SFO Week 4: Known Origins (part 2)

Well, if I wrote a Part 1 in response to the Slow Fashion October Week 4 prompt, I owe you Part 2 before the month is out! 

I'll try not to make this too long. (It did get long. Sorry.) I know y'all have Halloween to prepare for; whether it's finishing the last minute touches on a costume, buying candy, carving that last jack-o-lantern or figuring out the best way to hide from trick-or-treaters in the neighborhood and avoid the whole thing, it makes for a busy day. 

Me? I'll be cramming as much work into a short school day as I can before my usual Monday afternoon running around, and then throwing some nutritious-ish food at the kids before getting ready to take them trick-or-treating in the evening. I have a love/hate relationship with trick-or-treating (so much sugar, so exhausting), but my kids really love it and it's fun to see them get so excited about putting on costumes and going out after dark.

This year I even have a costume. I found a pants suit at the thrift store and pinned a "nasty woman" name tag to it. 

In fact, Halloween is relevant to this topic because when it comes to known origins of materials used for Halloween costumes, you can't think too hard about what you're using without being consumed with guilt. Whether you buy or make Halloween costumes, they are more likely than not to be material that was once raw petroleum deep under desert sand before it was sucked out of the earth at great environmental, military and monetary expense, only to be molded into masks and props or spun into fabric, all of which will end up in a landfill by early November. It's awful. But what can a parent do? Cancel Halloween? Impossible. Insist that our costumes be fashioned from ethically produced materials? Often impractical.  Or let it go for this one holiday? Uncomfortable, but the only good option for me right now. 

I mean, you might get lucky and your kid will want to dress up as something that works with clothes and accessories you already have on hand or can make out of cardboard and leaves you collect outside. Or you might not. You might have to order a plastic wig with Vulcan ears and a foam Lady Liberty tiara on Amazon because your kids have their sweet little hearts set on being Spock and the Statue of Liberty for Halloween and you do not have extra hours or energy to figure out how to do it with organic felt. 

I do not like ordering plastic shit on Amazon. But every once in a great while, I do it because I'm not sure what else to do. It's that or my kids will be Those Kids who aren't allowed the Halloween costume they want because mama's a hippie.

For Halloween, the best I can do is try and minimize the waste and find or make costume parts that can be worn as regular clothes or repurposed for something else later, but that's about it. 

A few years ago I read the book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell (that link is to the NYT review from 2009). It's a good read and I recommend it. Shell's overall premise is that anything that is cheap for you has to be paid for by someone else, and that someone is the poorly paid retail worker in the chain store or online warehouse from which you are buying, along with a farmer or factory worker far away whose livelihood and local environment is being decimated by our demand for ever lower prices on goods we don't even really need. She has several examples in the book, and the most vivid ones have to do with shrimp farming in Asia and the shady business practices of IKEA.

Yes, IKEA. How many people do I know, how many friends do I have, who buy all their storage units from IKEA? Who bought their kitchen cabinets from IKEA? Who buy their beds and chairs and end tables from IKEA? Because it's cheap and it's Swedish (and therefore it must be okay) and besides, that clean Scandinavian look really is quite appealing. 

I have bad news for you, though: IKEA is the worst. The. Worst. They have admitted to using forced prisoner labor (in the late 1980s in East Germany), are dishonest about their responsible forestry claims (to put it very mildly), and have worked very hard to make sure the workers in their American factories can't unionize. Now, I know those articles I linked are a few years old, but IKEA's business is booming and their furniture is still impossibly cheap, so I doubt they have made significant changes to how they source their materials or treat the people who work in their factories. 

I also just started reading Empire of Cotton by Sven Leckbert (there's a link to The Atlantic review) and it's rather dense, but fascinating. I'm not too far in, but I'm getting a sense of the big picture, which is that ever since cotton became a commodity crop in the 16th century (I think?), it has been at the center of a lot of human misery: exploited labor, slavery, war, oppression...and yet despite its ubiquity in our lives most of us have no idea about any of this. Organic vs. non-organic cotton is just the tip of the iceberg of questions of ethical origins when it comes to cotton. 

Here is my overall point: IT IS EXHAUSTING WHEN EVERY PURCHASING DECISION IS FRAUGHT WITH MORAL COMPROMISE. There is a human and environmental cost to everything we consume and while we absolutely need to take that into consideration when we make purchases, I believe it is a little bit dangerous to attribute too much to our own individual buying power. I wish that a personal resolution never to buy anything from IKEA or Amazon again would make a difference in their business practices. I wish that buying yardage from Organic Cotton Plus (I do like their fabrics!) would encourage large clothing and fabric manufacturers to switch to more sustainable practices. But it's me and maybe you and a few others against the entire global system of trade and manufacturing. Daunting.

Just this weekend Stuart and the kids and I spent quite a lot of time furniture shopping (not at IKEA, obviously) because we are finally ready to upgrade from the kitchen table and chairs and couch we got as grad students in the year 2000. I'll be honest, we did not base our buying decisions on where the items were made or what they're made out of. Fortunately, most of what we chose is made in America, though the upholstery is polyester. I don't think there is any other practical option for upholstery aside from leather (which I can't stand.) While I would certainly prefer to have everything American made out of natural materials, that option was just not available, not in our city and not with our funds. Maybe there are bespoke wool-covered sofas out there but I don't know where to find them. What we chose that was made elsewhere, we chose because we like it, and it will fit best in the space we have. 

I don't have a conclusion here. I could say something pseudo-inspiring about how we are all making a difference in our own way but I'm not even sure I believe it makes a lot of impact. 


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