So it’s been over a fortnight and over 1,100 bodies and I’m sitting outside Primark on Oxford St.
I generally try to avoid this street, but the abundance of lovely Soho cafes on either side make avoiding it a little difficult.
Hoards of bags are being dragged out the doors and I wonder whether I should sit in front with a sign saying “They died making your clothes and you’re STILL buying them”.
The horse meat scandal got far more UK coverage. People were outraged that they had been deceived into thinking their food was actually beef. No one was even harmed by all that. Horse meat is happily eaten in other countries. It was just a “quality” and an “expectation” problem.
Maybe it is an expected thing that cheap clothes are made in sweat shops that kill people. Was this why there was so limited rage? So little follow on effect?
Mango ads haven’t been ripped from buses. Primark sales don’t appear to be down. No protesters (apart from the four ladies in the above picture, of course).
So if seeing people crushed by a building doesn’t make people stop and think, what will?
People are even continuing to argue that sweat shop conditions give so many people jobs that it therefore should be maintained. As if there is no point thinking of alternatives.
What makes cheap, crappy clothing so important that it leads to this strong willed blindness?
Take out the arguments that we need more clothes in the world. That only allowing eco/organic, fairtrade clothing would leave half the world naked and poor. These arguments can be rationally countered, but no one seems to want change.
So I have been watching these Primark consumers and wondering why my mentality is so different to theirs concerning this.
I get the same buzz out of a bargain, I feel the same need to buy something when sad or stressed. But my buzz comes from finding a vintage dress that drapes beautifully and is 100% wool and £30.
Look how much beautiful wool there is!/The embroidery!/The details/I just bought so many pleats for £8!/Hand painted silk from the ’50s!
But the thought of shopping in department stores, wearing cheap, badly made clothes, repulses me. There are others like me, but why are we in the minority?
My latest and only rational is that it is a matter of freedom.
Freedom with thought, freedom with money combined with social freedom.
I am from the small minority who is able to feel socially comfortable and socially free. I am so utterly lucky to have a supportive family to fall back on, an amazing education and to have been born in a country which allows me to do whatever I put my mind to.
The impact of marketing campaigns becomes less because, firstly I can critically think about them, but also because, whatever the product is, I could actually have it.
If I wanted to earn a lot of money and buy a Chanel wardrobe and a black tinted window SUV, it is not impossible. I’m not saying it would happen tomorrow. I would have to work for years, probably in a job that I wouldn’t find enjoyable, but the freedom of choice is mine.
For better or worse, I choose to live the way I do. I don’t desire a Louis Vuitton handbag enough to work for one. I stress about money and work in hospitality and buy op shop clothing, but have no desire to swap my chaotic, bohemian life for a stable office job or the slog through law school.
Maybe this is what marks the difference. If you don’t feel like you can have something, you want it more. We are bombarded with images of the happy, the free. Celebrities who can go anywhere, buy anything and get given most things. They want to set up a clothing brand? Launch a perfume? Be in a film? Done. The world of money and celebrity is our pinnacle and our symbolisation of freedom. It takes us away from our droll everyday lives where we are worrying about paying a parking fine or whether we will be ready to hand in a marketing presentation by the close of the day.
The closest feeling of freedom we often get is to dash off to a department store and stand in a sea of colours and clothes. Dress in a ‘Kate Moss’ style. Giggle as we slip into Lady Gaga-esque shoes. You will watch the Great Gatsby, you will think it beautiful and Topshop will offer you a full section of 1920s dresses to allow you to escape for a little while. You can even do all three styles for under £100. Oh the freedom!
How could you give up that freedom? That escape? And the people of Bangladesh “need the employment. They would go hungry without sitting in a factory all day and night making polyester t-shirts. And the environmental impacts are all green washing”.
But maybe I just “can’t understand”. I shop in charity shops for enjoyment. The psychological shift between that and having to shop in a charity shop. When you can buy a shirt for £3 in a charity shop or buy a new one that will give you that sense of ‘having financial freedom’ for £3….
In our sustainable fashion groups we talk about products and marketing and consumer knowledge.
Maybe we are bashing our heads against a wall. Because it seems, no matter how reasonably priced the organic, ethical t-shirts are, or how awful our sweatshop conditions are, this is not a debate about reason.
It is a matter of freedom.