reuse, and end of life, at the other limit of the spectrum some eco interventions resemble little more than token gestures, as business has capitalized upon the popularity of environmental movements to bathe their products in the appealing aura of Greenness.
Corporations have grown concerned about their brand image; in consequence, major fast fashion companies have made limited efforts to think progressively about material selection, resource flows and supply chain efficiencies. Some of these interventions have the collateral benefit of making manufacturing and distribution more profitable, or enabling products to be attractively marketed. It can pay to consider the environment; however, reforms rarely extend to changes that will significantly disrupt the profitability of production. The crux of the matter is the inherent contradiction of sustainable fashion. Importantly, ‘normal’ or ‘fast’ fashion is driven by the logic of the market. Fashion in the broadest sense means the prevailing or conventional – that is, the socially acceptable – way of dressing. New clothes are framed as being the latest fashion, implying that there is change afoot and soon current fashions will become outmoded and obsolete. Fashions are the accelerating metronome for consumption, producing advancing beats, pulsing ever faster to draw more commodities through the circuits of global systems of provision. Zara’s model of continually changing fashion lines and other strategies of ongoing replenishment compel the committed shopper to buy, and keep on buying, fast fashion. Ownership becomes transient as affordable garments are made of inferior materials and are constructed speedily in ways which mean they will fray, thin, unravel and fall apart.
Fashion is a practice that directly underpins the rapid despoiling of the earth’s environmental systems. Under capitalism the necessity to continually increase profits brings more and more products to the market. Varied styles and makes of clothes all have different and baffling biographies that involve a near infinite array of ecological impacts. Difficulties in auditing and accounting for the directly attributable effects of consuming particular items of clothing stymie effective collective action, even though it is evident that clothes-making harms the natural world. On a global scale evidence abounds of the varied ways in which industrial capitalism is exceeding planetary boundaries; usage of fresh water, food and minerals has grown exponentially since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. To go further back, ever since humans began to extract a permanent social surplus from the environment, they set in motion an irreversible destruction of what was natural. The size of the challenge is immense. How can consuming clothes be reconciled with preserving the environment through ecologically limited and careful practices that necessitate living within the boundaries of natural systems? How can fashion become sustainable? These are big questions. The focus of this book has been on humans and poverty, directing knowledge towards the social and economic (non)sustainability of systems of provision. The work of others, with a greater sensibility for design and knowledge of materials, is both advancing the understanding of the environmental impacts of clothing consumption and challenging how we think about the very idea of fashion. Foremost here is the work of Kate Fletcher, who recognizes the need for a holistic approach that looks across systems of provision. Viable alternatives must be located, studied and popularized to unlock creativity and challenge contemporary relationships between people and the garment sector:
Ideas and expectations of fashion are ‘locked in’ to conventions, habits, social norms and industry structures that reflect a vision of our fashionable selves as individuals consuming new clothes, but … other forms of fashion expression and provision exist and reflect resourceful, fulfilling and empowering engagement with garments. Tentatively, this points to a situation where ideas of progress are no longer tied to a societal narrative of economic growth through market transactions.
Perspectives on ethical consumption
When debating the impacts of ethical consumption one of the fundamental issues to consider is whether the success of businesses is consistent with social advancement and human development. If capitalist progress is inherently good, then most enterprise will have ethical benefits. The reality, however, indicates otherwise. The global market economy has led to uneven development and environmental degradation. Ethical consumption is both compatible with and supportive of liberal free-market approaches to governance of the global economy and environment. As such, the ways in which ethical consumption is popularized dismantle a sense of praxis. This means that more radical alliances and voices of dissent can get crowded out as partial and deeply flawed ethical solutions grab attention. Critical work which has been undertaken on Fairtrade and similar products has illuminated many of the problems of ethical consumption and exposed how this type of activity sustains the smooth functioning of global capitalism rather than being a brake on an exploitative mode of production. To reiterate, ethical production systems alter rather than eliminate the exploitation of labour and nature, especially in the global South. ‘Made with Love in Nairobi’ provides a signal case of particular interest as it uses advertising imagery which mimics African second-hand clothing markets, reinforcing the links between new and used clothes, but also embedding the logic of an uneven world in which different people have and do not have access to new clothes.
Ethical consumption satisfies a longing for ‘action’ on environmental and social issues by producing commodities with highly specific use values which meet peoples real (or imagined) needs. Yet, as the radical philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues, ‘from the absolute standpoint of the system as a totality, the satisfaction of individuals’ needs is just a necessary means to keep the machinery of capitalist (re)production going.’ Buying ethical clothes like Toms shoes is an individualized form of ‘political’ consumption which represents a limited force for social change that focuses attention only on convenient ethical topics. The maintenance of individual consumer sovereignty fits perfectly with extreme notions of liberalism whereby social relations are becoming ‘purely atomic’ and civic responsibility is rejected in favour of the ‘apotheosis of the individual’. This type of positional ethical consumption as class differentiation feeds into the reproduction of inequalities. Clothing is one of the most important types of consumer commodity, as it stands in for identity. People want to wear clothes that represent their personality, and so garments which are associated with values such as compassion and care are popular among certain consumers. ‘Going Green’ or supporting other topical issues can even be fashionable. From an environmental perspective the individually responsible decision is to choose to shop less often, wear clothes until they are worn out, and then repair or recycle them within the household or replace them with locally produced goods. Slowing the rate of clothing consumption by buying fewer higher-quality clothes is a far more environmentally friendly approach than continuing to buy fast fashion and donating excess clothes. However, these solutions are an ‘opt in’ approach to a massive problem and are unlikely to be taken up by more than a small section of society in the global North who have the opportunity to make the decision. Fundamentally, more radical social change is required, to which the capitalist mode of production does not provide the answer.