A- A A+

Who pays for our impulsive consumption?

Beth Doherty |  18 May 2007

Who pays for our impulsive consumption?A tradition of disposable clothing has existed in the fashion industry for many years — clothing that falls apart easily, garments that you wear twice and then give away. However, we rarely consider what effect this impulsive consumption of goods has. Perhaps we know at one level that the fashion industry has quite a lot to do with poverty? 

Recently I walked into a 'disposable clothes shop' in Sydney and viewed it through a different lens. As I looked at a beautifully embroidered shirt and a pair of trousers, I started to picture the women who worked to assemble its pieces.

Remembering lines of women in Cambodia walking along Phnom Penh’s roads with pink scarves around their heads, long sleeved shirts and simple black pants, my conscience was pricked. These women were on their way to work in garment factories, yet rarely did I remember seeing on the labels of my clothing 'Made in Cambodia'.

While these Cambodian women work in comparatively good conditions, it is impossible for Cambodia to continue on this path as it can no longer compete in the world market. The franchise that China has on the garment industry is preventing countries like Cambodia from working their way out of poverty.

On the other side of the world the situation is similar. The United States subsidises its cotton farmers, which prevents African countries such as Mali from being able to export good quality cotton to a world market. Peru is in a similar situation with its alpaca wool.

This situation was considered in The Dollar a Day Dress, a documentary made by the BBC's Panorama  in 2005. The documentary travelled to Peru, Mali, Uganda and Cambodia to source material from people who lived on less than a dollar a day. The dress was then created by London School of Fashion students and paraded during fashion week, 2005. However, despite advocacy efforts like this, two years later, the situation has not improved.

In July 2007, the world will reach the halfway point of the UN Millennium Development Goals. These development goals aim to alleviate extreme poverty and hunger, providing universal primary education and addressing gender inequality. So let’s look at the facts. Australia is a signatory to these UN promises, and by signing on to them Prime Minister John Howard signed onto a pledge which states:

Who pays for our impulsive consumption?"We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanising conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected. We are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want."

Australia currently ranks 19th out of 22 OECD countries in its contribution to overseas aid spending. In last week’s Budget, whilst the Federal Government increased the aid budget, it failed to increase aid funding from its current level of 0.3 per cent of GNI. The budget did however decrease its governance funding on a percentage basis, and increased infrastructure, health and education spending by $1.6 billion over four years. This is promising, in that less aid dollars are being spent on security operations in places such as the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste, and more is being spent on sustainable development. Nonetheless, our signing of free trade agreements with the United States is the very thing which keeps developing countries from working their way out of poverty. 

One answer to these complex problems is for Australia to show some leadership, and start providing more and better aid; to focus its aid dollars on development projects with a mandate of building peace and alleviating poverty, and investing in fair trade initiatives. One of the Millennium Development Goals is to create a global partnership for human development. It is not possible to eradicate extreme poverty without working together. Working together using principles of fair trade is a challenge that governments need to be made aware of. Programs need to be firmly grounded in good development principles, encouraging a mentality of doing with rather than doing for.

Another more personal response is to consider our buying habits. Our awareness of the working and living conditions of garment workers rarely plays out in our own lives. Christian Kemp-Griffin, the Chief Executive Office of Edun Apparel — an ethical clothing company founded by U2’s Bono and his wife Ali Hewson — says that socially conscious clothing sells. "The ethical image has value. A company doesn't have to sacrifice its margins to sell its product because it's doing it ethically. It actually adds value for the consumer."

A fundamental shift needs to happen in the minds of Western governments. It takes specific action and focussed aid and development dollars to alleviate poverty, and the need is more urgent than ever.



Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

Great article, Beth!

Maisa Pintado 17 May 2007

great personally felt thought provoking article

Maggie Power 17 May 2007

Excellent article beth. I have been guilty of the impulse purchase too many times myself. We all need to think a little more about how we consume.

Joanna May 17 May 2007

Hi Beth, I read with interest your article as I have recently started importing into Australia handbags made in Cambodia. Whilst I agree that greater government involvement is required, I hope that through my enterprise I will be able to assist on a smaller scale. www.naked-truth.com.au

Michelle Fadelli 05 December 2007

Similar articles

The virtue of having a go

Michael Mullins | 15 May 2007Editorial - Martin FlanaganMartin Flanagan of The Age links the sometimes defiant spirit of having a go with “common goodness”. He says this is found in the midst of wars and despair and, most importantly, “the blindness that flows from political and religious ideology”.

Glossing over Kevin Rudd's Catholic school days

Tom Cranitch | 15 May 2007

Why does Kevin Rudd gloss over his Catholic school days?A Fairfax press article last week speculated about the Labor leader's reluctance to talk about his 18 months as a boarder at Brisbane's Marist College Ashgrove. It is most likely that his greatest difficulty was his need to grieve after the sudden death of his father.

Sri Lanka's seesaw of war and cricket

Hector Welgampola | 15 May 2007Sri Lanka - famous for war and cricketLast week, Sri Lanka's media reported Mahela Jayawardena’s Buddhist parents praying at a Hindu temple for his team’s success in the World Cup cricket. The continuing war is a legacy of the divide and rule strategy of the colonial elites.

The master of talkback radio

1 Comment
Colin Long | 15 May 2007The master of talkback radioMr Howard is a master of talking over people he doesn’t want to hear from. By going on talkback, politicians can appear to be available in an open and unstructured forum, reaching out over the heads of the media to constituents.

Vietnam's miracles of balance

Peter Pierce | 15 May 2007Vietnam's miracles of balanceThe city cyclo traffic could be negotiated because cramped spaces have generated considerate attitudes rather than rage. Physical accommodations to crowding and privation tempt the traveller into laudatory flights, but the people’s attitudes seem altogether too matter-of-fact.