Reprinted from yesmagazine.org
Stuff activist Annie Leonard: .Consumerism, even when it tries to embrace .sustainable' products, is a set of values that teaches us to define ourselves, communicate our identity, and seek meaning through accumulation of stuff, rather than through our val by YES! photo by Lane Hartwell.
The way we make and use stuff is harming the world--and
ourselves. To create a system that works, we can't just use our
purchasing power. We must turn it into citizen
Since I released "The Story of Stuff" six years ago, the most frequent snarky remark I get from people trying to take me down a notch is about my own stuff: Don't you drive a car? What about your computer and your cellphone? What about your books? (To the last one, I answer that the book was printed on paper made from trash, not trees, but that doesn't stop them from smiling smugly at having exposed me as a materialistic hypocrite. Gotcha!)
Let me say it clearly: I'm neither for nor against stuff. I like stuff if it's well-made, honestly marketed, used for a long time, and at the end of its life recycled in a way that doesn't trash the planet, poison people, or exploit workers. Our stuff should not be artifacts of indulgence and disposability, like toys that are forgotten 15 minutes after the wrapping comes off, but things that are both practical and meaningful. British philosopher William Morris said it best: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
Too many T-shirts
The life cycle of a simple cotton T-shirt--worldwide, 4 billion are made, sold, and discarded each year--knits together a chain of seemingly intractable problems, from the elusive definition of sustainable agriculture to the greed and classism of fashion marketing.
The story of a T-shirt not only gives us insight into the complexity of our relationship with even the simplest stuff; it also demonstrates why consumer activism--boycotting or avoiding products that don't meet our personal standards for sustainability and fairness--will never be enough to bring about real and lasting change. Like a vast Venn diagram covering the entire planet, the environmental and social impacts of cheap T-shirts overlap and intersect on many layers, making it impossible to fix one without addressing the others.
I confess that my T-shirt drawer is so full it's hard to close. That's partly because when I speak at colleges or conferences, I'm often given one with a logo of the institution or event. They're nice souvenirs of my travels, but the simple fact is: I've already got more T-shirts than I need. And of all the T-shirts I have accumulated over the years, there are only a few that I honestly care about, mostly because of the stories attached to them.
My favorite (no eye-rolling, please) is a green number from the Grateful Dead's 1982 New Year's Eve concert. To me this T-shirt, worn for more than 30 years by multiple members of my extended family, is both useful and beautiful, not only because I attended the concert but because a dear friend gave it to me, knowing how much I would treasure it. The label even says "Made in the USA," which makes me smile because so few things are made in this country anymore, as brands increasingly opt for low-paid workers in poor countries.Who sews those Tees?
And that takes me back to a day in 1990, in the slums of
I was in Haiti to meet with women who worked in sweatshops making T-shirts and other clothing for the Walt Disney Company. The women were nervous about speaking freely. We crowded into a tiny room inside a small cinderblock house. In sweltering heat, we had to keep the windows shuttered for fear that someone might see us talking. These women worked six days a week, eight hours a day, sewing clothes that they could never save enough to buy. Those lucky enough to be paid minimum wage earned about $15 a week. The women described the grueling pressure at work, routine sexual harassment, and other unsafe and demeaning conditions.
They knew that Disney's CEO, Michael Eisner, made millions. A few years after my visit, a National Labor Committee documentary, Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti, revealed that in 1996 Eisner made $8.7 million in salary plus $181 million in stock options--a staggering $101,000 an hour. The Haitian workers were paid one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. retail price of each garment they sewed.
The women wanted fair pay for a day's work--which in their dire straits meant $5 a day. They wanted to be safe, to be able to drink water when hot, and to be free from sexual harassment. They wanted to come home early enough to see their children before bedtime and to have enough food to feed them a solid meal when they woke. Their suffering, and the suffering of other garment workers worldwide, was a major reason the end product could be sold on the shelves of big-box retailers for a few dollars.
I asked them why they stayed in the teeming city, living in slums that had little electricity and no running water or sanitation, and working in such obviously unhealthy environments instead of returning to the countryside where they had grown up. They said the countryside simply couldn't sustain them anymore. Their families had given up farming since they couldn't compete against the rice imported from the U.S. and sold for less than half the price of the more labor-intensive, more nutritious native rice. It was all part of a plan, someone whispered, by the World Bank and U.S. Agency for International Development to drive Haitians off their land and into the city to sew clothes for rich Americans. The destruction of farming as a livelihood was necessary to push people to the city, so people would be desperate enough to work all day in hellish sweatshops.Their proper place
The next day I called on USAID. My jaw dropped as the man from the agency openly agreed with what at first had sounded like an exaggerated conspiracy theory. He said it wasn't efficient for Haitians to work on family farms to produce food that could be grown more cheaply elsewhere. Instead they should accept their place in the global economy--which, in his eyes, meant sewing clothes for us in the United States. But surely, I said, efficiency was not the only criterion. A farmer's connection to the land, healthy and dignified work, a parent's ability to spend time with his or her kids after school, a community staying intact generation after generation--didn't all these things have value?