The value of a livelihood

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how we value the life of individuals, and the way this is presented in the media. In that post, I named names – I wrote of individuals about whom we can discover more: a photograph, a family, a history. We can begin to relate to such people and thus find value in their lives. It’s much more difficult, however, to value the anonymous. And yet there a thousands of faceless people who make our lives what they are. Thousands of people responsible for the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the computers we use…. the only relationship we have with these people is the through objects – we do not know their stories. Perhaps we should.

Perhaps it is our responsibility to understand what goes into producing the objects we interact with every day. How did making the t-shirt you are wearing affect the life of the people who made it? Where did the fibre come from? How was it spun? What chemicals was the person who dyed it exposed to? Where was it cut and sewn together? In a sweatshop? Did someone suffer to make it? Will they continue suffering long after you have thrown it in the bin?

The collapsed Rana Plaza building (Reuters picture from the BBC web site)

It is now just over a year since The Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed.In that tragic incident, 1129 garment workers were killed and thousands more injured. They still haven’t received proper compensation and more than half of the companies who bought from the factories have not yet even pledged any money to the compensation fund.

This building housed four clothing factories that supplied goods to 29 international brands and retailers, including (according to the BBC) JC Penney in the United States and Primark in the UK, plus Benetton (The Guardian), Matalan, Bonmarche and Monsoon (The Irish Independent), Walmart and Gap (International Business Times). So, buying more expensive clothes on the high street does not necessarily ensure that the people who make them do so under good conditions. Of course, clothing is not the only industry that does not always take care of its workers… I have written previously, for example, about the appalling conditions associated with the production of cut flowers in poorer countries and the exploitation of the workers.

What all this highlights is that the ‘cost’ of a product is so much more than the money that you hand over in a shop. And because the things we buy are cheap, we do not value them – we often throw them away before they have reached the end of their life… because businesses want us to keep buying and making profit for them. If you personally knew people who worked in terrible conditions, would you buy the goods they made and support the companies who exploited them?

So, next time you go shopping, think about the implications of your choices… do you want to be responsible for the suffering of another person? Is there a purchase you can make that would be a positive action instead?

Flower power

There is a scene in the US sitcom Friends where Monica gives the following advice to Phoebe’s boyfriend

do not get her flowers. Okay? Because y’know, she cries when they die, and there’s the whole funeral…

The line gets a big laugh and it’s supposed to show just how cookie Phoebe is but, you know, I’m really on her side in this case. Whilst it may seem strange to most people, the truth is I really dislike cut flowers… the idea of having something gradually decomposing on my mantlepiece isn’t something that appeals to me.

A breadseed poppy flower in my garden

I have told many people over the years about my feelings towards cut flowers and most of them think I’m bonkers… although a few have acknowledged that I do have a point. I prefer to see my flowers growing… perhaps in a pot, but preferably outside in the garden or in a natural place where the bees, butterflies and hoverflies can enjoy them too.

I was brought up not to have flowers in the house because my mother has such severe hayfever. Even the flowers at my sister’s wedding had to be artificial. So, I didn’t grow up expecting to see flowers indoors… just green growing plants. Perhaps this is why I have always been thoughtful about their presence and never really accepted them as a natural feature.

Of course as I got older I began to think about the origin of cut flowers and question their environmental credentials. The point of a cut flower is beauty… for most people they should be perfect – no blemishes or signs of deterioration when they are received. Like any other plant part, once picked decomposition is going to set in quite quickly, so treatment with fungicides and rapid refrigeration are in order… particularly since many flowers travel thousands of miles before they reach the supermarket or florists where they are sold. As John McQuaid says in an article in the magazine of the Smithsonian institute

Selling flowers is, at bottom, an attempt to outwit death

But even prior to their picking and transportation, the flowers need to be perfect – so have to be grown in conditions that prevent attacks by insects and pathogens.

Flowers in the garden – where I like them

A large proportion of cut flowers are grown in Colombia or Kenya – countries with a climate that allows year-round flower production without artificial heat. In terms of carbon  emissions this seems like a good option – the other common source of cut flowers is Holland, where the plants must be grown in heated polytunnels to ensure they are available throughout the year. However, even in tropical countries, cultivation is often in polytunnels in order to control pests and water applications. And, of course, pesticide use is common… having a significant impact on the health of the workers (often women and children) in the facilities (you can’t call them gardens or even farms) where these flowers are produced. Most (but not all) cut flowers are produced by large companies whose primary motivation is profit, not the welfare of either their workers or their customers. War on Want have highlighted the issues associated with the industry and, whilst the situation seems to be improving, in part as a result of customers looking for fairly traded of environmentally responsible bouquets, there are still problems. For example the ‘Fair Trade’ mark tells you nothing about the levels of pesticides, although it does give more assurance that workers are not being ‘exploited’. In my opinion, however, ‘exploitation’ should be considered to include exposure to dangerous chemicals as well as long working hours, limited breaks, child labour and so on.

Even as a purchaser or receiver of cut flowers you may be exposed to unpleasant substances. John McQuaid writing in 2011 noted that

the U.S. Department of Agriculture checks imported flowers for insects, but not for chemical residues

Which makes me wonder what the message really is when you give someone a bunch of flowers – here darling, have some dangerous chemicals and watch these plants slowly dying!

There’s plenty advice on buying flowers, be it from The Ecologist Magazine or the UK Government. You may want to think about worker’s rights, carbon emissions, water resources, pesticide and fertilizer use, supporting developing countries or your local economy, but for me it’s easy – I don’t like cut flowers so I never buy them!

Oh, and I don’t like cut Christmas trees either!

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