We will never care about ethical merchandise

Small scale student protests are getting us nowhere.

In a campaign even more pedestrian than those run by YUSU candidates, York’s People and Planet contingent sat outside Topshop and handed in some ill-received comment cards. Dressed in a way that suggested a visit to Topshop would do them good, they expressed surprise that the comment cards, ingeniously labelled ‘Sweatshop’ and full of anti-Arcadia diatribe, were not passed on to head office. In reality, the campaigners should be grateful; the gleeful binning of these cards simply engaged the process of their biodegradation earlier. No-one was ever going to look at them; if a Sunday Times exposé can’t change anything, they certainly won’t.

This sounds horribly negative, but by the time customers have evaded Big Issue sellers and despatched of Age Concern, they’re ready for some uninterrupted retail therapy. Instead, they get lectured. Security ejected the bothersome few, and quite right too.

This is the second year on the trot that People and Planet has boycotted a shop – last time it was budget-Mecca Primark. The campaign stopped approximately zero people from shopping there, which I’m sure People and Planet would expect; they simply want to raise awareness, but raising awareness is always so bloody annoying. And what are they actually raising awareness of? It’s pretty obvious that you don’t get nice looking £3 t-shirts from healthy, happy workers. Unless they’re under the delusion that they can make a big change in the nation’s shopping habits, then such a campaign seems to have the less noble motivation of drawing attention to their organisation rather than the cause. Targeting Topshop is just a ploy for a brief window of media attention.

The aims of the Ethical Trading Initiative, the piece of legislation that the Arcadia group has refused to sign, seem reasonable enough. But between all employees doing a working week of 48 hours and all students being able to buy affordable clothes, I know what will win. I’m so bored of ethical merchandise it’s untrue. Of course it’s deplorable that Topshop clothes are made in sweatshops using cotton picked by child labourers, but having been bombarded with campaigns few will actually care enough to stop buying unethical merchandise.

Case in point, the beloved Viking Raid. Had that not gone ahead because of struggles to find ethically sourced t-shirts there would have been outrage in the student population. And those Gladiator hands waving at the YUSU election results – environmentally friendly? I think not. Students generally operate on a mild moralistic plateau that lets them agree with all the right causes unless supporting the cause incurs financial burden or the restriction of fun. When a campaign is as hopeless as the one to force corporate wonder Arcadia Group into having a conscience, you have to expect rebuttal from customers and security guards alike.


  1. Don’t forget that protest serves its own purpose by simply existing and registering disgust. You don’t protest at, say, a BNP rally to change the minds of the supporters or the speakers. You may want to raise a bit of awareness, but mostly your being there is an act of non-violent aggression. Now P&P, among others, may have a wider campaign here, but it seems they may just want to protest. Anyway, the wider aims seem to have worked as well. It at least has you writing about it, which has me responding. If ‘encourage debate’ was an aim, then I suppose this is success. Clearly, much like institutional racism, higher level negotiation and policitical process will ultimately shape the ways in which major changes will occur (it wont be a Sunday Times article or a few students, anyway). And people will always want cheap clothes. But there are plenty who are willing to pay a little more, which is why goods like fairtrade and organic sell well, and continue to rise in popularity. As for the fact that such protests are ‘annoying’–I’m sure it would be pleasing to get these students, big issue sellers, slow walkers and others off the street. I imagine, when it is a different issue–whether it be Iraq, student fees, a hunting ban or whatever else you may agree or disagree with, you may see such exhibitionsim as a useful right.
    Anyway, if you really are against this, perhaps the best thing to do is to gather a group, cross the picket line, and spend spend spend.

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  2. Oh dear Liam O’Brien. If you’re beginning to find campaigns for ethical merchandise tedious, I’m afraid I’m beginning to find this sort of article much more so.
    The formula seems to be:
    1) Write a lengthy (in this case substantially longer than the article covering the protest) and critical piece presenting only one side of the argument.
    2) Show no evidence of having spoken to any of the protestors and ignore the single quote of theirs that is carried in the original article concerning their motive, in order to:
    3) Baselessly accuse them of having, as you put it, a “less noble motivation.
    4) Avoid being personally vilified by expressing your own horror at sweatshop and child labour, but:
    5)Make no positive suggestions about how these appalling realities can be halted.
    6) Make sneering jibes concerning those who, unlike you, do have the courage of their convictions and are at least willing to try and challenge buyer habits.
    7) Crown the piece with an inaccurate and frankly offensive title that unfairly attributes your own selfishness/laziness to everyone else at this university. (I assume that is who the “we” is meant to refer to).

    I’m not a member of People and Planet but I do respect their members for at least trying to do something rather than just sitting back and saying “Well sweatshops are terrible but since we’re not going to put an end to them with one small protest, let’s just sit back and do nothing”. I’m sure those who protested were well aware that they weren’t going to change the world and am equally sure that if you have any better suggestions, they’d love to hear them.

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  3. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawwn.

    Ethical merch articles are like overplayed records at this university – you hear them so much you just stop caring and they just fade into the background whilst still being irritating.

    Students telling the public what to do = very bad idea. It’s patronising to suggest that students know best on moral issues, and it’s damned annoying too.

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  4. Liam seems to have missed the point slightly here. If we were all as complacent as he seems to suggest that we should be, most of history’s great injustices would never have been corrected. Slavery and Apartheid in South Africa to name two examples.

    I would also like to point out a basic misunderstanding in what People and Planet are trying to do. We were not there to make people feel guilty for shopping at Topshop. In fact, it’s great that students do because Arcadia is more likely to listen to it’s customers. We are not trying to deprive people of their desire for new clothes, but we want them to tell Phillip Green of their concern for workers rights. We were there to talk to people, make them understand why things need to change, and to try to encourage this change by asking students to sign messages addressed to the Arcadia management. We don’t preach, we don’t encourage boycotts. We try to do everything in our power to help people and it’s a shame that some people seem to take such offence at this.

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  5. Jesus, what is it with Nouse and ethical merchandise? I’m sick of reading about it! Half the people that get so ‘up-in-arms’ about this sort of thing shop at Topman, go to the sales on Boxing Day and kick a football/throw a netball around made by 14 year old Indians. At least I don’t pretend to care and my conscience is clear for that!

    Without going to much into the debate, multinationals provide jobs to local populations that would otherwise be underpaid and impoverished. Underpaid by our standards of £5 an hour is not underpaid in the [de]forested areas of Peru. On the contrary, if these companies did decide to pay them the British minimum wage, it would entirely f**k up the local economy and send inflation rocketing.

    I would ask Kate [without sounding perverted in any way], where did you buy your clothes from that you are wearing today?

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  6. As it happens, most of the clothes I am wearing today are from charity shops. But I’m not ashamed to say that I do own clothes from Topshop. And if you had read my post you will realise that this is not hypocritical because I don’t think that boycotts are the way forward. A few people stopping buying from highstreet stores is not going to change the world. Rather, NGOs like People and Planet need to work with stores like Topshop to address their unethical supply change without ‘f**king up’ the economy.

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  7. Shinji, I agree with your point about the protest serving its own purpose by registering disgust. The point of a protest is not always to immediately change the witnesses’ actions and opinions, but to make them aware of your own. I take most of David’s points as well. TC’s point about students patronising the public is, to me, spot on. Also, Kate, I think your comment was well-put and considered. One more thing. Dan, I completely take your point about the hypocrisy of the protesters, who most likely campaign vociferously against some ‘unethical’ merchandise whilst thoughtlessly supporting similar merchandise (though, with all due respect to your opinion, I am quite unconvinced about your economic argument for not offering £5 an hour to workers).

    At any rate, a key aim of the protest must have been to spark continual interest and debate on the matter. The above article and considered comments have made the protest successful in this respect I feel.

    As for ethical merchandise itself, I think that many people will choose to take the cheaper ‘unethical’ option so long as it is there. What the government or public should do about it (if anything) is a deeply tricky matter. Surely an appeal to Arcadia would render the price of their clothes uncompetitive, and a rival would nip in and take a larger market share by selling less expensive clothes? Equally, changing the opinion of the public en masse is rather unlikely. The government then, has the ultimate say – perhaps people should lobby for the outlawing of products made by cheap foreign labour?

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  8. I think you’ll find that the people most in uproar about banning the employment of ‘cheap foreign labour’ would be the cheap foreign workers themselves. I re-iterate my previous point. From our western perspective or rather ‘developed world’ perspective, the wages these individuals are paid are peanuts. However, in their own local economies the wage they receive allows them to purchase food, water, clothing and all the other necessities needed to live a life above the poverty line. The bottom line is, that the jobs being provided by multinationsals are jobs that otherwise would not be provided at all, resulting in unemployment, poverty and squalor. I would not for once claim the current arrangement is ideal, but I would say it is better than the alternatives proposed.

    Governments interfering in markets would be disastrous for this economy [as such action always has been and always will]. Where would our new supply-lines come from? ‘British’ workers making these clothes previously made by those in LEDC’s? I think not, somehow. The price of clothes would rocket, inflationary pressures are already promenant in the textile industry and you would be transferring the ‘poverty’ argument onto those on lower wages in this country, who, what with rising mortgages, global credit-crunches and the alike, would struggle to pay for this rapid rise in the price in clothing, it sourcing from ‘low-paid’workers’ was made ‘illegal’.

    I am afraid, this would be a disaster for those involved: The lower paid workers who are ejected from the market, the consumers who will be hit by 50% price-rises for their clothing and the government for thinking they can intefere with the market and offer some sort of better ‘deal’ based on ideas that sound good and ‘moral’ in principle, but that in reality just do not work.

    In an ideal world, everyone would live the way in which we have become accustomed to in the west. However this is simply a utopic idea that certain politically-similar individuals unite behind constantly to self-flagelate the conuntries and systems in which they live and partake in. Only by allowing the invisible hand of the free-market, opening up barriers to trade and moving to perfect competition between nations/industry/people can this issue that is important, be addressed.

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  9. Wow. What a badly written article. If this rant had been offered to me at a party it would have driven me to move on to much stronger vodka…

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  10. Wow. What a badly written comment. I think allegory construction might be slightly beyond you.

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  11. I’m guessing Kate is fighting the evil in the world by being different and unique in wearing “charity shop” clothing…. just like all those other wannabes out there…

    It’s not unique. You’ve just joined yet another group.

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  12. How thick are you Josho? Nobody wears charity shop clothing to be unique; people buy it because the money goes to the charity that is being supported by that shop, that’s kind of the point.

    I’ve certainly never bought clothing from charity shops out of a desire to be unique. If I had then your “revelation” that there’s a whole group of people who wear charity shop clothing would trouble me. It doesn’t; the more people who support charities in this way, the better.

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  13. Dan, I think you’re probably right about the damage government interference or a sudden imposition of higher wages could do. With the utmost respect, I don’t often agree with your opinions, or (most of all) the way you sometimes put them across, but that comment was quite nicely considered and elaborated I thought.

    [P.S. I don’t mean this in a cheeky, pernickity or undermining way, but you want the word ‘utopian’ instead of ‘utopic’. Just thought it might help for future reference].

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  14. “Dressed in a way that suggested a visit to Topshop would do them good”

    Can you EVER write an article without having a go at someone’s dress sense?

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  15. “Nobody wears charity shop clothing to be unique.”

    Wrong there mate. I know quite a few people who go to charity shops to buy/wear wacky clothing because they think it makes them unique. They’ve even stated this themselves. So don’t make statements using the word “nobody” when you can’t speak for the entire nation. I guess you’re a bit thick too.

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  16. Some people do, some people don’t. I buy clothing from charity shops, but it tends to be stuff that was in a department store anyways. Nothing much unique about it. I seem to have a built in disliking for people that do it ‘to be unique’ – because they think they’re unique when in fact they’re truly not. Nonetheless, that is why many people do it. I don’t really mind if it brings income in to the charities, although if everyone started doing it to be unique, presumably they would realise they were no longer unique and would head back to Topshop, so I would personally prefer if people bought from charity shops solely because it recycles clothing and drives money into a better cause than shareholder’s profits and city bonuses.

    Neither of you, I’m sure, are thick. You just have polemically-strong diverging opinions. You both know that. So don’t get personal and insulting with each other. No need.

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  17. Or to patronise and act like a pedant to Dan Taylor, Oscar. He often makes well worded and articlated points regardless of whether or not you agree with them. Though I’m sure he would be delighted to know he has your support on this… Not. The thing people respect about Dan is that he hold opinions regardless whether or not idiots like you agree or disagree with them.

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  18. Ok, I apologise for calling you thick, that was unfair and uncalled for. But I think you know that my use of the word “nobody” was a deliberate exaggeration and I think it’s further from the truth to maintain that everyone who wears charity shop clothing is a “wannabe” who doesn’t actually care about the charity aspect. I admit my experience is not unlimited but most of the clothes I see in charity shops are pretty similar to what I’d see elsewhere so I don’t really understand the whole “wearing to be unique” thing. To me buying these clothes to help the charity does seem to be not only a better motivation but a more intelligible one and so I would be surprised if the vast majority of people didn’t act out of this motivation.

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  19. I disagree Mike, I don’t think intransigence is in itself a good quality or worthy of respect and I think that if there are people who respect Dan Taylor it won’t be because of that. If people did just respect intransigence then everyone would respect both Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams as they’ve both been extremely intransigent at least until recently. Yet I can’t imagine many people respect both of these figures and there are a lot of people who respect neither.

    I’m not suggesting that anyone should base their point of view on popular appeal but sometimes it is necessary to listen to others and it is more important that a view is well-founded than that it’s uncompromisingly defended.

    Returning to the topic, it does not follow from the fact that excessive government interference could have negative effects that no improvement can be made. There is a happier medium to be found between doing nothing and banning certain multinationals from operating. Many companies could make reasonable improvements in the wages that they offer and the conditions that their workers have to endure without distorting any economies or creating more poverty and I think it is important that the are encouraged to do so.

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  20. Whoever you are Mike, there’s no need for that. If you go around calling people idiots when you’ve never met them before, you’re asking to be patronised.

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  21. This article is terrible, what a lazy, selfish person you are. Its about time you opened your eyes to whats going on in the world and actually tried to care about something. Putting people down for fighting for a just cause is a horrible thing to do. York University should be very concerned about your suitability as a contributor. I would like to suggest you take a trip to India or China and spend some time with the people who have to work for pennies every day to make these disposable high street clothes – maybe then you’d understand why the protesters are so passionate.

    Dan Taylor said: “multinationals provide jobs to local populations that would otherwise be underpaid and impoverished”

    This is such a ridiculous argument. You are simply regurgitating the multinationals’ line without thinking about it or doing any other research into the matter. These companies often force down wages, as they will go anywhere in the world to get the cheapest labour and the most relaxed employments laws. Therefore you have all the most poor parts of the world competing to be offered the lowest wages and the worst working conditions etc. These people are desperate and have no choice. Wouldn’t it be great if the generous people of Britain and the US agreed to pay just a little bit more for their clothes so that these people could have a chance to eat properly and educate their children? Anyone who thinks big corporations like this are doing any good for the world is either an idiot or in corporate management.

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