The Power of Money

More often than not, buying stuff leaves me with a pang of anxiety. This feeling is a leftover from years of conditioning. I was meant to learn, ‘how to manage money’, with my first jobs. By having and spending, children are supposed to become comfortable with the process of money flowing in and out. But, by coming of age in the 1980’s the messages I took in got a little mixed up.

While I knew how many hours it took babysitting and then later working at retail stores, to earn a certain amount of money, what I could buy with that cash was always at odds with what I wanted. This forced me to invent workarounds, like becoming very proficient at sewing my own clothes. That was the only way to have as many options to chose from in the morning, as I thought I should have.

Time rolled on, big life events passed by, marriage, children and hitting middle age. My income and the state of fast fashion meant that I could fill my closet to overflowing with clothes. But that did not satisfy me. I could buy whatever I wanted at the grocery store and eating out often was not a problem with my budget. But that knowledge did not fill my cup. Having the money to spend and then using it to buy stuff, the one thing I wanted more than anything in the world, was not what it was cracked up to be.

By choosing to spend my first career in the world of apparel design and development, I’ve had to learn a great deal about manufacturing. I have worked in a variety of positions in the process, from making production patterns and markers for an outerwear factory to managing a large team of people working in engineering top to bottom specifications of outerwear, knits and bras.

One of the perks in this work has been the travel to various parts of the world. Once ‘onsite’ at a manufacturing facility or fabric mill, we get a tour of every process involved in the creation of the end product. Every machine, every operator, row by endless row as we make our way through warehouse style buildings, all lined up in a row. Sometimes these facilities are newly constructed and therefore fairly neat and tidy. Other times the buildings are quite old and the ravages of a tropical climate are merciless.

I’ve carried the faces of the women working in these factories with me for years. My first trip to Asia took place when I was only 24 years old. As the price of clothing started to drop and the machine of fast fashion picked up momentum around the globe, my taste for an ever expanding wardrobe began its decline. By the time I turned 40, I began questioning all my purchases, once again. This time I was not concerned about my money. Other issues seemed far more important.

The circular journey of stuff

I was in a store one time and saw a simple t-shirt that I had created into being. On the surface it looked so basic. A single coloured item with a plastic graphic heat set on the front. But, I knew how much more complicated the process was to get it to that point in its little t-shirt life. It struck me that most people have no idea how complex the apparel industry is and how many people are involved to bring products to a store, where the retail sector takes over. There was nothing simple about that t-shirt.

Because of what I knew, it became difficult to look at any product in any store and not see the whole chain of events from the beginning to that point, where the item was in my hand. It could be agriculture, to furniture, to architecture, all of it comes into being with a long process and many people. From my visits to Asia, I also knew that some of the jobs were much dirtier and more dangerous than others.

Vote with every dollar

So began my quest to vote with every dollar I spent. I started this practice at a time when social media was not around yet and there was little transparency into the supply chain of a business. Certified B corporations were too few to be a practical resource at that time. Besides, I couldn’t buy from Patagonia when I worked at a competitor. Even so, I did what I could while spending loads of time researching to become better informed.

Thanks to a whole bunch of like-minded people and the power of information to spread, the idea of conscious consumption has become a thing. A movement in retail is fully underway to showcase products which are created with transparent supply chains and displayed without the usual load of plastic packaging. We are almost going back to the days of the general store where everything is visible.

But it is not only the retail store where transformation is taking place. Designers, Students Get Creative for Final Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge – highlights how important it is for designers to become or partner with product engineers to make better decisions about the product lifecycle through design. Not only is this practice better for profitability of a single product, but it is paramount for the environment. As a manufacturing industry, we must consider where our products are ending up after a consumer is done with them. Those are still ‘our’ problems, even though the item has left our warehouse or store.

I like to imagine what life could be like if we all pulled together with a common goal. If everyone could ‘see’ all the hidden costs of their purchases, would they chose differently? Or, better yet, nothing was allowed to be put up for sale unless the circular economy was considered first? That would be a better world. A time and place when we had evolved enough to consider those impacted by our actions today and in the distant future.

On the other side of the debate, maybe Conscious consumerism is a lie. Are we acting delusional by thinking that simple little practices have any impact at all? Voting with each dollar could be an elegant solution, but it needs massive action to have the desired effect. Getting loads of people to move in the same direction at once is possible, but not easy. I believe that life is not a zero sum game. Moving ahead with many ideas and tactics to bring about a desired change, is the way to go. Let us not be limited by either-or thinking.

Research and be informed. Then act. That is the path forward. For example, Footprint is proving that sustainability can scale. A couple of people changed their focus in life and formed a company that is leading the way in changing the landscape of plastic packaging. They saw problems that needed to be solved and took up the call to action. It is as simple as that, one foot in front of the other.

Creativity and consumption may not be obviously linked, but if we understand that people are behind every product made, maybe we can all band together and reimagine society. Better products and better jobs will lead to better lives. That is creativity at its finest.

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