Friday, 26 July 2013

Ethical clothing (Ηθικά ρούχα)

Three stories today about clothes. They seem to fit well together, so I didn't divide them up into tops and bottoms. See you after the weekend.

The summer dress
My whole family buys clothes from Primark which isn't regarded as a fairtrade clothing store any longer since the Bangladeshi tragedy, despite the signs around the shop that announce to customers the great care taken to ensure that the some of the poorest people in the world who are used to make the clothes are paid an adequate living wage. (They even sell argan oil-based lip block at bargain prices - not even my Moroccan students can get their hands on argan oil due to the price.) The element of fairtrade is not really regarded as an issue of great importance in Greece: it got some publicity through the famous Greek 'potato movement', where producers and consumers meet without the use of middlemen, but it does not carry its wider more international meaning.

The fashion industry is worth billions all over the western world. Just like coffee and chocolate, the people who make the products are rarely its users. Pictures of third world clothing workers show people clad in the traditional clothing of their culture, making the kind of clothing that they wouldn't wear themselves. It is not a question of whether they like the clothes they make; it is a question of the appropriateness of wearing such clothes in their culture. It is a sad fact that some of the poorest people in the world make clothes for the richest.

I liked this video showing how my husband's cotton business-style shirts are produced. The video shows slim-built men carrying bales of material , while women in traditional clothing (even when wearing uniforms) are seen folding and packing the shirts. The video aims to inform us about the improved social status of these women in their own environment, through education on health and hygiene practices. Yet they continue to live at the mercy of their direct (ie local) employers, not necessarily their indirect employers (ie businesses like Primark). 

I've made a conscious choice to shop at Primark whenever we're in London because cheap clothing choices in my hometown are very limited, and I would still be supporting sweatshop alternatives, in the form of the infamous κινέζικαThe difference in quality between κινέζικα and Primark is huge: κινέζικα are heavily laced with polyester which makes the clothes and your body stink while Primark clothing uses comfortable cotton; κινέζικα are badly made and often shapeless whereas Primark's range comes in regular European cuts; κινέζικα are based on fashionless, garish, gawdy, insipid designs unlike Primark's functional fashion for all ages, shapes and sizes; and κινέζικα are NOT as cheap as Primark. Even the labels at κινέζικα are fake (they often say "Made in Italy"). Against Primark, I would cite the low quality of the sewing at the seams - sometimes they tear in children's clothing, which I then sew up myself. But this is a small price to pay for cheap clothing that will last a long time. Especially in Greece these days, we care much more about the relationship between price and quality rather than the ethical nature of what we are eating or wearing.

I'm not suggesting that what goes over your body should not be given the same attention as what goes into your body. That's why I (try to) avoid κινέζικα as they are not environmentally friendly. Greek-made clothes still cost too much during a crisis period. We like to try clothes on before buying, making online clothing purchases uncomfortable. Even Hania's Marks and Spencers branch, with its comfortable fashion for all shapes and sizes, is relatively expensive - why spend more when you can spend much less on the perfect fit? High prices for anything are unethical in times of crisis, but this certaily hasn't brought down the price of quality goods - it's pushed it up even higher.

Protesters against Primark's use of Bangladeshi workers claim that these people are being abused by big profiteers. It's not who makes my clothes that I find outrageous in the world of fashion: I believe the problem lies in the way fashion is viewed by the citizens of the first world. Fashion is very much like a takeaway. It's a temporary on-the-spot solution to a problem. We aren't happy wearing comfortable clothes - they have to be brand-labelled and cut in the latest style. What is fashionable one year is unfashionable the next - or is it?

Last year in April, I bought a light sleeveless summer floral dress from Primark, costing just 12 pounds. The same dress quality could not be found anywhere near my hometown. This dress is most appropriately worn in my climate, not the one it was being sold in. In fact, there would not have been any occasion to wear this dress in England because of the extremely bad weather the UK experienced last year. The last time I had bought some (Made-in-India) cotton dresses in Hania, they cost 20 euro each, bought from a tourist shop. I am sure they could have been sold more cheaply. Not only that, but they they were not the best fits, and the material was not the best quality either, but I made do with them because there really was little choice available. After a couple of years of being constantly washed throughout the summer season, they are now on their last legs. But the Primark dress continues to do its job, despite being worn and washed quite a few times.
So, which is which?
Last weekend, I went in search of a new functional cotton dress to replace my dead ones, so I can have two dresses that I can wear interchangeably throughout the summer to the office. Sounds boring, but it's quite practical: in a Greek summer, clothes need to be refreshed in a light wash, and they dry fast outdoors. Marks and Spencer was my first choice (there is good reason for this). To my surprise, I found exactly the same dress pattern there as I did in Primark last year! But not at the same price of course - the M&S one cost 45 euro. But those two dresses are exactly the same, only in a different colour.

A quick internet search revealed the craziness of the fashion world: last year's Primark dress is now selling this year on eBay at various prices (all in pounds): 23.99 (5.99 P&P), 17.508.00 and 2.00 (on auction). Some of those dresses still have the price tag on them! (I haven't found the Marks and Spencers version on eBay yet.) They are being used as an investment, like property. It's just another case of first-world bubble wealth being built on third-world manpower. The people making this cheap fashion have no idea of how their labour is being exploited. They are doing this work to keep food ont heir table and send their kids to school; they have no idea of who the final-end customers of their products are - people who try to create an image surrounding these clothes based on thin air.

The truth of the matter is that no cheap fashion is really ethical. Worse still, all our rubbish is floggable.

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The jeans genie
I wear jeans throughout the year except in the hot months when it gets too sticky. I alternate between two cheaply bought pairs throughout the season. While one pair is being worn, the other is being washed. Eventually, the denim wears thin at the usual places (bum and crotch). Jeans have a functional nature for me; I buy them for comfort, not fashion, and we can wear jeans in most contexts in Crete.

I know my size and fit at Primark, so I can go directly to their jeans counter and find exactly what I want very fast. Most of the men who shop there seem to do that - they go directly to the assistants' station, ask to try on a shirt in their size, then go to the display shelves to pick up the size that suited them. What a shame they don't do online sales (and even if they did, they probably don't sell to Greece) - this doesn't surprise me, since they are doing very well with physical stores; they sell so cheaply that not even the bad weather cited by UK financial analysts as a deterrent to shopping stops people (mainly women) from pouring into their stores (it was snowing when I last went, but the store was full). Shopping online for clothes only works when you buy standard items, as long as you are aware of any changes in body size, making women's fashion not really the best thing to buy online.

Last year, I bought two pairs of jeans from Primark in the style of bootcut and boyfriend, so I knew straight away what to choose; it's the best way to go shopping if you don't really like shopping for clothes. You can get out of the shop more quickly, before the fashion victims who come in trawling pushchairs and howling babies.

I didn't manage to wear the bootcut this year, only the boyfriend, which I alternated with an older pair of jeans. When the boyfriend jeans began to look a little tatty, I waited till my London mini-break to replace it. I went to the closest Primark within walking distance to where we were staying. The store was empty - we had gone early on purpose; when Primark starts to fill up (and it did, despite the snow, like all cheap fashion stores do), you can't get to a dressing room easily.
Cheap clothing stores have streamlined clothes shopping; I don't have to waste time finding functional clothes.
This time, I found lots of plain bootcut jeans on the racks, but no plain boyfriend jeans. I couldn't be tempted into buying one with lots of fashionable tears in it - it felt a little teeny-bopperish, despite being available in large sizes. I chose a bootcut pair, just as I had picked through the last rack of jeans, when I came across a plain boyfriend pair, what seemed to be the last one of its kind int he store - and it was in my size! I took both to the dressing room to try them on. Perfect fits again; the boyfriend jeans in particular had a soft feel to them and felt like a second skin. Should I buy them both, I wondered. I only needed one pair...

"Oh, what the hell, they're only 10 pounds each," my generous husband said, "buy them both".

Clothing isn't the same as food. You can buy the clothes you need once or twice a year to replace old worn out clothes; but you cannot buy food just once or twice a year, except if you plan to survive on canned and dry goods. Even if you did intend to eat just that, you would still need to spend a lot more money than the 100 or so euros you need to buy shoes and clothes to last you at least a year, and possibly even longer if you take care of them.

So I took them to the counter, together with my husband's choices of 2 pairs of jeans (8 pounds each) and 2 shirts (4 pounds each). The assistant passed everything through, except the boyfriend jeans. The price tag seemed to be missing. She called someone to find the missing barcode, but had no luck. So she called the manager (this was now getting very technical), who checked the jeans inside out before pulling her aside so we couldn't see their faces when he whispered something to her.

"Sorry about that," she said when she returned to the counter, "but we can't sell this pair of jeans to you." I asked for an explanation - the story is bound to be an interesting one - and she was very kind to give it to me: the jeans had not only been worn before ("see the fluff balls on the inside pocket?"), but they had even been washed ("the inside pockets should be white, not pale blue"), which explained the perfect fit that I had felt when trying them on. The previous owner had obviously got tired of them and felt like something new; she probably switched the labels very carefully. You'd need some technical knowledge to go that far without being caught by the scrutinising eyes of the assistant at the entrance to the changing room to do that - unless it was an inside job. And all that fuss for a pair of 10-pound jeans, when you already owned a pair!

I felt kind of relieved that I didn't end up buying the second pair of jeans after all, since I didn't need it in the first place. If Primark were a pizza parlour, and a mistake had been made with an order, they would have given it away to the customer, so itdid make me wonder what happened to that pair of unsellable jeans. Possibly, it went to charity. Even though it sometimes feels like I'm wearing a McDonalds burger, I'm sticking to Primark clothing for the time being. At least I know I'm wearing cotton, in a similar way to knowing what I am eating. It isn't always ethical, but I'll let Primark figure out how to deal ethically with the poorest of the poor that it employs to make their products.

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Happy Shoes
My husband only noticed the only pair of shoes I had carried with me (the ones I was wearing) on our trip to London when we were on the plane.

"Are you nuts?" he said. "The rain will soak through the soles!"

I knew it wouldn't, but I also knew that the shoes I was wearing looked inappropriate for the wet-weather walking we intended to do in London. My shoes were bought at a κινέζικα store in Hania. They reminded me of the style I used to like wearing when I was very young, a style known among my girlfriends as Happy Shoes. They were definitely Chinese in origin, as they looked similar to the ones that Chinese women worre during Mao Tse Tsung's rule. I wore these shoes with the specific intention of leaving them behind after I bought a new pair of decent walking shoes in London. My happy Shoes were rather old and slightly worn in the inside sole, but I wasn't quite ready to discard them.

I came across the shoes I wanted quite by accident, while my husband was trying on some clothes in Primark, except that they weren't for sale. They were being worn by the shop assistant who was guarding the fitting rooms. How do you ask a Brit where they got their shoes from? I wondered. I decided to memorise the shoe and see if I could find anything similar in the shop windows we passed: sporty-style, thick rubber sole, criss-cross straps on the top, round toe... For someone who knows little about fashion, I really had no idea where ot look first. So I finally plucked up the courage to ask the shop assistant about them.

Happy Shoes are very cheap, they go with almost everything, and they are still being sold in Greece.
On my visit to Primark, I was wearing the black pair with the rose design.
"Oh, these are Skechers," she explained, "I bought them online." The name was not familiar to me, but as soon as I heard that they had a name, I realised that we were talking about a brand. Brands scare me: they sell an image more than a functional product.

"I love your shoes too," the girls said. "I used to wear them when I was at school. Did you get your shoes from the internet?" I was surprised to hear this about my super cheap Happy Shoes. I thought no one would remember this style of shoes in modern life. It sounded like a cheap joke about my cheap shoes! I explained to her the kind of store I bought them from, as such stores do not exist in London. Κινέζικα exist in Greece as an outcome of the crisis, although they were establishing themselves before the crisis broke out. In my opinion, they were a sign of impending disaster; their way of working, their main customers, and the fact that Chinese migrants were coming to Greece not to establish themselves in the food industry as they do in Northern Europe, but to sell cheap throwaway trash were all signals to the build-up of the crisis. Sometimes, it's the only place where people can afford to shop from. They are garish gaudy stores in most cases, although I have seen a slight improvement lately, as people become more perceptive and develop the ability to see through sham deals. But they still sell relatively cheaply, and the κινέζικα in Hania continue to do a good trade, even with our tourists.

The young lady told me that the Happy Shoes style was her favorite  when she was young (she still was, actually), and seeing mine bought back nice memories. No wonder I liked her shoes - the designs of both the Skechers she was wearing and my Happy Shoes were very similar (but hers looked more comfortable, and certainly more appropriate for walking around in wet and snowy London).

Naturally, after hearing this, I took my Happy Shoes back home with me. They are old, but they are still wearable. I reckon I can make one more trip to London with them before I toss them away, and start wearing my new Happy Shoes, which I'm afraid to say are more conventional looking than my old ones - they were being sold at the supermarket, according to their own standards. They are not the same as my original pair - they basically don't have the sentimental appeal that my old Happy Shoes have - but they do the same job: cheap functional shoes for cold weather, with a sole thick enough to prevent water passing through them.

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