Aug 26

by Miriam Garvi

I’ve never been one to care much about costs as long as I think they are called for, but tonight’s attempt at clothes shopping made me think about the value of things, what I am prepared to pay and to whom. It made me realize that many times when I look at something I’m telling myself: “This might be acceptable”. As in: the fabric is not paper thin, it is one of the few items in the store that is not synthetic, the design is more than two square pieces of cloth sown together and the seams have been finished off. Acceptable quality at a decent price - though a closer look indicates it was assembled hastily and without much care.

I had almost made up my mind to purchase one such very cheap item at Zara, when the label “made in Bangladesh” jumped at me. Bangladesh, the apparel industry, and factory tragedies… And then of course value and cost take on a whole different meaning. How would I value the work of the pairs of hands that made this shirt? If I knew something about who had made my clothes for me, how much would they then be worth? And what kind of quality would I expect in return? Indeed, if setting the price were entirely up to me, what would I be willing to pay for good fabric, for nice design and for good handiwork? And if I could find exactly what I wanted, what kind of clothes - whose clothes - would I really want to wear?

I ended up buying a whole different shirt, in a whole different store, at a whole different price, simply because it looked better. But I wish I could know something about the human effort that went into making me that new shirt, and how many pieces of clothing the person behind the sowing machine would need to work on every day in order to achieve the same standard of living as myself. I feel it would help me put things into perspective. And perhaps next time when I open my closet I would feel somewhat differently about the contents, because they would not just be clothes, but something someone helped make for my benefit. And that would imbue something as mundane as clothes shopping with a little bit of deeper meaning…

Apr 24

by Miriam Garvi

Sometimes I find myself amazed at the flexibility by which issues that seemed to be on no one’s agenda only five years ago now find their way into everyone’s rhetoric. Only recently, it was the rally for growth. Now a favorite epithet embraced across ideologies is that of sustainable, as the earth’s dwindling resources put the high-consumption lifestyle of the “developed world” into question.

Indeed, it would seem that anyone can do the talk. Some advocate for an era of the “WE economy”, of multiple voices emerging at the grassroots level and interconnecting by way of Twitter and other Internet-based social networking tools. More and more networks are professing to be addressing “world urgent issues” or “the global challenges of our planet”, suggesting that the pooling together of people in dialogues across the globe will unleash a creative force arising from turning the costs incurred by industrialization and modernization into opportunities.

And yet what astonishes me in these (business) models is the invariably short time span they encompass, as if we have but a few moments to spare on building sustainably for the future. Solutions for our world remain, for the most part, instant remedies that come to mind through the kind of superficial dialoguing that is enabled by networking. It is as if the very mindset that made us pursue a narrow-minded path of development in the first place, oblivious to the implications of a greater context, is now expected to generate solutions (called creative) to these problems. Are we left gawking at the emperor’s new clothes?

2008_frog

History will tell us that it is easy to rally people with cries for freedom and revolution, picking to pieces the policies and institutions put in place by others who came before us. The real challenge, however, starts once we are the ones left to govern the land. We tend to forget that exercising the freedom we have been given entails a sense of responsibility that goes with knowing that somewhere down the line also we will be held accountable in the eyes of those who follow. Indeed, lest we forget, the eyes of history are already upon us, questioning our ambition.

Sustainable can be more than yet another umbrella concept allowing new interest groups to position themselves on the global arena where they may influence how problems are defined and label their solutions. Sustainability is not a commodity that can be produced through intellectual stimulation; it is the implication that comes from the diligent implementation of a long-standing vision that does justice both to man and nature. It can mean a return to the roots of what once was, finding one’s uniqueness in the interplay between man and nature where man is the caretaker and nature the provider.

Sustainable, pioneering commitment such as that which helped build our communities in the first place comes with a willingness to give up certain things in the present in order to sow the seeds that will allow the fruits of true transformation to be rooted in the future.

Is anyone willing to walk the talk?

Dec 21

by Josef Garvi

Recently, somebody asked me for advice on how to improve the productivity of run-down cocoa plantations on the Gold Coast. My contact displayed a lot of good intentions, laudable and politically correct in our times: fair trade, biological farming, enhanced agricultural output. His concern was how to make sustainable cultivation systems that would solve a global supply problem and benefit the Africans in the process. The group he represented was foreseeing a sharp rise in cocoa demand on the world markets in the coming years. Yet if production levels did not follow suit, this would set off a price hike, making chocolate delicacies less accessible to common people in the rich world. Whilst the systems for upscaling production were at hand, the main problem faced by this group was how to build the necessary motivation amongst the people in Ghana.

This motivational concern highlights a question that is so easily taken for granted: is such a business ultimately in the best interest of the Ghanaian people themselves? Or is it simply projecting the wishes of a «developed» world looking for the necessary input to sustain its high-consumption lifestyle?

Ghana in 1977

Cocoa, like most widely exploited crops in sub-Saharan Africa, is not originally native. In the early 20th century, large cocoa plantations were set up on the Gold Coast by the British as a means to cash in on their colony, and an export crop it has remained ever since. As with most Third World exports, its price on world markets has been unstable, and its cultivation for a long time unprofitable. When Ghanaians grow such crops, be it biologically and under fairer trade agreements, they are subject to the whims of the world economy and forced to import that other, life-sustaining commodity: food, which price is volatile as well. They are not trading from a surplus, but using their best lands that could otherwise provide for the fundamental needs of their people. Thus they are ensuring that richer people throughout the world can buy a luxury at a decent price - not that their own children and brothers eat well.

Ever since the Portuguese fathomed the immensity of the riches of the Congo, and the Arabs set up their trading cities along Africa’s East coast, the outside world’s view of Africa can be summed up in a single, enthralling word: resources. Be it human beings, precious minerals or agricultural output, focus has been on what those outside can obtain from her.

Today, the world’s approach towards Africa may be less brutal, but the fact that a politer tone is being used has not erased its fundamental aim. It is still about what the world can obtain from the continent, not about what is best for the Africans themselves. In the eyes of the world, Africa’s primordial duty remains to supply the outside world with resources, instead of ensuring that her own children may enjoy the benefits of their birthright.

As Henning Melber put it: «The plundering continues».

Oct 30

by Miriam Garvi

Listening to Ingvar Kamprad, founder of the IKEA company and the source of «the IKEA way», I am reminded of how dramatically lifestyles have changed over the last twenty years.

© IKEA

Thanks to IKEA, furniture has transitioned from investment and durable goods, to  consumer goods with a very short life span. IKEA has been leading the revolution that is making consumption available for ordinary people all over the world, unleashing a tidal wave of new demand and opening up markets that no one knew existed. A global corporation’s dream come true?

Despite its frugal taste, IKEA has joined those embracing trendy design for the masses. Playing on social status and fears of rejection, fashion has astonishing effects on people’s appetite for consumption. Twenty years ago, a new sofa would be purchased to replace a piece well-worn. Today, it will be replaced when this season’s color goes out of fashion.

Why worry about quality when tomorrow will make your purchase outdated?

So it seems corporations need no longer care about the real substance of what they are offering. With a little knowledge of human psychology they can keep feeding the consuming appetite, awakening cravings that we never even knew existed.

Welcome to the ever-accelerating treadmill of insatiable consumption.

Oct 2

by Miriam Garvi

Since his speech in Davos last January, Bill Gates has been receiving accolades for launching his version of capitalism, which he has labeled «creative capital».

Creative capital à la Bill Gates (“Microsoft”) is a wonderland vision where global corporations satisfy their hunger for new markets by introducing technology to the poor, making everyone prosperous in the process. According to Gates, this will generate both profit and recognition, whilst making astonishing headway in the fight against world poverty. An improved variant of corporate social responsibility that we simply cannot do without.

And since the speech, creative capital has been center-stage.

The stage

But beyond the shimmering rhetoric, however, what does his suggestion really mean? Are we to understand that for the first time in history, the profit maximizing agendas of global corporations find themselves in harmony with the needs of the poorest of the poor? That products and services will now be created that can really help people out of their miseries?

Inspired by professor C.K. Prahalad’s fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, Gate’s version of creative capital envisions to reach untapped markets with technological salvation, making the rest of the world dependent on the know-how of those controlling the innovation.

This is not an eradication of poverty through profits, but a strategy for creating the capacity to consume where there would appear to be none. It would seem that our global society welcomes the poor as consumers, as long as they are not empowered.

Jul 10

by Miriam Garvi

The other day I was surprised to read that fructose makes you fat. Only fruit doesn’t. However, fruit juices, soft drinks and jams are sweetened with so much more fructose than what is found in a natural package (meaning fruit). Even the dietary amateur can see how tempting yet detrimental it would be to put too much of the good stuff into our processed foods in order to «improve» on nature.

Consume coke

We live in a world where we are overwhelmed by images drawing us into consumption. The politician’s favored term is growth, and for that to happen, there must be a steady stream of more people willing to buy more goods. In its 2008 mid-year update of the World Economic Situation and Prospects, the U.N. expresses its concern over slowing global growth rates, and, as a response, urges richer countries such as Japan and Norway to boost consumer spending.

I recently learned that saccharine, the first artificial sweetener, was discovered by accident during a chemical experiment in the late 19th century. I wonder who felt the need to consume artificial sugar before such substances were marketed as ultra sweetening but non fattening - in other words, have all the benefits without the downsides.

But what kind of fulfillment is there when market demand is created in order for the industry to diffuse its products?

The consumption society looks to awaken an insatiable appetite for more, playing on our more primitive impulses. The instant gratification that is offered in a consumption world is no long-term satisfaction. Nor is such a way of life sustainable if we were to extend our level of consumption to the rest of the world population.

African girls

There’s a thought.