Recently, two friends excitedly showed me some new additions to their autumn/winter wardrobe – lovely, chunky jumpers and gorgeous leather boots. In the midst of an avid discussion about coats (how many winters can a coat see before it has to be replaced?), I turned the conversation to the journey these products make before they appear, gleaming and enticing, on high-street shelves.
My friends admitted not only that they had no idea where their new clothes had come from, but also that it hadn’t even crossed their mind to think about who had made their clothes – and under what circumstances – when weighing up whether to make a purchase.
Like most of us, their two deciding factors had been (a) Do I like it? and (b) Can I afford it?
How can it be that consumers pick up brightly coloured, beautifully crafted clothes in high-street shops, yet do not consider how they got to be so bright and beautiful?
The reality is that many pairs of hands will most likely have been involved in the sewing, stitching, dying and stretching of each item in our wardrobe. And while the owners of these hands are frequently subject to meagre wages, poor working conditions and forced overtime, for the most part they do not even feature in the minds of the fashion-conscious shoppers who buy the finished product.
The discussion with my friends highlighted the truth that most of us don’t know about the reality of sweatshop labour, or how to bring about change.
Part of the problem is that fashion retailers tend to be very secretive about what happens in their supply chains – so it’s difficult to know exactly what the situation is.
While some information about problems and progress is available from retailers such as the Arcadia Group (which owns Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins among many others), New Look and even Primark, hard numbers about wages paid and hours worked are simply not available.
However, not everything is shrouded in mystery. Several NGOs, such as ActionAid, Labour Behind the Label and War on Want have done a considerable amount of work into the reality of wages, conditions and rights of garment workers throughout the world.
For information about every major UK fashion retailer and their commitment to improving garment workers’ standard of living, check out Labour Behind the Label’s latest Let's Clean up Fashion Report.
For a snapshot of the lives of garment workers in one factory supplying the UK high street, read and joint report Taking Liberties.
To discover the potential impact if Asda were to pay two pence more ($0.03, AUD$0.04) on each t-shirt it buys from Indian suppliers, have a look at ActionAid’s Asda: Poverty Guaranteed report.
Seeing as you’ve read this far, you’re most likely somewhat interested in finding out what you can do to bring about ethical change in high-street fashion retailers. Here are some actions to get you started:
Become an Ethical Pest with the Ethical Trade Initiative, and take actions such as writing to fashion chain chief executives, and making contact with other ethically-minded consumers on their facebook page.
Watch this space for Global Poverty Project action on ethical fashion!
The Ethical Trading Initiative supports workers freedom, fair treatment and representation across the globe: find out more on their website
Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s book 'The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty' raises some fundamental questions about the movement to end extreme poverty.
It’s a snappy, stinging read which urges the reader to reflect on their own life. Singer argues not only that people in rich countries should help the world’s poor, but that they have a moral obligation to do so.
Singer’s basic argument is that it is morally indefensible for people with a surplus not to help those with less than enough.
He draws on various psychological experiments to demonstrate how choosing material goods over human lives cannot be justified. One of these experiments is the choice between (a) saving a child drowning in a pond but ruining your expensive shoes, or (b) leaving the child to die and saving your shoes (see video above).
Surely the morally right thing to do here is to save the child and sacrifice your shoes, because a human life is of greater value than possessions. How is it, then, that 24,000 children in poor countries die every day from preventable causes, while the average woman in a rich country owns at least US$600 worth of clothes that she hasn’t worn in the past year?
Working from arguments such as this one, Singer presents the case for a substantial overhaul of the current culture of giving.
Singer argues that each of us should give a proportion of our income to humanitarian causes – if we do not give, we do not - and cannot - live a ‘good’ life.
He specifically recommends how much each of us should give, depending on our income. He suggests that the vast majority of taxpayers should give 1% of their income to the movement to end extreme poverty.
When you earn the equivalent of US$105,000 a year or more, you should give 5% of what you earn over this threshold. This rate gradually increases until you give 33.3% of what you earn over an annual salary of US$10 million. Singer himself gives 20-25% of his earnings to overseas development causes.
Singer’s book raises several key questions about aid and development, two of which I identify here:
Is development all about money?
The Life You Can Save concentrates almost exclusively on financial contributions from the public. In that sense, it can be seen as very ‘money-centric’, focusing on the need to donate money to aid organisations, and neglecting the other actions that we at the Global Poverty Project advocate (Learn, talk, volunteer, buy, shout). Is donating money the most important and most effective way to combat poverty?
Who should give – governments or citizens?
As well as concentrating on financial donations, The Life You Can Save overwhelmingly focuses on the money given by ordinary citizens, not national governments or international organisations. It therefore seeks to greatly increase the role of personal giving as opposed to official development assistance (ODA). This point is picked up on by influential economist Paul Collier in his review of the book .
This specific focus begs the question of who the main players are in ending extreme poverty. Does the onus fall on the population at large, or the world’s governments? Or both? And what are the consequences for issues such as international trade regulations if we just focus on personal giving?
What are your views on these issues? Have you read The Life You Can Save – and what did you think of it?
Last week saw the United Nations declaring famine in southern Somalia. As the crisis unfolds, we look at how this famine has come about and what it means for those affected.
What factors led to the famine?
This is the first time in 19 years that a famine has been declared in the Horn of Africa. Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the World Food Programme, has described the current crisis as the result of drought, rising food prices and conflict.
Droughtin east Africa is fairly common, but people’s capacities to cope with dry seasons have decreased in recent years. This is the result of a combination of poverty, rising population numbers, pressures on limited natural resources, conflict and soaring food and fuel prices.
Very poor rainfall this year has led to the failure of harvests and the death of livestock, which many people rely on for their income. A large percentage of the population in the Horn of Africa is nomadic – making them most vulnerable to declining livelihoods and conflict over resources.
Rising food prices have been instrumental in leading to the current crisis. Food prices, on the rise since 2007, have recently soared; local cereal prices in some parts of Somalia are 2-3 times their 2010 price.
Conflict in the region has had a huge impact on people’s capacity to avert the crisis and put an end to it. This is particularly relevant in Somalia, following complete collapse of government and infrastructure - and in Kenya, where vast numbers of Somali refugees are flooding into Kenyan camps.
Why is Somalia worst affected?
On July 20, the United Nations declared famine in two regions of southern Somalia, Bakool and Lower Shamelle. It is expected that famine will occur across all regions of southern Somalia over the coming two months.
Somalia’s deputy prime minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, said that the fundamental cause of the famine is the conflict and instability within the country.
The impact of the conflict on the country’s infrastructure, such as the bombing of hospitals, has deprived people of much-needed services, and control over food markets and movement has forced thousands of people to leave the country in search of stability.
Rebel control has prevented aid and assistance from getting through to starving Somalis. Rebel group al-Shabaab has imposed bans on foreign aid groups getting access to the affected regions. While this ban has recently been lifted, many people have received little or no help since the drought began to take effect last year.
What are the direct consequences of the famine?
The effects of the famine are numerous. Malnutrition is a significant consequence: UNICEF says that already 2 million children under the age of five in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia are acutely malnourished. 500,000 are suffering from life-threatening severe malnutrition.
Loss of life is a direct consequence of famine. Death rates in southern Somalia are currently more than 6 in 10,000 per day – more than three times the normal famine threshold.
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Somalia for Kenya, where camps built to hold 90,000 people are currently home to more than 350,000 refugees.
For many refugees, their livelihoods, farmland and independence have been sacrificed in the fight for survival. Children are taken out of school, and people become dependent on donors to survive.
Why should I give?
As Fran Equiza, Oxfam’s regional director, puts it:
"There is no time to waste if we are to avoid massive loss of life. We must not stand by and watch this tragedy unfold before our eyes. The world has been slow to recognise the severity of this crisis, but there is no longer any excuse for inaction."
This is a humanitarian emergency, the likes of which has not been seen in 60 years. If we do not help in the short-term, there is no way such situations can be avoided, or their impact minimised, in the long-term.
The money you give will go towards supplying emergency relief for those affected by the drought. This will be in the form of, for example, foods with high milk content, which are particularly designed to help fight malnutrition, as well as water and medical help.
Don’t my donations just breed dependence?
If we want people to have a chance of long-term independence, it is imperative to try to save lives in the short-term. Emergency relief is different from long-term development aid, and must be treated differently. Emergency relief targets disasters, such as this one. It is only through surviving a disaster that people have a chance of avoiding another.
How can I give?
You can donate right now using the following links:
A Small Act is the inspiring true story of how a small monthly donation from Hilde Back, a Jewish refugee living in Sweden, enabled bright but poor Kenyan student Chris Mburu to attend secondary school. He went on to study at Harvard and became a human rights lawyer for the United Nations, eventually setting up his own scholarship fund for Kenyan children in Hilde Back’s name, continuing the help that his benefactor provided.
The film combines Hilde and Chris’s story with the story of the new generation of pupils at Mukubu Primary School, particularly following the lives of the top three students – Kimani, Ruth and Caroline, who are preparing for their national KCPE exams. The results of these exams determine whether the students are eligible for a Hilde Back Education Fund Scholarship to attend secondary school. The film follows the children’s hard work, anticipation, disappointment and happiness throughout the exam period – stages which all former students can relate to!
The consequences of disappointing results, however, are far more severe for these pupils. For the vast majority of the pupils at Mukubu Primary, failing to obtain a scholarship rules out the possibility of attending secondary school. This means that many of these students, particularly girls, fall into what Chris’s cousin Jane, calls “the same vicious cycle of poverty”.
The film poignantly captures the chronic disappointment of those left behind, and raises the question of what will follow the attainment of the second Millennium Development Goal – achieving universal primary education. Is the next step ensuring secondary education for all?
Startling links between the lives of Chris and Hilde Back make this story even more powerful. As a Jewish child, Hilde was forced to flee the genocide in Nazi Germany and start a new life in Sweden. Her parents, however, were not so lucky and perished under the Nazis. Chris, her beneficiary, now fights this kind of genocide in his job as a human rights lawyer.
The strongest message in the film, however, is the need for and the possible effect of a small act. The incredible story of Hilde and Chris clearly demonstrates the real-life ripple effect of a single act of kindness and inspires us to make similar gestures in our own lives.
The numerous children who have not been selected for a scholarship remind us at the end of the film that there is a chronic need for many more small gestures on the part of those who are able to do something. In the words of Chris Mburu:
“You have to do something. You have to say, ‘I know that I cannot provide support, relief and help to all the suffering that is around me. But I want to do one thing; I want to take one action that will work towards relieving that situation.”
Each of us can do something; each of us can make a small gesture – and it’s not just about financial donations. This is what we at the Global Poverty Project are all about: we have written extensively about what each of us can do, what small gesture we can make, in order to make a difference and do our bit in the fight against extreme poverty.
Imagine the ripple effect if each of us made one small act today.
A Small Act was released on DVD on 20 June 2011. You can view the trailer here.