Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Cardigan Ethics (Again!)

Here we go again:  cardigan ethics, round three (at least!), seconds out, ding ding!

Uniqlo cardigan
 My navy Boden cardigan has collapsed under the stress of constant wear.  Even the bobbles have bobbles.  It was always too long for me, and it has developed a permanent "seat" feature - so flattering!
Here we are, almost in August, and I can only remember one day this year when I have not worn a cardigan to work.  There is a clear gap in my wardrobe for at least one long-ish v-neck everyday smart-casual cardi in black, navy, grey or red.  Or mustard if I thought it might suit me (not sure). 

OK, so where could I get such a thing?

Charity shop?  No - hand on heart I have never seen a good-quality neutral basic cardi in any local charity shop.  Weird-looking smelly acrylic in abundance.

Ebay?  I have been trying, but there is too much to sift through and an awful lot of over-priced buy-it-nows.  I saw a cashmere cardi that had shrunk 6 inches in the wash and the seller was asking £30?!

Boden? Rumour has it (from their own website reviews) that they are using cheaper materials, no longer manufacture in the UK, and bobbling is rife.  And they are flipping expensive.

Toast?  Too expensive.

Howies?  What has happened to them?  That Timberland take-over was a mistake.

White Stuff?  As previously discussed.

So I cast my net a bit further... and so it was that I turned to Uniqlo.
You may recall that I have purchased a couple of scarves from them:  one turned out to come complete with a contribution to charity, the other... didn't, but had an Orla Kiely print!
Now, nobody can accuse Uniqlo of ignorance of ethical issues.  There is a large Corporate Social Responsibility section on their website, which I recommend you spend some time reading if you are interested in these things.
They are voluble on the topic of their various worthy initiatives such as recycling and the employment of people with disabilities. BUT... 90% of their garments are manufactured in China.  The working conditions of those who make their garments are not mentioned.
I found myself immensely challenged by reading about their project in Bangladesh to set up a sort of "Avon-lady"-type franchise to sell their products locally.  For example, they are extremely proud of their promotion of underpants to Bangladeshi women, creating a whole new market among a population who would not traditionally wear such a garment.  Is this a good thing?  I really don't know!  It smacks of a sort of missionary moralising in the name of "development".
I was definitely disturbed by the idea that the company buys saris from local markets for re-sale through their self-employed representatives - surely it would be cheaper / better for local people to buy direct from the markets?  Yes, a few people are earning commission, which improves their individual income... but what is the net effect on the community if goods are generally more expensive and aspirations raised so that it becomes the norm to buy and wear underpants when you can barely afford a bowl of rice?

But back to the cardigans...

Uniqlo sells a basic extra-fine merino v neck cardigan in  a multitude of colours for £29.90 (compared to £69 at Boden).  Online reviews suggest that they last forever (though obviously these could be written by the PR team!)  They do not claim to source their merino from New Zealand, so like Boden they are almost certainly party to the mulesing of sheep.

If I buy one of these cardigans, I am supporting a very large company whose ethical thrust is to encourage the westernisation of "third world" peoples in support of their own corporate business growth.  I am reminded of Victorian bonded labour schemes, where e.g the local factory-owner provided tokens to spend in the factory shop, in lieu of actual wages, and families were basically "owned" by their employers. Is it enough to provide employment opportunities to people who might otherwise have no work at all?  This is not altruism, it is a form of slavery.  Have I misunderstood?

So I have not bought a cardigan.

I think the only answer is to knit faster.


didyoumakethat said...

Does this make me a bad person for owning a grey cashmere cardigan from Uniqlo, bought in the sale, that I wear ALL the time? Ack.

Roobeedoo said...

Not a bad person! Not at all! I don't mean to alienate my readers!!

Scruffybadger said...

Struggles, struggles...my next post this eve will show a glimpse of the path I'm trying out....cos there's no way I can knit faster!! I admire you taking the trouble to find out you know, and actually thinking...

Alison said...

I have only commented a few times before but read regularly and I share your dilema, the exact reason I do not have a white / neutral cardi. People tree often have good stuff, I don't suit their cardies though, and I love Brora but it is pricey. Oh and Howies are no longer Timberland, they ditched them in January so are themselves again!


Gail said...

Just want to thank you for reminding me to think about these things. Since I'm doing the Seamless Pledge til January, and thus haven't purchased anything new in 2012, it hasn't been an issue for me lately. But I imagine at some point I will have to buy something RTW, and when I do I'd like to keep these issues in mind too.

Jane said...

People Tree have a sale on at the moment. I haven't looked there for ages. Bit pricey, but if you wear something every day and find something you like, maybe it's worth it. There's might be some inspiration for knitting!


Kestrel said...

Hmm, so tricky with basic items, I don't feel thrilled to knit basics either. It really should be easier to work out where things are from too and how 'good' they are, like if there was an ethical rating system that retailers were given. Hey, maybe there already is and I don't know about it!

jo90 said...

Howies have a sale on!