An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Tuesday, August 02, 2005  

Moral clothes

This week's ST

It's time I started to think global, act local

How does one live a moral life? It used to be quite straightforward. Refraining from having sex without the intention of procreation pretty much qualified you as virtuous.
The sexual revolution and globalisation have made life much more difficult for those who crave a trouble-free conscience. Sex doesn’t feature on the moral checklist any more; our sense of entitlement to an orgasm outweighs any sense of obligation to partners, husbands or wives.

Loving your neighbour has become more complex in the 21st century. “Neighbour” used to mean next-door neighbour and dropping a spare dinner into an old lady once a week fulfilled our duties. In the global village our “neighbours” are all the people of the world, furry animals, the ozone layer and rare insects. The only neighbours we are not required to love are GM farmers and Shell executives.

The result is that the most innocuous of our daily actions are crimes against somebody or something, somewhere in the world. Our very existence creates a cycle of sin and self-loathing. One almost gets nostalgic for good old-fashioned Catholic guilt.

Just take my mink coat. (Well no, you can’t take it yet.) I didn’t buy it, so no additional minks were killed through my acquistion of this vile symbol of ostentation and cruelty. It came to me via a little old lady, her nursing home, some kindly nuns and my aunt.

My sisters and I haul it out for winter weddings and revel in the impact. No one wears them any more so when sweeping up a church aisle, it’s a bit of a laugh hearing the heads turn and the eyebrows lifting in a mixture of shock and curiosity. Although I enjoy the stir, one does feel a tad self-conscious wearing an item of clothing which is the epitome of ideologically unsound apparel.

Not any more. Last weekend my father was out walking along one of the streams running through his land. He came across a water hen squawking round her nest of chicks looking most distressed. He assumed his presence was the source of her anxiety and began to back off. Just then he saw a black slinky figure emerge from the water, and grab one of the chicks from the nest. A mink. The crime killed off any remaining shame over my unethical coat. Next time, I’ll wear it proudly.

It will join that old fox stole I rescued from a charity shop. My source of free-range eggs dried up last month when Mr Fox made off with our neighbour’s hens. And if anybody feels like serving me up rabbit stew, I will happily partake, thereby avenging the loss of half my hawthorn saplings by 4,000 rabbits that graze around my house.

Perhaps these are extreme examples of moral relativism, but fur no longer equates with immorality in my world. The white T-shirt I bought last week presents a much more difficult ethical issue.

I had scuttled into Next and asked an assistant to find me a plain white T-shirt. No logos, no glitter. By asking her I was avoiding the risk of inspecting rails of clothes and making an impulse buy. She duly returned and I brought it to the checkout. When the cashier asked for a mere €7 my heart sank. The only possible way it could cost €7 was if a child in Indonesia made it.

I briefly considered not buying it. But what was the point? The expensive stuff is probably made in sweatshops too. In dismay and defeat I handed over the money.

Back home I inspected the Next website. To their credit, its annual report contains a 22-page section on social responsibility, a code of practice for their supply chain, and a progress report on their supplier audit. They are members of the Ethical Trading Initiative and work with Oxfam in their efforts to maintain good standards.

Or maybe in their efforts to maintain good marketing. Surely it is impossible to produce an ethical €7 T-shirt? I could choose to believe that their intentions and practice were good, or I could be cynical and dismiss the documents as marketing rubbish. After all, both Shell and Tommy Hilfiger’s websites also devote considerable verbiage to their ethical intentions and yet both of these companies are morally questionable. Yet, I wear Tommy Hilfiger clothes and I buy my petrol wherever it’s cheapest, and sometimes that’s at Shell .

It would be easy to stop buying Shell petrol, but where would I start with the clothes? If I threw out every item suspected of sweatshop involvement I’d be left with a woolly jumper hand-knitted on the Aran Islands.

In the complicated battle to distinguish between right and wrong, one is invariably left with the lesser of numerous evils. I won’t use terry nappies because raising small children is drudgery enough without having to wash off poo. While my disposables are non-biodegradable I draw comfort from the claims that washing the cloth nappies uses so much soap that it’s an environmental hazard anyway.

If it is impossible to be a good global citizen, is there any point making the effort? When the latest pictures came in from Niger I took the only actions possible for me. I rang up Concern and made a donation and then made a conscious effort not to waste food in the house. It seemed sickening to throw out food when my stomach is sick from the misery caused by starvation.

Perhaps the only solution is to seek out a down-the-road neighbour instead of an across-the-world neighbour and offer my services. The ethical citizen seeks to reduce their footprint on the globe. Maybe if I got out of my house and increased my footprint locally, I could salve my consumerist conscience. Anyone know a little old lady in need of a dinner or a warm coat?

posted by Sarah | 10:45 3 comments
It is definitely possible to make an ethical t-shirt for seven euros. They were making 'em in Ireland, paying average industrial wage for less than that until very recently. You could make an ethically sound shirt for that price.

The thing that drives the cost of clothes is the fancy shops, the real estate, the marketing, the supply chain, destruction of unsold goods (and to a much lesser extent) the cost of good design. The markup on clothes is enormous - maybe five or six hundred percent for an operation like Next.

I certainly wouldn't agree that just because something costs a lot, that it's more ethical.

Indonesia is a very big, very diverse country. There is certainly exploitation going on there, but there is a huge range of activity of all types.
By a water hen, do you mean one of these? I ask because I'm a bit of a--what's the Irish term--anorak?

You might be interested in this post I wrote a while back on a simillar topic.
Darren, I think what we call a waterhen is actually a moorhen: here's a link..excuse the tag..i still haven't figured out how to post links in a comment
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