The holiday period is widely celebrated around the world, far beyond those who maintain the Christian faith, and is a time when religious and political leaders send out carefully crafted messages that are supposedly wise and inspirational. Over the last few days, these have almost universally aimed at seeking peace and greater tolerance in the light of all the dreadful crises in the world. The Pope also decided to remind us of another enemy; mammon. “You cannot serve God and mammon” is the biblical quote many of us were taught.
In his homily for Christmas 2023, Pope Francis worried that the world is thinking of a God linked too much to power, worldly success and the idolatry of consumerism, and forgetting the basic societal rules of compassion and forgiveness. Societies have always had their inequalities, with some growing disproportionately wealthy.
In older times, the rich were instructed by their religious authorities to salvage their moral position through large donations and helping the poor, building schools and libraries became a norm well into the 20th century. More recently, especially for those in the newer shrines of capitalism – Silicon Valley and some top new financial institutions – this has evolved into a movement called “effective altruism” (EA) which tries to define how people should do good by giving their excess cash away in the most effective way.
This is not a column for a philosophical discussion on altruism but fair to say I dislike EA intensely and hope it soon dies, as one underpinning concept seems to be to make as much money as quickly as possible, however ruthlessly, and then “save the world at US$4,000 a head”. Presumably after you have purchased your fourth property and US$100 million yacht.
From the tannery to the community
The one thing that tanners should all know is that everyone benefits from their local tannery doing well and making decent profits. Money gets reinvested, workers get fairly remunerated and the welfare of the community grows. I have seen this the world over, be it big groups or small tanneries. Ecco has been renowned for decades for the care it takes to work closely with the communities around its plants and I do hope the work Pittards has done around its Ethiopian tannery – an in-house community health centre, classroom building and other support for the school next door – survives the ongoing reorganisation.
But, when business decides that one group should extract more than its fair share, problems arise. In the last few days, a Californian jury found Google Play guilty of breaking antitrust rules and one juror was quoted afterwards in the press, saying: “I just think they need a refresher in integrity”. Apparently, Google will appeal but app stores are only the latest example of how big tech companies have leveraged their wealth and lobbying power to create dominant positions and extract very large profits.
Problems in fashion
For fashion and footwear, another long-term problem has been created by the battle for larger profits. With the ability to make cheap clothing and footwear using low-cost labour and materials, brands have run a major campaign over the last three decades to sell consumers more than they need. Some items are so cheap that they cannot withstand more than one or two machine washes. Since the growth of TikTok and Instagram, even this has not mattered as many items are only bought for a home photo shoot and then returned, never to be seen again.
Two thirds of our regular clothing contain plastic but 100% of these cheaper items do. I have read that 1kg of polyester requires approximately 1.5kg of oil, excluding extraction and refining costs. An equal hazard is the nano and microparticles caused by washing and created at end-of-life. Quite apart from the wasteful spending of valuable disposable income in pursuit of objectives, which the Pope does not like, it is hard to think of a worse list of issues than those arising from this aspect of fast fashion, overconsumption and the throwaway mentality. All forced on us by companies who deliberately promoted the concept.
So, if there is one thing we should all do this year, it’s to break this cycle of the idolatrous pursuit of pleasure through stuff. We should instead look out for one quality leather item, be it a garment, bag or pair of shoes to buy. Products that we know have the quality and design that we will want to care for and use for a very long time. That way, we will feel better every time we use them and help to slow a damaging consumer trend.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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