Fashion, consumption and shipping

Rose George’s Ted Talk ‘Inside the secret shipping industry’

Sometimes it’s good to step out for a moment, to look at our world and ask how it functions. There are many programmes that explain various aspects of life to children in simple ways, but not many that do the same for us grown-ups. How does it all work? For instance how does the fashion we buy arrive on the high street?

The second post in this new series is a reaction to Rose George’s Ted Talk ‘Inside the secret shipping industry’ from October 2013 in which she “tours us through the world of shipping, the underpinning of consumer civilization” (Ted Talks). At the same time it will be a reflection on fashion and consumption. Please find the video and transcript by clicking on this link:

Fashion can be a beautiful aspect of expressing one’s character and style.

  • What does fashion mean to you?
  • Why do you wear what you’ve got on right now?
  • How did you choose the clothes you wore at the meeting the other day and what will you wear to the theatre next week?

Everyone knows we buy a lot (too much?) and that most clothing is manufactured under more or less poor conditions and mostly in factories somewhere far away from our reality. What we don’t really know is how it gets from those factories to our shops.

Rose George became intrigued with shipping when she realised “how fundamentally we still depend on shipping”. Considering what an important role it plays in making our lives work, it’s astonishing how little we know about it.

“Shipping brings us 90 percent of world trade. Shipping has quadrupled in size since 1970. We are more dependent on it now than ever. And yet, for such an enormous industry […] it’s become pretty much invisible.”

She joined the crew of a container ship on their journey from England to Singapore and found out how extremely efficient and automated the process is, yet how tough it is on the crew, who the industry “calls its human element, a strange phrase which they don’t seem to realize sounds a little bit inhuman.”

Also she learnt how dangerous piracy is, that shipping, albeit being “the greenest method of transport” still has very high carbon emissions and tremendous effects on oceanic wildlife and that there are some, but not enough, initiatives for sustainable shipping.

She finishes her presentation saluting those workers who make our world function without gaining much recognition and wishing for more transparency and scrutiny of the industry. We do hear about conditions and disasters in garment factories every once in a while, but these workers too are on the whole quite invisible to us.

As members of the general public there’s not much we can do to affect the shipping or fashion industry directly. But might many, many small changes together create large impact? Might it therefore be worth it to questions one’s own behaviour?

  • There are big corporations and brands, and they are subject to some public scrutiny every so often, but what about all the non-branded or not famously branded clothing that gets sold?
  • What makes you like a fashion item or a brand?
  • Do you pay for a look, a brand, for quality and/or the knowledge it’s been made ethically?
  • Would you like to know where your clothes come from and under what conditions they were made?
  • Could you find out if you wanted to?
  • How many clothes do you need?
  • Can you afford to buy ethically?
  • Can you afford to shop at all?

We welcome your thoughts and comments.


Kaleidoscopic Arts


Further reading

Do your clothes pass the feminist test? By Caroline Criado-Perez

‘Deep Sea and Foreign Going’ by Rose George – review by Sukhdev Sandhu

The True Cost. Film

UK fashion industry statistics

(United States) Bureau of Labor Statistics – Spotlight on statistics, fashion

Ted Talks.

This post was written by Lucia Schweigert.

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