Skip to main content

Who cares about Bangladesh? 1. Consumers and human security in the Global South

The collapse of a poorly-constructed building and the deaths of many garment workers in a textile factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, has many Canadians talking, because some of the clothes sold in Canada, by the Joe Fresh brand, of Loblaws, were made in this factory.

The poor working conditions and wages, along with prior indications of cracks in the building, pointing to its instability, has prompted global and Canadian media to ask the question "will this change how you buy your clothes?" and articles with titles like, "Is your wardrobe killing Bangladeshis, or saving them?".

Garment Factory in Bangladesh

Photograph  by Fahad Faisal, via Wikimedia Commons 

I managed to get onto the CBC Noon radio phone in, last Friday (that's me at 17:40 mins into the podcast, What is the cost of a bargain?), to explain that I try to buy Canadian labels and locally manufactured clothes, that I encourage my kids to understand how much work goes into sewing clothes (please bring back Home Economics to schools!), and to ask questions in those mall chain stores, that in my opinion, are full of cheaply manufactured, but expensive goods, about their corporate social responsibility policies and fair-trade practices....  (seriously, I do..!).

The issues of sustainability - economic, social and environmental - are at the heart of this tragedy. This building collapse and high death toll has brought unwelcome publicity for Loblaws, who is sending senior representatives from its supply chain team to the factory, to Dhaka, in an effort to understand what caused the tragedy.  The renewed conversations and debates about the role of the consumer and corporations in affecting the livelihoods and working conditions of people in the Global South, are, in my opinion, most welcome, not least because this disaster highlights the complexity of this issue and the fact that it is a "wicked problem" with no easy solution. We must remember, for example, that Loblaws, is, in many respects an exemplary company, when it comes to leadership on sustainability issues: its Sustainable Seafood Initiative, and the Oceans for Tomorrow campaign, in partnership with the Marine Stewardship Council and World Wildlife Fund Canada, is a marvellous programme, that has resulted in increased consumption of certified sea food in my home - after many years of trying to NOT eat down the food chain.

Bangladesh, its people, its environment, and sustainability, have been in the minds of us at IRIS and the York University community over the years, as highlighted in many events and activities.

This is the first in a series in which I will be updating and re-posting blogs from the past, highlighting the issues faced by Bangladeshis, and the efforts of colleagues, here and abroad to bring attention to these complex challenges and propose solutions.

Dawn Bazely

DISCLAIMER - in the interests of transparency, I should say that my husband, Dr. Peter Ewins, works for WWF Canada. I, myself, undertook my first fundraising campaign for WWF UK when I was 11 years old! BUT, this doesn't mean that I have given WWF a 100% thumbs-up on all of its policies, programmes and actions over the last 40 years - there is always room for improvement.


We have to be much more rumpled… and muddy

This summer, I found a great blog at This Magazine.  The webpage (supported by folk such as Margaret Atwood and David Suzuki) tells me that it's the leading alternative Canadian magazine of politics, pop culture, and the arts.  The Earth Archives has some very well written posts - including this one, that I have tried to insert below - about how doing lots of small sustainability-motivated acts won't really help us that much.  The author, Graham F. Scott,  is probably right. But,  the question is whether these acts end up enabling much larger actions - such as, changing our views on ironed clothes on a large-scale.  Why's this large?  Well, I am very fed up with being in meetings full of people dressed in well-pressed clothes.  I do not iron on the principle that it's a waste of energy (all round).  We also need to stop washing stuff so often.  I insist that when we rent very small cars for field work, that my local Hertz gives us dirty cars - they're never going to be as full of mud as they end up with us.  If this all sends a message to industry (as in, we could boycott companies where staff are forced to dress inappropriately in ironed shirts and blouses, and in wool suits in hot summers), then small acts COULD lead to big changes.

Dawn R. Bazely - dressed below right, in an outfit that I would happily wear to a boardroom meeting, to make a point, bug shirt and all.from the field to the boardroom

"January 08, 2009

Rinky-dink ink tinkering isn't the answer

Posted by Graham F. Scott at 11:57 AM ET | Comments (0)

EcoFont alphabet

A Dutch design firm has released a new computer font, Ecofont, that they say uses less ink, and can therefore reduce the e-waste that results from depleted toner cartridges. It's a regular-looking font except that it's riddled with holes, and the firm, Spranq, claims this reduces toner use by up to 20 per cent.

Their hearts are in the right place, but this is clearly public-relations bunk. (And I realize I'm playing into it by linking to them.) There are plenty of environmental problems in the world, and technology waste is some of the most difficult to deal with. But the real effect of this font is statistically insignificant, and no one should be fooled into thinking it's a real solution to any of our pressing environmental problems.

This kind of "environmental" measure is increasingly common — easy to implement, emotionally gratifying, socially acceptable, and totally ineffectual. You would be better off turning on the ink-saving features now available in every modern printer; even better would be choosing not to print that two-line email in the first place.

This morning on Twitter I linked to a new advertisement from the World Wildlife Fund that makes a crucial point: consumers and end-users are being constantly scolded to change their behaviours and reduce their environmental footprint while government and industry continue to allow damaging beahviour to go unchecked. Individual efforts like installing compact fluorescent lightbulbs and downloading an "Ecofont" are fine, but they won't get us where we need to go unless the biggest and baddest polluters are brought to heel."

Sustainable Shopping: Getting in the Green Loop

On my epic quest for green change, and the search for eco-friendly AND fashion-friendly attire, I stumbled upon (in other words, I used google) the store called the Green Loop. and I was impressed. Unlike a lot of blah eco-stores that only sell t-shirts and plain boring stuff, this store has everything from organic skinny jeans to blazers and even eco-friendly shoes.
And of course guys’ gear too, along with accessories, bags, etc. basically, a massive variety of a lot of typical things you’d see at the mall, except it didn’t take 23849543 trees and 87549999 types of pollutants to make them.

They all seem to be ‘designer’ eco-brands as well, which is definitely reflected in the price. Most of the shoes are in the $200-250 range. Dresses are around 100-150, and tops go from 40-100. High end prices no doubt. But when you think about a lot of the stores in a mall like Yorkdale, they pretty much charge the same price. People are willing to pay those prices there because they believe in the quality of those brands. I don’t actually own anything from the Green Loop but from what I can tell I’m going to say that these are probably better quality than a lot of the stuff I’ve seen in mall stores, even if you only consider the fact that if its eco-friendly, a lot of thought was put into the making (not just the design) of the item.

I was impressed with the variety. If you can afford it, it’s not a bad place to buy some chic ethical clothing and help cause me (and your kids) less asthma attacks!

(one of my favourite dresses from their store)

Online Sustainable Shopping

It's important to know that we DO have eco-friendly shopping options and where we can find them. Sadly, most of them won't be found at the mall. So I did some investigating and checked out some sustainable online shops. Today I'll be looking at 2 stores:

Mountains of the Moon Eco-Fashion, Hemp, Organic Clothing and More

Variety/Availability: 6.5/10
- There are only a few designs in each category (being tops, skirts, etc) except for the tops, which have a somewhat decent selection. They claim you can get them in different fabrics, though I don't see any web options for that. They also have a small line of baby clothes. In terms of selection, it's no Wal-mart, but honestly that's probably a good thing. You can also find their lines at over 100 select retail stores through the U.S., Canada, Japan and the U.K
Cosmetic Appeal: 9/10
- Definitely some of the best-looking eco-clothes out there. Not just your plain boring old hemp t-shirts, the clothes are actually cut to be flattering. They mimic high fashion considerably well. They tend to stay only with solid colours though.
Pricing: 6.5/10
- Not cheap. Not horribly unreasonable either. Keeping in mind that organic materials often cost more to produce, this is because a lot of the work is being done by humans. So in essence, organic pricing actually reflects how much things should cost. Dresses ranges in the $68-78 range, tops from $24-68, bottoms
Eco-friendly: 8/10
- The clothes are made sweatshop-free in the USA. Additionally they are "Co-op America" approved and a member of Hemp Industries Association. Each design is available in a variety of colors and fabrics (all made from sustainable fabrics and colored with low-impact dyes). This seems to be a good effort to me.
Eco Fabrik

Variety/Availability: 6/10
- A very simple selection of basic casual wear. A dress, a skirt, a shawl, yoga pants and some basic tops. I do like that they have options for men though they are limited as well. I will say that in terms of comfortable clothing, they have all that you really need.
- Although they lack in a variety of styles, they do also have hats, towels, and a decent selection of cheap tote/gym bags. They also have more baby clothes than adult options.
- They are also available in Europe
Cosmetic Appeal: 8/10
- The clothes look nice enough. They look like normal clothes, unlike a lot of the hippie-wear boho hemp stuff I've seen in stores downtown. The website looks amazing. The pictures of the clothes they show sadly don't seem to be available for sale, something I found to be disappointing because they look quite majestic. All in all, there's nothing fancy here but what is available is cute enough given that they're comfort clothes.
Pricing: 9/10
- Very affordable with an average price of about $20. The bags go from $8.50 and up. Not bad for organic!
Eco-friendly: 9/10
- The main page boasts 3 organic seals of approval. They use organic cotton, and bamboo and hemp, the last 2 of which are even better sustainable options (see Big Green purse blogs)

One Ecology professor’s view of all this “green” consumer hype

It's over a year since Al Gore won an oscar for An Inconvenient Truth. The 2008 Earth Hour and Earth Day have come and gone. "Green Awareness" events do tend to be more frequent in spring, as we come out of hibernation and notice the environment - tree pollen, tulips etc. But, there is definitely also a tsunami of environmentally-driven advertising, products and newspaper coverage. Globe & Mail columnist, Karen von Hahn wrote about what she sees as some of the hypocrisy of 'ethical consumption' in her May 24th column "Hey Bono, shopping is supposed to be fun".

Ms. von Hahn is quite right to question whether "buying fair trade really does make trade fair". This is an important area of research in universities, and everyone else should think about it too. The ecological reason for why green shopping IS an important piece of the sustainability puzzle, though not the whole picture, is that from its birth, EVERY organism is a consumer. Even if we abolished all shopping malls and our consumer society, we'd still all be consuming, simply by breathing, drinking, eating and occupying space.

One key sustainability goal for Homo sapiens (us humans), needs to be that we each consume as little as possible in terms of materials and energy. Should we be thinking about where stuff comes from, who made it (and how they are being treated), how much gas was burned in getting it to the store, and where the metal came from, etc? ABSOLUTELY Ms. von Hahn! Because when you are doing that much research into the ecological and carbon footprints of stuff, shopping bcomes EXHAUSTING. And that's good, because, in answer to the question that we ask our kids to ask themselves in the local sweetshop "Do I WANT it or do I NEED it?", you are much more likely to buy only stuff that you really do NEED or are really motivated to WANT. So, there's the bottom-line - responsible consumers will tire themselves into reduced consumption as a consequence of their increased awareness!

Dawn Bazely

Essential listening on why we buy stuff – CBC’s The Age of Persuasion

The superb CBC radio series, The Age of Persuasion, hosted by Terry O'Reilly, is essential listening for everyone interested in Sustainability. There is an unofficial podcast.

This series introduces us to the world of advertising. In the past 100+ years, advertising has been encouraging us to consume more. It seems to me that if sustainability is about getting people in North America to consume less, then we need to harness the know-how of the advertising industry to help us here.

In 2003, the Canadian per capita Ecological Footprint was 7.6 global hectares per person, while that of people in many African and Asian countries was under 1 global hectare per person. So, that means that I am the equivalent of 8 people from those countries, in terms of what I consume - wood, metal, water, hydro. HOMEWORK for sustainable shopping is to read WWF International's 2006 Living Planet Report. In 1999, I started using the Living Planet Reports to teach my second-year Ecology class, BIOLOGY 2050, about ecological footprints. The 1998 report was only available in hard copy. The idea of the ecological footprint is very clearly explained in these excellent reports in which the data are pulled from many international government sources and vetted by various experts.

Dawn Bazely

Linda Lundström announces bankruptcy

Just over a year ago, I attended the Green Carpet Series, an event promoting sustainable fashion. The evening was aimed at an audience of younger people who work in the downtown Toronto core, and who might not normally be prone to thinking about their ecological footprint. Numerous young women were lured there by the presence of George Stroumboulopoulos, host of CBC's The Hour , who acted as a co-host for the fashion show (I had no idea that he's considered such a sex symbol - I simply admire his in-depth interviews with authors, when I manage to stay up late enough to watch his show!). The fashion show featured lots of cool, environmentally-friendly fashion, including some amazing recycled dresses, along with local food, wine and biodegradable spoons and forks. The gorgeous designs of Canadian, Linda Lundström were also featured. She has been actively involved in and leading efforts to reduce the environmental impact of the textile industry. Her clothes are made locally, and her latest lines featured many organic materials. I was very disappointed to hear, just one year after this event, the sad announcement, that her business has failed. It's incredibly disheartening that she hasn't been able to make it in the current business environment. I very much hope that Linda Lundström will be able to make a come back, and to continue to provide much needed leadership on the fashion and clothing front with respect to sustainability.

Dawn Bazely