Diverse Economies and Alternative Channels of Consumption

A couple of months ago I went to a fascinating conference/workshop organised by the Geography department at the University of Leicester. It was called ‘Diverse Alternatives: living, working and playing differently in the capitalist mainstream’ and followed the department’s distinguished annual lecture by Professor Katherine Gibson (of J-K Gibson Graham) which was held the previous evening. J.K. Gibson-Graham is a pen name shared by feminist economic geographers – Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham. Their first book ‘The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy’ was published in 1996 and I read it last year – much of it over a fieldwork weekend in Newcastle, sat very contently in various coffee shops around the city.

My discovery of J-K Gibson Graham came at the perfect time as I’d be struggling to conceptualise what second-hand shopping (specifically the nearly new sales I study for my PhD) was. Was it an alternative form of consumption? Informal consumption? Inconspicuous consumption? Ordinary consumption? Whilst shopping as an activity and economic action has been studied now extensively by academics, second-hand consumption had been studied only a little. It had been pushed aside, yet it’s so common (isn’t it?). It’s fairly ordinary, yet so complex – perhaps that is what made it difficult to study. J-K Gibson Graham came to the rescue with their map of the diverse economy, the concept of which inspired the workshop I presented at in Leicester.

Gibson-Graham argue that whilst capitalist firms, wage labour, and market-oriented production produce the dominant discourse of the economy, a whole host of hidden labours and systems of exchange construct everyday life. The iceberg economy visualised here makes visible all other economic relations beyond wage labour and economic exchange.

The Iceberg Economy reproduced from Graham, J. (2001) Imagining and Enacting Noncapitalist Futures. Socialist Review, 28 (3 + 4): 93-135.

The Iceberg Economy reproduced from Graham, J. (2001) Imagining and Enacting Noncapitalist Futures. Socialist Review, 28 (3 + 4): 93-135.

So much work goes into maintaining the capitalist economy and it often goes unrecognised. The work of Gibson-Graham calls for a new way to look at the economy – everyday people in everyday places can be part of re-thinking and re-enacting economies. A diverse economy might be a voluntary run community cafe, a car sharing website or clothes swapping parties. Second-hand shopping or the general procuring of used goods is often considered ‘alternative’. How though, I ask, is the daily provisioning of a mother for her family ‘alternative’? And how is people passing on used clothes ‘alternative’ when we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years? If we’re talking about what’s novel historically, going to the shops every Saturday to buy a new dress would have been impossible for most people just a century ago. Shopping should be seen as ‘alternative’. Calling such diverse economies alternative (like second-hand stuff) just means they are alternative to the capitalist system. And capitalism is just that – a system, or an institution. It’s not life, it’s not the only way, it’s just one way. For this reason I really like the term diverse; it’s less loaded than alternative. The nearly new sales I study are a diverse economy.

Renowned geographer David Harvey has published a new book ‘Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism’. In it he says ‘the economic engine of capitalism is plainly in much difficulty.’ I haven’t read it yet but there is a section entitled ‘capitalism as a process or thing?’ and he calls for the need of an open forum ‘a global assembly, as it were — to consider where capital is, where it might be going and what should be done about it.’ Can anything be done about it? I don’t know. I’m not anti-capitalism, I just don’t think it should rule, but where capitalism is no other alternative gets a real look in. We just need to regain control of it as a system, not a way of life.

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Book Review: Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

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You can’t have missed the media coverage marking the one year anniversary of the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse. Some 3000 workers were inside the Rana Plaza, an 8 storey illegally constructed factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when it collapsed at around 9am on Wednesday 24th April 2013. The factories produced clothing for major Western fashion brands including Primark, Matalan, Bon Marche and Mango. 1,138 people died; a heart-breaking consequence of the West’s addiction to cheap, fast fashion.

This is just one, albeit horrific example of the dark side to fashion; an industry built on the image of glamour, wealth and beauty. A new book aims to draw all that’s bad about the fashion industry together into one hard-hitting, brutally honest volume. Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion was written by Tansy Hoskins, the writer, journalist and activist. Case-by-case Hoskins dissects the industry we all love to hate by investigating the plight of the garment workers, the insatiable want of consumers, and the manipulative nature of the media industry. This book surpassed my expectations. There are many books on ethical fashion out there, some more wishy-washy than others. Hoskins attempt is admirable and a credit to her top-notch investigative journalism skills alongside her genuine passion for the topic. If you liked Lucy Siegle’s To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World? you’ll devour Stitched Up much like I did.

“There is no difference between a knight and any other man except what he wears”

This apparent quote from Robin Hood is Hoskins choice of opener. I’m not sure I would have opted to quote folklore whilst arguing for a realist shift in thinking about a multi-billion pound industry but nevertheless Hood makes an important point. Clothing is the most visible way we have to express our identity, status and values. Fashion is a global industry that we all take part in and Hoskins’ book helps us to take a more critical stance on it.

Each chapter looks at a different issue, from the cotton farmers at the start of the supply chain to the models showing off the final product and all of the sizest, racist taunts surrounding them. She delves straight into the politics and doesn’t shy away from an academic treatment of the subject, in fact, she loves Karl Marx, whose rules of labour and capital are called upon in virtually every chapter. Her key message is that capitalism is the root cause of all that’s bad in the fashion industry and individual action alone cannot reform it. Instead, we need a complete transformation of society, a new way of living and working to foster equality and quash class hierarchies. This she discusses in the final two chapters ‘Reforming Fashion’ and ‘Revolutionising Fashion’.

My only problem with the book is this disregard for the individual. Hoskins does a great job of building up a picture of a rotten industry, built on exploitation and greed, but it leaves the reader feeling helpless. Her concluding suggestions for a revolution are, in her own words, a “distant possibility”. I like to dream with the best of them, but I can’t envision a non-capitalist future unless something really terrible happens and we revert back to subsistence living out of necessity – it certainly won’t be an idealistic utopian society.

At one point she says, “As disappointing as it may be to hear this, there are no ethical clothes for sale”. I disagree. She destroys the likes of TOMS, who she says turned “poverty into a marketing ploy” and disregards CSR and ethical sourcing attempts of high street retailers as little more than greenwash. She gives the impression that as consumers we can do nothing right, we have no power (so therefore we might as well just shop?!). But I think there are ethical retailers, People Tree for example, who work with small fair trade groups and sustainable materials, are they not intrinsically a good?

As I hinted at before, this is a book for educated readers. It’s well researched, as evidenced by the extensive notes section and bibliography. It’s not a coffee table fashion book; although it does has some wonderful illustrations inside. It’s a must-read for students studying fashion, media, business, human geography or retail, along with inquisitive souls with a desire to know more about what exactly they have in their wardrobe. If I could make it law for everybody to read this book, and others like it, I would, because it’s important, and real, and something we can all play a part in to create change. I think Hoskins has succeeded in setting out what she hoped to do.

You can buy Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion direct from Pluto Press for £13.50. Don’t go to Amazon!

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Recent Guest Posts

I’ve had a few guest posts published recently –

Giving UK Ethical Fashion the Celebrity Treatment – La Leaf

La Leaf is a Berlin-based ethical fashion site. I was approached by the lovely Sarah, co-founder and editor of the site, to write about an aspect of ethical fashion from my UK-based perspective. Drawing on my recent trip to Zandra’s Rhodes penthouse for the launch of her latest collaborative collection with People Tree, I wrote about the rise of the celebrity in eco-fashion and what we can learn from the food industry.

Crossing Disciplines – From Fashion Undergrad to Geography PhD – PhD2Published

PhD2Published was set up in 2010 by Charlotte Frost as a resource for helping early career researchers to get their first academic book published. It now provides all sorts of advice for PhD students and ECRs. I wrote this blog to share my experiences of moving into social science from a strong background in fashion.

PhD Publishing Strategies – Which Journal? – Geographypostgrads.com

Geographypostgrads.com is the University of Southampton Geography blog for our own postgrads to contribute too and which I edit. I wrote this post to explain my thoughts on academic publishing and the strategy I’m using to help myself move across to sociology.

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The British Library Eco Fashion Film & Business Resources

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I love Atelier Tammam. Founded by ex-Central St Martins graduate Lucy Tammam, the small traditional couture atelier (fashion studio and showroom) based in the heart of Bloomsbury, central London specialise in hand crafted, handmade, high quality bridal and evening wear. They produce stunning pieces, making use of sustainable materials including vegetarian peace silks and recycled vintage laces and fabrics.

The British Library, the world’s largest library, has unveiled a new online film which aims to inspire ethical fashion designers to use their resources to create something new. In the film, Lucy speaks about how the resources in the British Library provide inspiration for her creations and the support offered by the Library has enabled her to further her business. Check out the film to see how Lucy Tammam takes inspiration from The British Library’s Asian and African collection to create one of her dresses, and uses their Business and IP Centre to help run her business.

To coincide with the ‘Made with’ film series The British Library will unveil their Spring Festival 2014 giving emerging and established fashion designers the chance to get inspiration for their next collection. The festival is FREE and runs from 27-31 March. On 28th March 2014, Amber Jane Butchart, fashion historian, writer, and lecturer at London College of Fashion, will explore the glitz and glamour of Jazz Age Hollywood and the costumes that took London by storm (tickets available here). If you’re thinking of setting up your own fashion label The British Library’s Business & IP Centre in St Pancras, has an excellent track record in supporting entrepreneurs and SMEs. Free talks coming up include ‘Introducing Social Media for Small Business’ Wednesday 19th March and ‘Intellectual property for Creatives’ Thursday, 27th March.

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New Year Reflections 2014

Happy New Year! I hope you had a good Christmas. I certainly did, despite the fact that my parent’s house became a casualty in the storm that hit the South East. This was one end of my road when I was trying to get home on Christmas Eve, and when I did finally make it back I found the lounge under 8 inches of water and no power.
sussex flood
We spent Christmas at a house owned by the charity my mum works for – normally used as offices and a children’s centre – it accommodated us very well for two nights so we were the lucky ones. My thoughts were with all those who had nowhere else to go; the village next to ours were without power for days. Also very appreciative to all the engineers who worked hard over Christmas to get people reconnected.

Anyway, I was just reading back on the post I wrote this time last year. That’s the lovely thing about having a blog, it basically is a diary. You can read it too here. Work wise I’ve had a brilliant year. I’ve finished my fieldwork and had a very rough draft of one results chapter done before Christmas. Last year I wrote that my goal for 2013 was to get a journal paper published or in review and I’ve surpassed myself (if I may say that) by getting one empirical paper published, one commentary paper in press (due Jan/Feb) and being invited to write a book chapter. I travelled more this year than I have in a while – Amsterdam, Paris and Norway, Edinburgh twice, and for fieldwork I’ve travelled more than 4000 miles around the UK. Here is what else I did in 2013:

• In February I presented at the BSA Intimacies, Families and Practices of Consumption Conference in London. This was a lovely day and full of interesting talks. Following this the convenor’s Emma Casey and Yvette Taylor worked hard on developing a proposal for a book – “Intimacies, Critical Consumption & Diverse Economies” and before Christmas we found out this has the go-ahead from Palgrave Sociology so this is what I’ll be contributing a chapter too. I also wrote a commentary piece on “Second-hand consumption among middle-class mothers in the UK: thrift, distinction and risk” for Families, Relationships and Societies journal.
• I went back to Amsterdam in February to supervise the human geography undergrad fieldcourse. Being my second trip I felt a lot more comfortable and confident around the city and helping the students with their research projects.
• I co-organised the Ethical Fashion Futures workshop with fellow PhDer Ellie Tighe. It was a small but really successful event. We had great feedback on the day, giving people from a range of interdisciplinary backgrounds the chance to mingle and share ideas. It opened up more opportunities than I ever imagined, see below.
• After the workshop/conference day, Ellie and I were invited to give a talk on ethical fashion at the University of Southampton Multi-Disciplinary Week in March. This was recorded and is available to watch online (hence, it’s the most effort I’ve put into a presentation for a long time!). We also provided a brief interview and blog post.
• In July I was featured in the Guardian online, for my work on campus in promoting ethical fashion. This was really exciting, and mainly came about through the visibility of my blog and the coverage of the talks and events I’ve been involved with at Uni.
• In August I attended and presented at the Royal Geographical Society conference in South Kensington. I presented in the session “Economic Change and Children, Youth and Families: Current Experiences and Future Frontiers”. The RGS was really inspiring. I used to always call myself a ‘fake geographer’ but the RGS made me proud to say that I’m a geographer – I realised if I keep saying I’m a fake geographer people might start to believe me.
• I had the following peer reviewed paper published “Eco babies: reducing a parent’s ecological footprint with second-hand consumer goods”, International Journal of Green Economics.
• I launched Ethical High Street after months of consideration. Clearly the PhD is my priority for now but I’ll continue to add to EHS and hope that other people find it useful. I also had a bit of a brainwave today but I’ll mull over that for a while. The Christmas lull is good for developing thoughts!

2013 was the year I became surer of myself, academically. I’m never going to be the most intelligent but I’ve realised that within my niche I do know what I’m talking about. I’ve also realised that no academic knows everything within their subject – in fact, everyone is constantly learning and has to bluff their way through on occasions. A couple of months ago I attended a women in science and engineering professional development course. It was quite eye-opening, making me consider my goals, strengths and weaknesses and giving greater consideration to how I’m perceived. I think sometimes for self-preservation sake I play up to the fashion-girl image, I use the fact that I studied fashion for five years pre-PhD as an excuse. But as I’m leaving my department in a few months’ time, how do I want people to remember me? As the girl who sent round emails about tea and cake and wore leopard print jeans to work, or as a capable academic? I think I’d be happy with all of the above but not the former over the latter.

My PhD funding runs out in May! I hope to submit not long after and then move on to pastures new. When I started in 2011 I wasn’t planning for a career in academia but as the end gets nearer I find myself clinging on to that very option more and more. I really love research, I love learning, I love telling people about stuff and I love running my own schedule – where else can I do all that but as an academic? I’ve got a really busy six months coming up – thesis to write, book chapter to write, running seminars for two undergrad. modules (I had no teaching last semester) and I’m going to the Association of American Geographer’s conference in Florida!!

As for where I’ll be this time next year – well I could be sat at this same desk in Southampton or I could be half way around the world. Here’s to a great 2014 x

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Ethical High Street has Launched!

Oxfordhighstreet

My new website Ethical High Street has launched! I came up with the idea some months ago for an easily accessible online resource which helps your average shopper navigate the British high street more ethically. I felt that other resources are often aimed at heavily engaged consumers and can be quite hard on the high street chain stores when the fact of the matter is that 99% of shoppers use them and aren’t going to actively seek out ethical brands online. So Ethical High Street actively promotes the high street and all of the shops you’ll find there – chain stores, department stores, indies and charity shops by highlighting the more ethical or sustainable options. Rather than trying to find the worst in brands, we try to show the best. It’s all about compromise.

www.ethicalhighstreet.co.uk

Ethical High Street will be a slow burner. I have other things on at the moment, like my PhD but I do have various ideas for growing it in the future. So up on the site already we have:

Myself talking about the history of modern shopping and how the way we consume has changed over the decades.

Wendy from Moral Fibres provides some great tips on shopping ethically on the high street.

Didi from Sublow Clothing talks about starting her own sustainable fashion brand.

Stephanie asks how your sportswear shapes up and reviews the brand Howies.

I talk about food co-operatives, the return from e-commerce to bricks-and-mortar stores, and more! Coming up I will be looking into Clarks shoes, People Tree, charity Christmas cards and ethical Christmas decorations.

If you’d like to contribute to the site, get in touch at emma@ethicalhighstreet.co.uk
Follow us on twitter @EthicalHighSt or Facebook.

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