Guide for a Sustainable Planet

BC sociologist and colleagues explore true price of consumerism

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Please, says Prof. Juliet Schor (Sociology), don't call her a Grinch.
Schor, who often writes about the excesses and drawbacks of consumer culture, does not begrudge anyone his or her holiday shopping. She just would like people to at least be thoughtful about the potential, even symbolic, impact of their purchasing decisions as they traverse the malls and on-line stores.

Prof. Juliet Schor (Sociology) co-edited and contributed to the recently published Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the 21st Century. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
"I see my work as trying to understand what consumers do and why they do it, rather than giving knee-jerk criticism," said Schor. "Part of my message is, yes, here are the benefits of the marketplace we have, but let me tell you what the costs are - and not just in terms of dollars."

Schor and 15 other educators, scientists, entrepreneurs and researchers offer examples of, and alternatives to, what they term "irresponsible consumption" in a recently published volume of essays, Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the 21st Century, a project by the Center for a New American Dream, a non-profit organization.

In her essay, Schor, who edited the book with CNAD President and founder Betsy Taylor, scrutinizes the factors behind Americans' increased expenditures on clothing and the far-reaching economic and environmental effects of this trend.

Other essays in Sustainable Planet advocate adopting a slower-paced lifestyle that allows for more attention to family and community relationships; promoting business practices that are efficient and ecological as well as profitable; and recognizing, and reversing, the deleterious effects of technology on community bonds.

The authors in Sustainable Planet also share a general concern over the nature of globalization, although, as Schor explains, neither she nor her colleagues are suggesting that a world marketplace of goods and services is in and of itself objectionable.

"This is not a call for sacrifice in the name of the environment," she said. "We're attempting to offer a vision for a society which is more ecologically and economically viable, where there would be a focus on revitalizing local food economies and industries, for example. Are more internationalized government and industrial structures inherently evil? No. But the problem is when they are not driven by citizen participation, when there is no accountability. Our basic idea is that globalization should be democratic."

In the same vein, Schor urges a rejection of the "shop 'til you drop" approach in favor of "conscientious consumerism" when it comes to buying clothes. But she differentiates this philosophy from what she terms a "minimalist" mentality that advocates a purely utilitarian fashion sense.

The significance of clothing goes well beyond its immediate function, says Schor, and has often been at the center of how human beings interact - especially in terms of social class and gender: European governments once established laws regulating dress, and intense conflicts arose over who could wear a wig, choose a certain color or sport a particular fashion style; early 20th-century American women seeking to break patriarchal strictures rejected corsets and confining dresses.

"Dressing and adorning are a vital part of the human experience," she said. "It's part of our creativity and expression. There's genuine pleasure in wearing a well-made, well-fitting garment, or something that embodies beautiful design and artistry. They are a reflection of our values and our culture. My view is, don't minimize - just get the values right."

A major reason for the recent surge in clothing purchases, Schor says, is the decline of garment workers' wages, brought on by the relentless pressure applied by corporate giants such as Wal-Mart, Disney, and Nike. Data from the National Labor Committee shows Bangladesh garment workers earning less than 20 cents an hour, with younger workers getting as little as 8 cents, she says. In China, Wal-Mart and many designers such as Ralph Lauren and Ellen Tracy pay less than 20 cents. The share going to workers is at a historic low, often equaling a mere one percent of the final price.

Cheap prices also rest on unsustainable environmental practices, continues Schor. She cites the use of harmful pesticides in cultivating cotton, the most common material for garments, and the highly toxic nature of many textile dyes, which endanger workers' health and local water supplies.

"Meanwhile, Americans are buying far more than they will wear out, and rates of discard have soared," she said. "While most unwanted clothing winds up in landfills, some is given to charities. Goodwill, for instance, estimates donations increased annually by 10 percent throughout the 1990s. One result has been the collapse of second-hand clothing prices, which now stand at only 7-8 cents a pound.

"What we have to ask ourselves, then, is whether the way we as consumers now choose and buy clothing really does reflect our core values. Do we truly want to support, even indirectly, practices that promote economic or social inequality and environmental hazards?"

Alternatively, she says, consumers could opt for buying fewer but more high-quality and durable clothes. Manufacturers, meanwhile, could produce clothing that is more versatile and easily altered. This shift also could bring about a new structure of labor costs, she says, in which workers produce fewer but higher-quality items and be paid more per hour. Ecologically clean manufacturing technologies would, in turn, become more economically feasible, she says.

Schor suggests other practices, such as providing support for small-scale, independent clothing designers, producers and merchants.

"At the very least, couldn't we ask ourselves, 'How much do we really need?'" said Schor. "From there, we can begin to ask 'How much does it really cost?'"


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