Integrity is doing the right thing. Even when no one is watching – C.S. Lewis
We like to think we’re good people. Doing good things. If not… that might be concerning. Regardless, most of us want to be. Try to be. We have good intentions, even if that gets muddied by personal weaknesses or subjectivities.
I came across this quote by C.S. Lewis and it gave me pause to think. This idea of doing things in view. Or the inverse, behind closed doors. I thought about the Mungo Mill. Perhaps the greatest enactment of Mungo’s ethos. An anomaly in a world where to see behind the scenes is a rarity. And by ‘BTS’, I mean that in a genuine sense of the word. Not some stylised, marketing-curated foray, where a tight-shirted TV host beckons you in with a bended arm for a ‘sneak peak’. I mean an all-day, drop-the-fourth-wall kind of insider view. To see real processes and real people. Machines, faces, fibres, hands. All the bits that brought your product to life. To look into a company’s cavity. Its hub. To question what you see there.
Out of sight, out of mind?
In most parts of the world, production is done behind closed doors. In sealed-off factories where we have a convenient out-of-sight, out-of-mind distance to how the goods we use are made. There’s a reason McDonalds doesn’t operate off an open-kitchen system. Why your iPhone is produced in a city you likely can’t pronounce. Or why most of our textile production is done in places where the western world can keep its armchair activism at arm’s length. They don’t want to show it. And frankly, we don’t want to see it. But there is a truth – a story – that’s happening here. And it harks back to the fact that despite the convenience at which we can pick up a product from a shelf, or click it into a cart and have it arrive within an extraordinarily fast amount of time, it does not just emerge into this world fully formed and wrapped in plastic. Money does not grow on trees, they say. And neither does your pair of Nikes.
Ask questions first. Shop later.
The truth is that we tend to forget about sustainable supply chains, the importance of longevity and the real people behind the product, because we’re hardwired to choose quick and cheap. To complain about the cost of a shirt or the price of a pair of shoes, without really questioning why. Without doing a little homework. Or perhaps it’s just that we never really thought about it in the first place. Because the illusion – the invisibility cloak draped over the factories and fast fashion houses of the world – has done its job too well. Such to the extent that we are blinded to our own moral failings.
So let’s ask ourselves this question: where does this come from? How was it made? And under what conditions? Does a ‘Made in Taiwan’ sticker on the back of my plastic alarm clock really provide enough traceability? And who really made those knock-off Adidas sneakers I bought in Vietnam in 2017? And for all my Google searches, and good intentions, why can’t I answer these questions effectively? Because it is by design. It’s the consumer cog at play. Capitalism functioning at its best. Or its worst, depending on who’s asking the question.
Fast fashion is a sign of the times
The shift from slow to fast fashion is all part and parcel of the times. Cognitively overloaded. Addicted to newness. Bingeing on conspicuous consumption because we’ve been told the next something-something will satisfy our needs. Consumerism making us slaves to the checkout – where it seems easier to buy new things at an evermore hysterical rate, rather than enjoying (or repairing) what’s already in our closest. Most keenly evidenced by the clothing industry, where annual, or even seasonal fashion cycles are now replaced by a 52-week cycle. All of this is compounded by urgency – the need to have it now.
So where did it all go wrong?
200 years ago the production of fibre into cloth was a significantly more time-consuming affair. One that would have required you to raise your own sheep, spin your own yarn and weave your own cloth. Quality was prioritised over quantity and garments were worn for years on end – resized, repaired and remade before binning was ever a consideration. But something changed around the mid 18th century. The Industrial Revolution took its roots. And in its wake came a wave of machines and technology that sped up production. That replaced work done by hand. The result? It was now cheaper to buy than to make.
In the last few decades things accelerated. Globalisation, improvements in communications, social media… Self-esteem straddling a wobbly seesaw with self-expression. Shopping as a hobby. (The term ‘retail therapy’ says it all.) Overproduction and overconsumption now the name of the game.
At whose cost?
The reality for most of us, myself guiltily included, is to succumb to consumer culture. To choose instant gratification. The quick-fix, click-to-cart dopamine rush that comes with online shopping, and with the fast fashion brands that dominate our feeds. We’re quick to choose our own comfort – but at whose cost? The reality sadly isn’t all tied up in ribbons. It’s often ugly. Don’t let Shein’s influencer campaign tell you otherwise. Suspicious supply chains, exploitative working conditions, textiles dumped on the Global South. Low quality offered at low prices, energy-heavy production cycles, toxic dyes, soil and water pollution. Bulging online hauls, clothes to be worn once (if ever), sale signs as hypnotic headlamps beckoning us into material frenzy… But conspicuous consumption cannot be dressed up in bows. Neither can suspiciously low-cost goods. If it’s that cheap, ring the alarm. You might be winning, but someone else is losing out.
Fast. Quick. Cheap.
The Iron Triangle tolls keenly in the world of textiles. Fast, cheap, quick – you can only have two. But there’s another to add to the mix: conscience. Production shouldn’t negate fairness. Equity. Livelihood. Perhaps in the future all our production needs will be outsourced to AI. Which in itself may have dire consequences for the state of our workforce, and the need to learn a livable wage. But for now, whilst there are still humans who till our soils, grow our food, and weave our cloth, let’s not forget about ethics. The cost to people. The cost to our planet.
In writing this I run the risk of sounding perilously self-righteous. But I too have fast fashion demons in my closet. A never-to-be-worn oversized denim jacket at the end of the rack that I’ve kept year-on-year as some sort of penance for my textile sins. Three pairs of unworn sunglasses bought in Spain, where I found myself love drunk on the streets of Barcelona (or perhaps just on the Cava), and mesmerised by the big bad lights of Zara, Mango and H&M. I’m not immune to material misbehaviour. But I do find myself a little more considered, a little more quizzical, these days. Looking for some sort of traceability beyond just clever marketing speak.
It’s an exhausting paradox. Production fuels the economy. And so does the spend of our hard-won cash. And yet to participate in that cycle in excess leaves us in a state of fracture. Tenuously holding on to our values. To our last good soil. To our hope for the future.
As I try to make sense of it all – where I stand on the moral metre – I’m reminded of a childhood memory. Going back over two decades to a powder blue uniform with shiny round buttons and brown leather shoes. Sitting on a wooden seat, my feet too short to touch the ground, poring over the beginnings of an experiment. A single bean. Some damp cotton. A plastic plate. The task was to get the bean to sprout. So we’d nestled our beans into the cotton wool, written our names with a dry black marker on a piece of masking tape, and left them in a sunlit spot of our grade four classroom to germinate. After a day, there was a tiny crack in the bean. Then came the curly yellow-green shoot. After several more days there were green leaves – unfurling one by one. I was awed by this. How a single seed carried inside itself all the ingredients for new life. How with only a little light, water and sun, life could be coaxed into being. It is perhaps the closest feeling a child could have to touching magic.
So strong was the sense of wonder that I conducted an experiment of my own in our garage. I can see the image of my own shadow, framed in the bay window, setting the ivory white seed into its cotton blanket atop an old unplugged Deep Freezer. Adding a few drops of water. And then a couple more. Watching it as if it might sprout forth then and there. And then walking away. The truth was this time I’d misjudged the recipe. Over eager, I had grossly over-watered. And when I’d returned to peel back the cotton a day or two later, therein lay a rotten bean.
So what now?
Is that how I feel now? Knowing how putrid the cycle of creation can be when approached with a rash and reckless hand? Perhaps. But to take a less cynical approach, there is the understanding that creation takes care. Requires a fine balance. An even temperament in your toolbox and not a jackhammer. But without the poetic nuance, or the pragmatist’s search for analogy, there is a singular revelation. One that ripens the memory of that day, such that I can recall it like a taste in my mouth, or a familiar scent. That this was about process. About the alchemy of creation. Connecting the art of making – the gentle coaxing of resources, the sharpened skill – to a finished product. And to realise, looking at the store bought bag of beans cut open on the kitchen counter, what effort it must take to grow them all.
A matter of choice
Bean or cotton boll or basketball cap. Fast food or fast fashion. A pair of earrings or a piece of woven cloth. It all takes time, process and resources.
I can attest that it does feel difficult, at every turn, to do the right thing. Whether people are watching, or not. But there are choices. There are open conversations to be had. Ethical producers and certifications that provide credibility. They are more minimalist modes of being: to buy less and buy better. To choose longevity over quick-cheap-inferior. To slow down a little. To remind yourself that one more item of clothing might not change your life. But it might change someone else’s.
Righteous, or right – who knows? But perhaps it takes a little querying of what goes on behind the seams.
The Mungo Mill is South Africa’s first, and only, GOTS-certified weaving mill. The Global Organic Textile Standard is the world-leading standard for the processing of organic fibres, assuring environmentally and socially responsible practices across the entire supply chain. GOTS has rigorous implications for manufacturing – right from soil, to seed, to finished product – and every hand that touched it along the way.