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From our wardrobes to market stalls in Africa

19 August, 2013

by Eleni Christou (one of our former Master of Applied Anthropology students at Macquarie University)

Our clothes are travelers. Born to factories in distant lands, most of our clothes have already travelled thousands of kilometers by air, land and sea before settling in our wardrobes. Consumers are fairly aware of where clothes originate, but the continuing journey of our used clothes is less publicised. The majority of Australians donate their old clothes to charity or textile recycling organizations. However, after undergoing a stringent selection process determining their future path, our used clothes begin new travels across suburbs, states, and to locations a far as market stalls in Africa.  Clothes are far from lonely when they travel. Sources vary, but approximately half of what is donated to charity organizations will journey to exotic destinations some of us can only dream of. With the popularity of low priced, rapidly produced and ostensibly cool Fast Fashion, the volume of clothing and distance they travel is set to increase. The redistribution of used clothing to people in need, to the wardrobes of ethically driven (and often fashion conscious) consumers or to textile recycling plants is imperative. The extensive travelling of our clothes owes not only to advances in manufacture and design, but a shift in consumer purchasing behavior. Use value and longevity of a garment is not the only criteria consumers assess, fashionable capital is also a quality on which we base our clothing decisions.

The following article will discuss the influx of clothing circulating in the marketplace, mainly due to the disposable nature of trendy fashion in the last decade. Arguing that the throwaway nature of Fast Fashion clothes creates challenges for textile recycling and redistribution, this article will discuss the charity store donation and sorting process. With a large proportion of used clothes exported to overseas, excessive fashion consumption is influencing a decline in indigenous and local textile industries of developing countries.

Fast Fashion Dies Young

Eighty billion garments are produced worldwide every single year (Siegle, 2011:74). As the production and design processes of the Fast Fashion industry evolve and progressively become more sophisticated, volume is set to increase year on year. Fast Fashion has revolutionized the clothing industry, accelerating the design and manufacturing stages of production. Expressed through low priced clothes mirroring current trends from catwalks and style setters around the world. Fast Fashion’s design and production model seeks to transform ‘high fashion’ style into common trend, convincing consumers that what is demonstrated on the catwalks actually represents popular fashion. With an emphasis on rrefurbishing looks on a weekly rather than seasonal basis, Fast Fashion brands render a limited life span on the garments they sell.

Fashion brands in Europe and the USA are world leaders in the Fast Fashion industry. In particular, Zara, Topshop, H&M and the low end store Primark, are labels all renowned for recreating and selling runway trends and cutting edge designs.  In order to respond to every single modification in popular trend, time to market, (the period in which clothes are designed, produced and couriered to the retail store) has been reduced from weeks to days. Topshop has cut their production time from nine to six weeks. H&M, launching fashion that was effectively disposable, cut its lead-time from design to rail in just 3 weeks (Siegle, 2011:21). Spanish fashion monopoliser, Zara dominates the Fast Fashion industry. Zara manufactures small quantities of each style, ensuring its collections are considered ‘exclusive’ and thus creating an anxiety among consumers that they may ‘miss out’. Zara stores receive new fashion pieces twice a week. Each style is only received once and Zara does not reproduce past designs. The limited range of Zara styles encourage consumers to visit stores frequently, and replace their wardrobes just as often.

Hidden workers and planned obsolescence: Fast Fashions bread and butter

Competition between retailers means that high fashion clothes and styles are being produced at affordable prices, making trendy clothes accessible for most budgets and tastes. However there is a human face behind rapid manufacture. Fashion brands go to great lengths to distance their product and the consumer from the people that actually make these clothes (and their skills which are often attained through heritage and traditions). Even though workers possess the unique craftsmanship to produce such clothes, it is most likely they will never be able to afford them, nor experience them displayed in department stores and boutiques across the world. Branding, labeling and trends tend to hide or eliminate any evidence of the lives and history of the workers.

This multimillion dollar fashion export industry is powered by an approximate forty million garment workers, working out of 250,000 garment export factories (Siegle, 2011:41). This army of workers covers the vital point of the production process where the clothes are actually made – the crucial element that makes the nature of these clothes both fast and cheap. Bangladesh produces 1.5 billion jeans every year, India manufactures 7 billion pieces of Western clothing annually and in China, by 2002, 20 billion garments were being manufactured each year (Siegle, 2011:39). Workers in garment factories, or sweatshops, are subject to dangerous working conditions, long hours, low pay and lack union representation. Additionally, clothing manufacture is often outsourced to ‘home workers’. This employment is often hard to trace back to a particular brand due to the employment of faceless middlemen and a complex production line created by the Fast Fashion industry.  Home workers represent the unseen, the isolated and the bottom rung of the global fashion industry, they are responsible for sewing, beading and embellishing many thousands of garments every month (Siegle, 2011:51).

Keeping Fast Fashion alive, the sweatshops churning and the home workers employed is the concept of ‘planned obsolescence’. This is the practice in by which goods are designed and produced to have a limited lifespan yet still need to be replaced regularly. The trend of throwaway fashion owes much to the increases in clothing purchase frequency and a real reduction in price levels (Birtwistle and Moore, 2007:211). The Fast Fashion industry excels in the implementation of planned obsolescence.  Minor embellishments and amendments to designs are made at ever increasing intervals, ensuring their time as ‘cool’ is limited; marking indelibly if a piece was purchased during an earlier fashion cycle. In fact, Fast Fashion retailers such as H&M, Topshop and Zara sell garments that are expected to be used less than ten times, at very competitive price points, further contributing to the disposal of garments that may have only been worn a few times (Birtwistle and Moore, 2007:211).

Charity stores and the redistribution process

This disposability of clothing has resulted in a number of challenges for charity and textile recycling organisations. Donations have increased in size and in frequency. But, while the volume is increasing, the quality of the donations is decreasing. Charity stores are now competing with the low prices of Fast Fashion clothing and struggling to sell excess stock. Based on my research among two Australian national charity organizations, the following section will provide a general description of the textile recycling process in Australia and the challenges disposal fashion has imposed on the industry.

Clothes and accessories available in charity stores are sourced in four ways: corporate donations, third party recycling firms and public donations. In an attempt to contribute to the overall appearance and profit of the store, some charity organizations also purchase heavily discounted new clothes and accessories from brands eager to rid themselves of slow sellers and inter-season stock. Products acquired, include shoes and handbags utilized to compliment current stock and trends. All donations, or purchased stock undergo a stringent grading process. Clothes are assessed for their resale value and thoroughly checked for rips and stains and sorted into three categories, A, B and C grade. A grade garments are in good condition or valuable, making them suitable for resale on the shop floor. B and C grade garments are those which are soiled, deemed too old or washed too many times. B and C grade garments are transferred to recycling centers where they are inspected and either reincarnated for industrial purposes (such as rags) or sold on to third parties specializing in exporting clothing worldwide.

The sorting stage is a lengthy process and most sources of stock come with their own set of challenges. Corporate donations, although they could be perceived as a gesture of goodwill and a contribution to the overall profit of the charity, are effectively a means of disposal for companies with excess or faulty stock. Corporate donations are often samples, end of season stock, or over runs (excess stock of a particular style). Conditions of corporate donations often require charity stores to remove the clothing brand tag before resale. The sourcing of clothing from third party is also a gamble. Stock is received in secure bags and charity stores are unable to view the contents prior to purchase, meaning clothes received could be damaged or unpopular.

Donations from the public reveal the impact of disposable fashion on charity stores. Firstly charity stores are receiving an increasing amount of poor quality items. A representative of an Australian charity organization found that, in the last 5-6 years, the quality of worn clothing is deteriorating as the life span of a garment is reduced.  The low prices of disposable fashion present strong competition for charity stores, challenging their position in the affordable fashion market. Fast Fashion clothing also has an environmental impact. Due to the nature of Fast Fashion material, much of what is donated is synthetic, difficult to recycle and products that are cotton based are hard to reuse (Britten, 2008). The receipt of unworn clothes with price tags still attached is increasingly commonplace for some charity organizations, suggesting consumers are tiring of clothes at a faster rate and before they are even worn. Although these may pieces may be valuable for resale within charity stores, such excessive consumption is sustaining demand for the Fast Fashion industry. Furthermore, as clothes enter and exit the fashion market rapidly, their belonging to a particular trend is easily identifiable.  Once clothes are donated, they may have long lost their appeal.

Exporting clothing

The proportion of donated clothes retailed through charity stores differs slightly, depending on the source. According to Siegle (2011:218), only 10% of UK donations are sold through stores, while 50% is exported to developing countries.  Lee (2006) states that 25% of what recycling companies buy from charities is used as a commodity in an international trading economy. Hansen, Transberg (2004:3) suggests that charitable organisations are the largest single source of the garments that fuel the international trade in second hand clothing, consisting of between 40 and 75% of trade. Distributed via export and shipping firms, the lowest quality clothing goes to Africa, the medium quality to Latin America, while Japan receives the highest proportion of top quality items (ibid).  A simple google search reveals the number of Australian companies that export used clothing and accessories to countries such as Africa and the Pacific Islands.

Shipping and exporting firms make serious profits from the international used clothing trade due to a demand for European style clothing and fashion in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Karen Transberg Hansens’ research: Second Hand Clothing Encounters in Zambia (1999) details the demand for Western clothes in developing countries. Second hand clothing is seen in Zambia as a very special commodity, in fact it has its own name, Salaula. The term specifically refers to the process of imported used clothing from the West and sold in local markets. This term also graphically captures the practice of consumers selecting garments to satisfy clothing desires and needs (Hansen, Transberg, 1999:343). In Zambia, this type of clothing is seen as exclusive and an important imported commodity. For the anthropologist, the clothing offers special exposure on the interaction between the local and the west and because of the way, as dress, it mediates both individual and collective identities and desires (Hansen, Transberg, 1999:343). However, in order for the process to be successful, the sorting of clothes must adhere to specific guidelines. Developing countries are increasingly faced with the issue of receiving clothing that does not suit their climate or style (Siegle, 2011: 220). For example, African countries receiving European winter clothes that do not suit the continent’s warmer climate.

However, there is an adverse effect exporting used clothing imports on the domestic textile and garment industries. Many African countries originally had fairly well developed indigenous markets for textiles and clothing, particularly for handcrafted or hand tailored clothes. Sadly, these markets have virtually disappeared in the last few decades (Lee, 2006). Due to the poor quality and high price of locally produced garments, Zambians from most walks of life have continued to shop from Salaula throughout the 1990s (Hansen, Transberg, 1999:350).  In order to prevent a decline in local textile industries, some countries have taken drastic measures to end the importation of used clothing. Many countries strictly forbid the import of used clothing, while others restrict the volume or limit it to charitable purposes rather than for resale. Used clothing imports are banned in Indonesia because of the threat they pose to local garment production (Hansen, Transberg 2004:4). Mali charges import tariffs on second hand clothing, seeking to reduce its volume, with the aim of protecting the domestic textile industry (Hansen, Transberg 1999:348). However, these measures have birthed an illegal second hand clothes trade and exporters now attempt to smuggle used clothes countries with restrictions. The Nigerian customs service has seized numerous containers of prohibited goods, including used clothes entering with false customs declarations (Hansen, Transberg 2004:4). The impact of disposable fashion is evident when countries treat the illegal ferrying of used clothes in the same manner they would view the importation of illicit substances or arms.

Regulating Fashion

The allure of Fast Fashion is increasingly evident in our everyday lives. In January 2011, Kmart launched a low budget line of jeans priced at $10. By August 2011, Kmart had already sold almost half a million pairs (Collier and Winslow, 2011). Similarly, retail grocery giant Coles, launched a budget clothing line in August, 2011, with the majority of clothes priced below $25 (Baker, 2011).  Although these jeans may pass Australian quality standards, do they meet ethical standards? Kmart’s $10 jeans were produced and manufactured in China and Bangladesh (Collier and Winslow, 2011). Incidents such as the recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, killing almost 1000 workers suggests the manufacturing process remains largely unregulated.

There are some brands taking measures to gain accreditation from ethical fashion industry bodies, claiming transparency within their production processes, such as the fashion industry advocacy body Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA). Ginger & Smart, Collette Dinnigan and Cue are among companies involved in long term ECA efforts to encourage fashion companies to become transparent with their production processes.  Additionally, the ECA also requires companies to become compliant with its accreditation and labeling systems (Safe, 2011). Accredited brands are able to display an ECA trademark on Australian-made products, providing consumers with a way to identify and support ethically manufactured garments. On an international scale, clothing companies have taken similar steps in the last few years to become more transparent. Major brands such as Nike, adamant they have applied enough pressure on issues such as child labour, insist it is in decline in the garment industry (Siegle, 2011:60). To the merit of morally conscious consumers and advocacy groups, there are numerous movements dedicated to the eradication of sweatshop culture and the slowing down of consumerism. Some examples include; War on Want, Labour Behind The Label, Buy Nothing New and No Sweat.

Pledges to regulate the garment manufacture industry are integral to the workers employed, ensuring safety at work, ample payment and regular working hours. However, excessive consumption sustains the disposable clothing industry. Fast Fashion has created a new formula for how fashion is manufactured and available, perpetuating an expectation among consumers; for clothes to be low priced and delivered quickly. Reassessing our purchasing behavior, and buying clothes, when they are necessarily, ensuring they are durable and made to ethical standards could slow down Fast Fashion. But, while demand exists, our clothes will continue their extensive travelling, with their redistribution directing their journey, often passing by or settling in the regions they originated from.

References:

Baker, Michael. 2011. Coles: a wolf in cheap clothing? The Age: 26.08.2011

Birtwistle, G and C.M. Moore. 2007. Fashion Clothing – Where Does It All End Up? International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management 35(3):210-216.

Britten, Fleur. 2008. Is Recycling Your Old Clothes Worth It? Times Online: 25.05.2008

Collier, Karen and Elouise Winslow. 2011. Discount Denims fool fussy fashionistas. Herald Sun: 06.08.2011

Lee, Mike. 2006. The Truth About Where Your Donated Clothes End Up. ABC NEWS (USA) 21/12/2006.

Safe, Georgina. 2011. Protection For Those Behind The Seams. Sydney Morning Herald: 29.09.2011

Siegle, Lucy. 2011. To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World? London: Fourth Estate.

Tranberg Hansen, Karen. 1999. Second Hand Clothing Encounters in Zambia: Global Discourses, Western Commodities, and Local Histories. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 69(3):343-365.

Tranberg Hansen, Karen. 2004. Helping or Hindering: Controversies Around the International Second-Hand Clothing Trade. Anthropology Today 20(4):3-9.

Buy Nothing New Month: http://www.buynothingnew.com.au/

Ethical Clothing Australia: http://www.ethicalclothingaustralia.org.au

Labour Behind The Label: http://www.labourbehindthelabel.org/campaigns/itemlist/category/220-clean-up-fashion

No Sweat : http://www.nosweat.org.uk/

War on Want : http://www.waronwant.org/campaigns/love-fashion-hate-sweatshops

Open access rising

26 March, 2013

Is it just me or is the push towards an open access mentality in academia gathering steam? Recently, we’ve had the encouraging news that the Australian Research Council has introduced an open access policy for research it funds and the Obama administration has backed open access for federally-funded research.

It also seems that academics are becoming increasingly unwilling to participate as free labour in a system that generates extremely high profits for the big academic publishers. Most recently, the entire editorial board of the Journal of Library Administration quit in protest over the licensing agreement imposed by the publisher, Taylor & Francis. According to the agreement, authors had the choice to either wait up to 18 months to put their work in an open repository or pay a $3,000 fee to “unlock” their work.

In the field of anthropology the journal Cultural Anthropology has announced that it’s going full open access by 2014, the OA journal HAU appears to be going from strength to strength and there are a range of new journals seeking to make anthropological research public. One example is Global Ethnographic, a new OA journal that seeks to convey anthropological perspectives to as wide a public as possible. In contrast to most journals they seek contributions of no more than 3,000 words, preferring even shorter ones. They would appear to be trying to fill a niche between a more traditional peer-reviewed journal and an anthropological blog, encouraging more digestible chunks of writing with more popular appeal. I was also very happy to see that one of the first contributors was Macquarie’s own Paul Mason, with a piece on Intracultural and Intercultural Dynamics of Capoeira (PDF).

Along the same lines, but even closer to the popular end of the spectrum is the resolutely upbeat Popanth (Hot Buttered Humanity). Publishing articles in the 800-100 word range, they are aiming to provide bite-sized, and easily digestible, chunks of anthropological goodness.

On the whole I think this is all very encouraging, and it also shows the great diversity of attempts to openly communicate non-monetised anthropological knowledge, from traditional journal formats through to publications that are experimenting with niches somewhere between the established journals and the anthro blogosphere. It goes to show that we shouldn’t generalise too much about such things as the relationship between quality and open access. There are just too many different models being tried out right now. But I think we can generalise about a broader cultural shift in which we are seeing the reinvigoration of the idea that scholarship is a public good and should therefore be “out there” in whatever form that might take.

 

Exploring children’s worlds through their stuff

15 March, 2013

Okay, the blog has been inactive for a while but I’d like to try and breathe some new life into it. To kick things off, here is a nice photo essay doing the social media rounds at the moment. The photos, which show children from a range of countries with their most “prized possessions”, their toys, give us an interesting view into their lives through their material worlds.

Cun Zi Yi – Chongqing, China

The project’s author, Italian photographer, Gabriele Galimberti, sees this study as anthropological in nature and he argues that children’s  relationships to their toys can throw light on both universalities and differences in the experience of childhood. For example, children are all the same in that they essentially want to play,

But it’s how they play that seemed to differ from country to country. Galimberti found that children in richer countries were more possessive with their toys and that it took time before they allowed him to play with them (which is what he would do pre-shoot before arranging the toys), whereas in poorer countries he found it much easier to quickly interact, even if there were just two or three toys between them.

The photos are very effective at conveying at a glance all sorts of information about the lives of these kids, including contrasts in living conditions, income levels and the gendering of childhood. There is also something quite intimate about the shots of the kids with their favourite loot which also helps to convey that stuff is never “just stuff” but an integral part of how we make, and are made by, our material worlds.

But as well as intimacy the essay is also testimony to the ubiquity of capitalism. All the kids display stuff that was made in factories, even Chiwa from Malawi, in one of the more poignant images, standing among the mosquito nets in what appears to be a very basic brick hut, showing off a couple of stuffed kitties and a plastic dinosaur. It might seem like an obvious point, but all these kids are making their intimate worlds with objects that begin their lives as mass-produced and anonymous commodities. I wonder if it’s this fact which cause the photos, even those showing kids in relatively affluent contexts, to evoke a certain pathos in me?

Chiwa from Malawi.

 

Plastic Matters in Sydney

18 October, 2012
by Jennifer Anayo (Graduate of the Master of Applied Anthropology program at Macquarie University) 
 

Plastic is ‘highly visible’ in food packaging, plastic carry bags at the check-out and the many applications of plastic in the food and beverage service. Due to these consumer experiences, plastic is often linked with notions of disposability, convenience, and low financial cost. Our interactions with them are for short periods of time, and often taken for granted. Similarly, since plastic has found its place in every-day consumer products, and the banal and mundane functions of daily life, plastic often fades into the background, ‘invisible’ until attention is brought to it.

Commonly, we understand the things we buy, use or get given as ‘objects’. Dichter points out that the objects we own reveal a great deal about ourselves, and that studying objects is a useful way to find out about people and gain insight into, as he puts it, “the soul of man” (Dichter 2004: 91). Traditionally, the study of material culture has focused on ‘objects’ and their relationship with humanity. However in this case, my interest lies not the object itself, but the material it is made of – plastic. Having a design background, I became interested in the impact that this material has on the culture of Sydney.

Bottles and Health

Bundanoon is a country town, southwest of Sydney, and in July of 2009, the town was the first in Australia (possibly the world) to ban the sale of pre-packaged, bottled water. Wingecarribee Shire Council installed several public water fountains, and the town’s retailers removed bottled water from their shelves. This response was sparked by commercial interest to extract spring water within the Bundanoon precinct (Roderick, 26 September, 2009). The townspeople found the idea of an international company taking their water, processing it on a separate site, and then selling it back to them in their local shops ridiculous. Local businessman, Huw Kingston is quoted in Southern Highland News: “If we were saying we were against water extraction, the logical step is to say no to the end product” (Murray, 9 July 2009). Huw led the petition against Norlex and the ban of bottled water in the township. Since 2009, several schools and universities across Australia, which are small towns in themselves, have adopted similar bans in a stance against the environmental impacts of bottled water (list of schools and universities are on www.gotap.com.au).

In 2008, research into use of public water fountains was commissioned by Do Something, a not-for-profit organisation that works to create positive social and environmental change. The study found that 85% of Australians do not trust the water that comes out of old-fashioned water fountains (Manly council website). Concern over water quality and cleanliness has led to a reduction in the use of public water fountains. As a result, water fountains have disappeared from public precincts over the years. Do Something’s study also linked these statistics to the increase in Australia’s use of bottled water. In conjunction with Do Something, the Manly council chose to take a stand against bottled water. Manly council has installed over twenty public water stations along Manly Beach and surrounds, to encourage a culture of re-filling and re-use. I have personally re-filled my drink bottle in Manly, and appreciate the convenience.

The Manly water fountain initiative was trialled with six water stations, before installing more, upon its popularity and success.  Manly Water estimates that from August of 2008, when the stations were installed, and the time of review, May of 2009 the six water fountains prevented the purchase of 150,000 litres of bottled water. This potentially translates into a quarter of a million plastic water bottles removed from the waste stream. The council also reports that there is a 15-29% decrease in volume of garbage collected in the area where the water fountains are, presumably due to the drop in the consumption of plastic bottles (Manly council website).

Four years ago, I started carrying around my own refillable drink bottle. I still have the same one. I bought it because I had joined the gym, and it became a necessity. The gym has conveniently placed water stations throughout, and the idea is that you can take a sip there, or fill up your bottle and go about your work-out. Of course, the gym also sells bottled water at the front reception, but who would spend $3, when you could get chilled, filtered water for free? I also received a free drink bottle with their ‘welcome pack,’ but I couldn’t use it. I didn’t like the ‘plastic’ smell. And I wanted to avoid the ‘plastic’ taste that I had experienced in the past. In the interim, I maintained the option of refilling one of those disposable spring water bottles, which I had saved several weeks before. However, I was hesitant to continue with this practice as I had heard you shouldn’t re-use them – that chemicals in the bottle can leach into the water, which obviously would be bad for you.

Whilst checking into the gym a couple of weeks into my membership, there was a new line of drink bottles on display. I was attracted to the shiny silver one – not plastic! (Well the lid is plastic, but the body is metal.) It was only $5, so the smart thing to do was to commit. I had to commit to a new way of life. I started bringing my bottle with me wherever I went, not just to the gym. I fill it at home before a day of shopping and hope that I find a place to re-fill — which is often hard. Some takeaway places like McDonald’s and most coffee shops don’t mind filling your bottle as long as you’re paying for something else. I have my bottle on me in class; I use it throughout the day at work. And I even use it whilst I’m at home.

Plastic Worlds

Both Manly and Bundanoon highlight the environmental debates prevalent in our society today. We are challenged to reduce our environmental impact by changing our consumption habits and in particular, by cutting out plastic. Plastic is a very large part of our material reality, yet we often do not give it a second thought. Plastics are currently used in the value chains for a majority of manufactured products in the world. They have been on the forefront of product innovation and development for more than 150 years. Plastic has found its place in nearly every sphere, field and profession. Our modern technological and social ‘advancements’ would not be as they are, without the help of plastics. Plastics have helped fade class distinctions and raise living standards. Ironically, plastic was first sought out as an ‘environmentally friendly’ solution, it stopped the slaughter of elephants for ivory, it increases manufacturing efficiency, and reduces costs. However in our minds, these positives are outweighed by the negative environmental and health impacts of plastic we have heard about in the media.

Like many of the people I’ve interviewed, I don’t actually think about plastic all that much. Yet on the occasion I do, my thoughts are both negative and positive. Plastic bags, bottles, disposable plates and spoons come to mind… The hundreds of Lego blocks my brothers and I would build up and break down, as children. I am reminded of plastic Coke can rings strangling albatross, penguins and sea turtles. I laugh about the huge collection of plastic bags my mother stores in the garage, which I’m sure dates back to a time even before I was born. And as I have grown up and matured in a world with plastic, I honestly can’t imagine a world without it. I could really identify with Susan Freinkel’s book, Plastic, A Toxic Love Story (2011, Pg 2):

It wasn’t clear to me just how plastic my world had become until I decided to go an entire day without plastic. The absurdity of this experiment became apparent about ten seconds into the appointed morning when I shuffled bleary-eyed into the bathroom: the toilet seat was plastic. I quickly reversed my plan. I would spend the day writing everything I touched that was plastic… Within forty-five minutes I had filled an entire page… I’d never thought of myself as having a particularly plastic-filled life. I live in a house that’s nearly a hundred years old. I like natural fabrics, old furniture, food cooked from scratch. I would have said my home harbours less plastic than the average American’s – mainly for aesthetic reasons, not political ones. Was I kidding myself?

I too have furnished my home and bought my appliances seeking to create a look and feel, in which I generally avoid plastic. However, I can say that it is hard to avoid plastic completely, many objects disguise their use of plastic very well and in some instances I actually prefer the plastic option. When I made the commitment to my re-usable drink bottle, I was definitely aware of the positive environmental impact I was making by consuming fewer plastic bottles, however it was not the only factor in my decision making process. I weighed up usability, practicality, cost and aesthetics. I also asked myself if I could do it – was I able to make room for remembering, maintaining and re-filling a bottle in my life? Disposable bottled water have become a popular convenience, especially as public water fountains have slowly disappeared. Whether we deliberately avoid or are ignorant to the presence of plastic, plastic has become essential in our day-to-day lives. We have come to rely on this material. It has become so ubiquitous that we are often blinded to its omnipresence in our lives. Yet ironically, on the other hand, plastic is a glaring point of contention in environmental debates about bottled water, plastic bags, and waste management – all of which skew our overall perception of plastic.

My respondents identify the place, look, feel and even a sound of plastic. They recognise that objects have a mix of materials, can distinguish between them, and employ a ‘litmus test’ – flicking and tapping to positively confirm the presence of plastic. We further explored where plastic is accepted and rejected – where, when and why. I found it interesting to discover a link between notions of disposability, convenience, and its impact on other products when presented in plastic. We see that plastic is not acceptable in certain forms. Strong resistance or expressions of distaste is evident when my respondents were offered an engagement ring made of plastic. There is discord between the temporality, convenience, ‘cheap-ness’ and ‘fake-ness’ of plastic, with objects of high value and status. We find a disconnect with the value, wealth, status and purity, required to qualify as a bottle of wine, a car or tea-pot.

Modernity’s Partner

Freinkel (2011) claims that plastic is modernity’s partner, with which we have a love–hate relationship. Many of my respondents feel the tension between modern conveniences and the ten minutes it takes to drink a takeaway coffee, and the apparent tens of thousands of years it takes to break down its packaging – making it a mathematical, environmental and moral problem. This tension between convenience and culpability is what Freinkel describes when she says we have a love—hate relationship with plastic. We enjoy the conveniences, the advances in technology and the efficiency that plastic presents, but hate the responsibility and environmental consequences that come along with its use. Plastic has shaped a ‘disposability’ and ‘convenience consumerism,’ which has warped into a ‘hyper-consumption’, an unsustainable practice threatening our planet.

Despite the fact that my respondents are often blinded to the amount of plastic that surrounds them, they are quite aware of the environmental costs of plastic. Though they may not articulate this awareness in extreme consumption and disposal practices, my respondents have expressed a latent concern about the environment and social mores surrounding plastic bags, bottles and plastic’s inability to biodegrade. Plastic has been almost demonised in the media, and by proxy we become bad people by using it. This causes a strong sense of guilt in using plastic. Bundanoon’s ban on bottled water, the ‘green bag’ campaign and Manly’s installation of water stations are examples of plastic being caught up in the greater appeal for humanity to consume resources and energy in a more considerate way. Cutting back on the use of plastic bags and not buying bottled water are just two suggestions to do so. My respondents all espouse the need to recycle and the danger of plastic bags in our waterways, but concede that convenience often weighs heavier in their decision making process.

What I discovered in my ethnographic research is that we desire a discharge of the environmental debt, which we accumulate in the use of plastic. My respondents attempt to discharge this debt by re-purposing plastic bags for the lining of rubbish bins, and re-cycling in specialised collection bins. In spite of these practices, remnants of guilt remain – as if my informants feel that what they are doing is not enough. However, my respondents concede that convenience usually outweighs their social conscience, and choose not to do much more. Mathematically and morally things still may not completely cancel out, but we have yet to find a convenient alternative.

References

Adler, R & Coster, H, 1956; Plastics in the Service of Man, Pelican Books, Baltimore

Appadurai, A 1986; The Social Life of Things, Cambridge University Press, New York

Australian Government Productivity Commission; Chemicals and Plastics Regulation Research Report, Feb 2008

Belk, R W. 1988; Possessions and the Extended Self. The Journal of Consumer Behavior

Dichter, E 2004; The Strategy of Desire, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick (Originally published in 1960 by Doubleday & Co)

Freinkel, S. 2011; Plastic A Toxic Love Story, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne

Roderick, L, 26 Sept 2009; Bundanoon Gives up Bottled Water, Illawarra Mercury

Murray, R; 9 July 2009, Bundanoon Bans Bottled Water, Southern Highland News

 

Websites

GoTap – Accessed June 2012

http://www.gotap.com.au

Manly City Council – Accessed June 2012

http://www.manly.nsw.gov.au/environment/climate-change-and-sustainability/portable-water-stations/

Documentary on Social Collapse in Greece

1 October, 2012

Here is a powerful piece of film-making about the current social crisis in Greece. Athens: Social Meltdown, by film-maker Ross Domoney, is based on research by, and features extensive interviews with, University of Sussex anthropologist Dimitris Dalakoglou.The film deals with the changes in Greek society since 2010 and paints a picture of increasing radicalisation of the middle, a society alienated from its political elites and the caste of police — itself increasingly viewed as an enemy of the people — that protect them.

The film contains plenty of scenes of conflict between protesters and police, but what makes it particularly rending are the emotionally charged scenes of Greek protesters explaining the nature of their anger. It also presents a fairly dark view of the future for Greece. Although there are some hopeful signs of Greeks self-organising in order to create alternative systems of currency and exchange, this development of informal economic spheres could also be taken as evidence of increasing social fragmentation as people disconnect from the formal structures of economy and governance.

Here in Germany the media is dominated by hand-wringing over the future of the Euro and the apparent Greek recalcitrance which is endangering it. The image of lazy and disorganised Greeks prevails and not much comes through about the social impact of the crisis and the austerity measures being pushed especially by the Germans. This film helps to show the human side of current events and to make tangible the sense of desperation that is underpinning what seems to be a thoroughgoing radicalisation of Greek society.

A friendly Turanic people

6 September, 2012

At the end of August, Hungary extradited to Azerbaijan an Azeri military officer who had, while attending a NATO-sponsored training in Budapest in 2004, killed an Armenian participant with an axe and was sentenced to life in prison. Upon his arrival in Azerbaijan, the man, Ramil Safarov, was granted a presidential pardon and a promotion, and was feted as a national hero.

The reactions to this affair in Hungarian politics give an interesting snapshot of the state of culturalism in the country. Not-government-aligned media (there aren’t many of those left), which tend to criticise the government from liberal positions, largely attack the decision for selling out to “Oriental dictatorships”  — not just Azerbaijan but also China and Saudi Arabia — in the hope that they will finance Hungary’s debt. Indeed, there is little doubt that there is a link between the extradition and an announcement that Azerbaijan would buy Hungarian debt, just as, during Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Hungary last year, the police prevented Tibetans living in Hungary from demonstrating. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly made clear that he wishes to shift from an exclusive Euro-Atlantic orientation to an Asian one, a shift he sees necessary for economic growth but in which he has also mused about the usefulness of non-democratic methods of governing. This summer, in a widely quoted, semi-joking speech, he said that Hungarians, as “half-Asian progeny,” sometimes only understand force. Yet, simultaneously, Orban frequently assumes the mantle of the defender of European values such as Christianity, the family, and democracy, which the EU has lost track of.

Although liberal media generally oppose Orban’s clericalism, in its criticism of the extradition there are frequent references to Armenia as “the first Christian state” with which “we,” therefore, share a lot more than with Azerbaijan. (In this respect, they agree with a communique issued by the government after the extradition that states that Hungary “respects Christian Armenia.”)  

Interestingly, the leader of Jobbik, the ultranationalist opposition party, which generally also operates with Christian symbolism but which is also drawn to that strand of Hungarian exceptionalism that emphasises the Asian roots of the nation, defended the alliance with Azerbaijan as “a key partner” on the basis that Azeris were a Turanic people — “Turanic” being a keyword in this self-Orientalising root mythology.

New winds in intercultural communication — from Macquarie!

6 May, 2012

In the Master of Applied Anthropology course at Macquarie University that inspired us to start this blog, and in the book Seeing Culture Everywhere that later resulted from the course, Joana Breidenbach and I were particularly critical of intercultural communication (IC) both as academic discipline and as industry. We think mainstream IC perpetuates stereotypes and a “container model” of national cultures in a way that is remarkably similar to Huntington’s views on international relations.

We are now writing an entry on IC for the new edition of the International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioural Sciences. In the process of updating our overview on the field, I was surprised and please to discuver the work of Ingrid Piller, whose take on mainstream IC is very similar to ours, but whose critique comes from inside the discipline. She, too advocates a contextual approach and rejects a priori cultural categorizations.

The biggest surprise is that Piller is a professor of linguistics at Macquarie University, in the very department in whose applied linguistics courses one of our students was pressed to demonstrate a “typical Japanese greeting.” We used the incident, which made him very upset, as an example of IC stereotyping in our book.It is clear that Piller is equally critical of such approaches.

It seems that Piller joined Macquarie in 2008, just when I left, but I am surprised we haven’t discovered each other’s websites earlier!

Bird xenophobia, dog nativism

5 April, 2012

When I was new to Australia I was struck by the vehemence with which locals differentiated between native and non-native animal species. “That’s a pest!” they would say, frowning at the Indian minah and reserving their affection for the slightly different aboriginal (i.e. also immigrant, but earlier) variety.

I am hapy to report that my homeland Hungary finally got the one-up on Australia. Parliament recently passed a law introducing a dog tax. The law stipulates that autochthonous Hungarian races, such as the vizsla, the puli or the komondor, are exempt. The idea is, of course, to promote the population growth of these natives at the expense of the immigrant varieties.

So these politics of the soil really do work across species, don’t they? Hungary was, after all, the first European country in the 20th century to cap the percentage of Jewish students at universities.

(By the way, I love vizslas, pulis, and komondors.)

More novel teaching methods, or anthropology lecture as spectacle?

30 March, 2012

Last year I posted about Latrobe Uni anthropologist Alberto Gomes and his use of a Bollywood flash mob in his first introduction to anthropology lecture. Given how much interest the last video generated, with over 400,000 hits on Youtube, I suppose it was inevitable that he would have another go at doing something out of the ordinary.

I really liked last year’s use of Bollywood to both introduce themes from the course and to engage students in that crucial first lecture. It was easy enough to see how it could be used to set up key issues to be dealt with throughout the course. This year’s effort is a little harder to parse. It brings together elements of different musical and performance traditions, a hip-hop anthem with a kind of feel-good, we-are-the-world sort of vibe. But it’s harder for me to see what the teaching points here are. Is it creating a spectacle for its own sake? Also, maybe it was the way the video was cut, but this time round all the students seemed to be in on the joke from the start, which spoils the “flash mob” dimension of the exercise.

Anyway, I don’t want to be too critical. I applaud the effort to play with the usual lecture mode of teaching and finding ways to make material more memorable. This year’s effort didn’t work so well for me. Maybe it would have helped to know how the performance was used to introduce themes for the course, and maybe these elements could have been included in, or with, the video to give it some context for us internet viewers.

Ethics approval for student research projects to use in teaching

27 March, 2012
by

Nearly 3 years ago, I posted here on Culture Matters about my attempts to get ethics approval for students to do research projects as part of the classes I was teaching.  In that post, I linked to 4 different ethics applications I’d written for student research project, each of which used different research methods, from convenience sample street surveys of mobile phone users to participant observation in a virtual world to an oral history project of international students’ experiences at university to a commissioned observational study of how students use social space on campus.

Since then, I’ve gotten ethics approval for an additional 3 student research project that are used in 4 different anthropology classes at Macquarie:

I have posted the entire ethics applications (linked above) for others to use.  These things take a surprising amount of time and effort to write, and it would make me feel better about the time I spent working on these ethics applications if I knew that they were making things a bit easier for other people!  So please feel free to cut and paste: nothing in them is proprietary.

If you’re at Macquarie, then you’re really in luck, since you can just cut and paste into the most current ethics application form on the Research Office’s website.  Unfortunately, most institutions have their own unique forms for everything, so teachers at other universities might find it a bit more work to translate from my ethics application to theirs — but the basic ideas are there, including:

  • techniques for designing a participant observation research project that is unique for every student, that avoids any high-risk (and thus tricky to supervise when you have a whole classful of students) research areas (hint: no drugs, no illegal activity, including dumpster-diving), and that also navigates the tricky terrain of getting informed consent from people to write about them when their lives are inextricably intertwined with the students';
  • how to recruit friends and family members to participate in an illness narrative project without putting any implicit pressure on them to do so (i.e. no “Mom, I need to interview you about the time you had cancer so that I don’t fail this class”) and that describes how students will talk about their research projects in class without revealing their informants’ very personal information; and
  • elaborate scripts that students can use when approaching a restaurant manager, for example, to get permission to write about their eating experience, and really straightforward and easy-to-understand informed consent forms.

If you end up using one of these as the model for one of your own student research projects, please let me know how it goes!  In particular, I’m interested in knowing what ethics committees at different institutions do and don’t find acceptable in student research projects, so if you get hassles about a particular research method, participant population, or participant recruitment technique, shoot me an e-mail and tell me about it (lisa.wynn[at]mq.edu.au).  I’d love to compare your experience with my own.

Lisa Wynn

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