Every city has its treasures. It may not be particularly famous, but here in Luton we have the Wenlock Jug. It’s a bronze piece from the early 1400s, made to order by a bell foundry and incredibly rare – there are only three such jugs that we know of, and the other two are in the British Museum and the V&A.
Ours is on display at the Stockwood Discovery Centre, and every time I walk past it I am a) pleased to see it, as it was stolen in 2012 and then returned, and b) reminded of how precious household goods were in medieval times. Hard though it is to imagine, this humble carafe was the height of luxury, the tableware of kings.
Before the industrial revolution, household goods of all kinds were worth a lot of money. Most people owned very few things, making do with the bare necessities or things they could make themselves. Since everything had to be made by hand, any items for sale represented huge amounts of someone’s time, and were thus expensive.
In his new book Stuffocation, James Wallman gives the example of a shirt. Your classic peasant shirt could be sewn in a day, but the materials did not come cheap. You’d need around four yards of cloth, which would take a weaver about 90 hours to create. The 5,400 yards of thread for the fabric took even longer – an estimated 400 hours of spinning time. In total, it took two months’ work to make a shirt, and that’s why it cost the equivalent of £2,000 to buy one. ($3,500)
The industrial revolution sped up every one of those processes, with spinning frames, power looms and sewing machines. Efficiencies, materials science and global supply chains have trimmed the costs further still, and today you can pop into a high street shop and buy a shirt for £5. That’s about a quarter of 1% of what it would have cost in pre-industrial times, or a 99.75% discount.
I find that remarkable, and it’s little wonder that our behaviour is different too. We used to own one or two outfits, take very good care of them and pass them on until they were worn to threads. Of course you would, if a new set of clothes was a major investment. Today, we can afford multiple wardrobes-full if we’re so inclined. Nobody needs to go around in rags any more, or shiver in the cold for lack of shoes or a coat. Clothes are so cheap that many of us buy things that we then never wear – 28 items per person, according to WRAP.
There is much to celebrate in that progress, in the end of poverty and lack. Cheaper clothing has made fashion possible, creating a new outlet for human creativity and allowing us to express ourselves through what we wear.
But there’s a darker side too, and it is striking that despite all this progress, sweatshop labour is still common in the textiles industry. Think about that for a moment. The cost of clothing is less than 1% what it was, but we’re still prepared to pay poverty wages in search of further discounting. 99.75% cheaper is apparently not enough.
It sounds like what Ronald Wright calls a ‘progress trap’: a cheaper shirt is a better deal, so a £1,00o shirt is better than a £2,000 shirt. A £5 shirt is a better deal than a £6 shirt, so the logic goes. Except that it’s not, if it relies on unsustainable water use, chemical pollution, and poor pay and conditions for workers, and then ends up unworn anyway. At some point, the logic ceased to hold.
If we paid a couple of pounds more for a Fairtrade cotton shirt, we’d know that the people that picked the cotton were treated fairly. We could add a few percent more for organic cotton and safeguard soil and water health. The slight premium of Fairwear certification, and the person that sewed the garment got paid a fair wage. Put it all together and maybe we’d be enjoying a 98% discount instead of 99%. Would that be so outrageous?
If you’re out buying new clothes this January – and I have been – keep this historical perspective in mind. Don’t feel guilty about it. Feel thankful. Be grateful that a new shirt doesn’t cost £2,000 any more. And out of that gratitude, spend a little more to make sure that the earth and the garment workers get a good deal too.