Trying to be an ethical and ‘green’ consumer is like walking through a minefield. The complexity of modern production makes it, in many cases, almost impossible to identify the full impact of one’s choices. I’m not sure I trust the labelling to tell the whole story, either; it has just become another aspect of marketing.
I have long pondered the sustainability of Sprezzatura: an unconfessed guilt – or at least doubt – that the principle of discerning consumption could be morally and ecologically acceptable. Choosing superior products as a matter of principle can seem like unreasonable self-indulgence, particularly at a time when the environmental impact of human activity is becoming ever more extreme.
The materials and methods that are sometimes required to produce refined products can involve the disproportionate exploitation of scarce resources, perhaps sourced from obscure places, and manufacturing, to keep costs down, by people paid low wages and living in terrible conditions. Such is the reputation of the sweat shop.
Recent research for a couple of clothing items led me to further suspect that another trend is not helping matters: it seems that the middle-market is being hollowed out. I have trawled quite widely for the items concerned – and my conclusion, not for the first time, is that the choice on offer is increasingly between low-end disposable junk and a high end whose prices are heading for the stratosphere, thus taking better quality goods out of the reach of much of the population.
The most breath-taking example of this was at Brunello Cucinelli – where I happened on a price tag of £1300 for…. a credit card holder. While there are no doubt people out there who will pay this without batting an eyelid, it surely represents the ultimate divorce of any proportion whatsoever between utility and price.
This is only the extreme, however. I can accept that I may simply be failing to keep up with the impact of inflation; as a state employee, my income was always fixed, beyond my direct influence, and relatively modest. It has no doubt been eroded by the pubic sector pay-freeze of the past ten years – and certainly by the change in my own personal circumstances. But even allowing for all that, my impression is that prices at the better end are soaring away from me. A couple of decades ago, we were able – occasionally – to pay out on expensive items, such as one of Bang & Olufsen’s more modest sound systems – and even the occasional small purchase from favourite labels such as Armani. Today, it’s an impossibility. No doubt the premium that such brands have increasingly found they can command is part of it, as is the willingness of the economic elite to pay whatever it takes to preserve their exclusivity.
This might sound like the first-world problems of a self-indulgent whiner, but there is rather more to it than that; Quite apart from my innocent appreciation of good quality, cheap products so often represent a false economy – at least as much so as slavish adherence to outrageously over-priced ‘labels’. So I was pleased to find that my recent reading of JB MacKinnon’s The Day the World Stops Shopping provided sensible support for my views.
From the ethical standpoint, the key point is this: buying good quality (whether sporting a desirable label or not) is often less harmful than the mass-production throw-away alternative. Our B&O system is still doing good service twenty years later, as is our rather-more-expensive-than-IKEA Italian kitchen, most of our other furnishings and indeed quite a number of those clothes. Being well-made, they aren’t unduly showing their age – and we still love them. For what it’s worth, we apply the same purchasing principle to what we eat, though the price point is obviously rather different, and the goods don’t last as long…
As MacKinnon points out, it’s about a mindset. Much of the really harmful consumption is done by those who purchase almost as a reflex; who use items only a few times, if at all, before junking them in favour of newer ones. The alternative (which with satisfaction I noted we have always done) it to know your own deeper needs and preferences. It is about consuming mindfully, no matter what the item concerned. I suppose another word for this is discernment. This means that you will probably set a much higher bar for purchases made, will think hard about the choices and sources, be more prepared to hunt them down, and identify things that you will still like perhaps a decade later (and hence have no need to throw away). As a result you will make fewer but better purchases; in the long run, it need not be more expensive – and it’s as much about minimising waste.
Pleasingly, I think this is entirely in the spirit of Sprezzatura. It means being in charge of one’s own consumption decisions, doing the necessary work to fulfil one’s needs and desires – and having the discipline of mind to live with one’s decisions. As MacKinnon points out, well-made, pleasing items are ones that often age gracefully, and to which one can develop an attachment that will not fade after a few weeks. This is certainly the case with the items I mentioned earlier. And crucially, it results in the lowering of one’s consumption. Apparently, the typical U.K. consumer buys at least several tens of items of clothing per year, and many are only worn once or twice. I buy perhaps two or three items a year – and wear them for many to come. In that sense, not only is the increased outlay offset, but we throw much less away.
I am fairly sanguine about the sourcing of such items. Many years ago, I came to the conclusion that regular trails round the local high streets were pointless in terms of finding much I was prepared to part with cash for; particularly when the outlay is relatively great, I want to be absolutely sure that it is 100% what I have in mind, and the high street chains just did not do that. I cannot shed many tears for their passing.
I am much more prepared to shop online if necessary, to fulfil that criterion. Here again, there is a choice: one can patronise the large conglomerates, or one can seek out the smaller producers who in some cases just happen not to be local. Labels may be all very well, but often the ones you’ve never heard of are pretty good – and better value.
The inflated prices are being driven by the large multinationals, and it is not necessarily the case that smaller producers all charge high-end prices, though it is true that craftsmanship and good quality do cost more. It does mean doing the mouse-work to find them, but I would rather support an independent tailor in Bangalore or leatherworker in Florence than a large corporation that just happens to have a local outlet. Transport costs are an issue – but I concluded that since many of the high street goods are coming from the same countries in any case, I might as well cut out the middle-man and select the people I wish to patronise myself.
The clothing item in the header picture is one such – a pair of made-to-measure linen trousers that I recently bought from a company in India, which cost little more than a much-inferior pair would on the high street – and which will probably last me for years if previous examples are anything to go by. Such manufacturers are becoming increasingly good at guiding self-measurement and material choices online, and in this case, I took advantage of much-lowered prices, presumably because people are currently wary about buying from India. Apart from an apparent logistics error that sent them from India to the UK via Cincinnati of all places, there would have been little difference in the transport impact – and I have hopefully paid a better wage to those who made them as a result.
There has been much speculation of the impact of the pandemic in moving so much more activity online. I think that will depend not on the mechanics so much as the mindset. If it results in further growth in mindless consumption, as does seem likely, it will undoubtedly be harmful; if on the other hand it makes people think more about what they consume, it need not be.
MacKinnon explained the Japanese word aiyosha – which means “a person who uses a product lovingly”. It is not a rejection of materialism, but about forming a deeper relationship with one’s possessions such that one does not feel the constant need to replace them. That can include accepting that they age – and if they are well-made that need not be a problem. I think this is entirely in keeping with this blog’s philosophy of careful, discerning appreciation of the good things in life.
The appreciation of material quality need not be a source of guilt. The amount of money spent on an item is irrelevant if the intention is only to use it superficially, and ditch it before its time. On the other hand, being aiyosha can be a source of genuine pleasure in our lives. Appreciating quality and individuality are part of that, as is accepting that things will not look new forever. What is more, well-made items are more likely to be repairable, thus extending both their lives and our enjoyment.
I find the search for items that I really like is itself enjoyable, even though it mostly now happens online. It is a world away from the mindless waving of plastic in cloned local “outlets” on a dull Saturday afternoon; the anticipation of delivery is part of the experience, and the revelation of the product when it arrives (usually) a great pleasure. Quite often, small suppliers are still managing to provide a personal touch, such as the hand-written note from a musician in Ireland from whom I recently bought her latest CD, even if it is not quite what one sometimes receives in person in specialist shops.
The real enemy here is mass, planned obsolescence; it is nonetheless what makes the junk economy go round. It also supports millions of jobs world-wide. There undoubtedly rests a huge responsibility on the commercial sector here: if it produces products that are designed to break, while simultaneously pushing the price of higher quality ones beyond the reach of most people, that will make aiyosha, and responsible consumption more difficult – and the result will be ecologically catastrophic. MacKinnon found signs that some companies are re-evaluating their approach, but it is still far from becoming universal.
There is also a responsibility on all of us as consumers: no matter what our price-point, the principle of buying (less frequently) the best we can afford rather than the cheapest we can find still holds. With a shift in our thinking, we can still appreciate good things, while turning it to the benefit of both better-rewarded producers, and the global environment.
Footnote: literally within minutes of posting this article, I was informed by a shirt-supplier in Italy that despatch to the U.K. is suspended because of Brexit. A minefield indeed…