(MintPress) —You see them everywhere — dazzling colored feathers hanging from the luscious locks and earlobes of fashionistas.
While touted by the fashion industry as a hip, organic way to let your personality shine, the impacts are quite devastating at the source. While many of the farms breeding hens for their feathers are taking place in the U.S., the disconnect consumers have with the source of their products is vast — a mindset that’s not limited to this particular issue.
Most western consumers purchase products based on a particular set of standards — desire, need, cost, etc., leaving even people who consider themselves as ‘ethical’ to feed into a cycle of consumerism that doesn’t ask the question, “Where did this come from?”
So, where did ‘this’ come from?
It could be argued that most consumers flocking toward the feather trend wouldn’t be able to stomach the process by which their beauty is derived.
At Whiting Farms Inc., for example, birds are raised only for their feathers — the roosters don’t survive the plucking. And while that may not anger many, some argue it’s a total waste, as meat from the animal is not then used for consumption, largely because the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has ruled it’s not fit. According to animal rights activists, the process of plucking in and of itself is cruel and inhumane.
In an ironic twist, the fashionable feathers have even been used to campaign for research into ovarian cancer. In September 2011, a Florida salon launched a campaign in the midst of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, donating proceeds from all feather extension purchases to ovarian cancer research.
While the life of a rooster might not be the most important concern of the world, it raises an issue central to the consumer society of the West. Where do the products we consume come from, and what are the impacts? And, more importantly, do we care?
It’s a difficult task to track the origin of every single product purchased, whether it be for consumption, fashion or necessity. That could play into the cycle of ignorance we all fall into. It’s a lot of work, after all, to research everything — and most people are consumed with busy lives, worrying about making ends meet and providing for those they’re close to.
But with something as trivial as hair extensions, for example, it seems odd most people purchasing feather extensions aren’t asking themselves, “Where did this come from?” Surely, most people understand feathers don’t fall from the sky. It’s true that some people really wouldn’t care, but a large portion of those wearing feathers are going for that hip, organic look — and one could assume they would be a bit turned off by the process necessary to supply their latest fashion fetish.
Most people buying an American flag, for example, would likely assume that it was made in the U.S. Yet according to the Flag Manufacturers Association of America, that’s not the case — far from it. In fact, statistics from 2009 show that $2.5 billion in American flags were imported from China. In 2001, the year America suffered the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the U.S. imported $51.7 million worth of flags — $29.7 million came from China, a country notorious for sweatshop labor and poor working conditions. Ironically, the U.S. flag — the unofficial versions — are not made in the U.S.A., for the most part.
Considering the outrage that erupted after it was learned that Olympic athletes in the 2012 Opening Ceremony would be wearing outfits made in China, it’s reasonable to assume that, when it comes to symbols of the U.S., most Americans would prefer that they not be made in China.
In that case, it showed that Americans do care where their products are coming from, which leads to the same question: Why aren’t we asking where products are made?
The same goes with those who tout the Nike logo. Most athletes — or anyone — supporting the swoosh would likely be appalled if they were to experience, first-hand, the life of those who work in Indonesia’s Nike factories. That was the case for Jim Keady, a former St. John’s Catholic University soccer coach, who was concerned about the team’s purchase of Nike apparel after researching that very question, “Where does this come from?”
Keady traveled to Indonesia and lived with factory workers. While Nike would not allow Keady to work in the factory, even for no wage at all, he continued to live like the workers would, living off the $1.25 a day wage they received. His conclusion after the experience, which was made into the documentary “Nike Sweatshops: Behind the Swoosh,” was that workers do not make enough to provide themselves, let alone their families, with the basic necessities.
While it’s a message that has been counterattacked by Nike public relations officials, Keady’s documentary and related information are widespread, available for anyone to view, so long as they have access to the Internet.
Is it likely to change?
To a large extent, the world is preoccupied.
Timothy Devinney, professor of strategy at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, argues that even those who consider themselves to be ethical consumers are anything but that. In a recent opinion piece, Devinney frames his argument, pointing out that consumers are overwhelmingly driven by other factors, including cost.
“That doesn’t mean people aren’t influenced by issues other than price and product — they are. But we find that when you look carefully at people’s purchasing behavior, it does not tally with what those who promote the idea of the ethical consumer would expect.,” he writes. “All too often, survey radicals can turn into economic conservatives at the checkout.”
Devinney’s argument points out that, at the most basic level, consumers do — or would — care that the products they consume come at the sacrifice of others. Yet the drive to care more about oneself and the people around oneself end up taking over.
“People care about a variety of issues that form part of a broad ethical agenda: third-world debt, child labor, pollution, animal welfare and so on,” he writes. “But they tend to be hard-nosed when they trade these things off against matters that are more salient, immediate and mundane: children’s schooling, healthcare, their mortgage — even simply spending less time at the checkout counter.”
Devinney is quick to point out that this is not a total U.S. behavior, saying that Europeans are no more socially aware than Americans. And he’s not optimistic anything is set to change anytime soon.
“Corporations, by their very nature, have conflicting virtues and vices that ensure they will never truly be socially responsible, even by the broadest of definitions,” he argues.
His argument is based on the fact that the term “ethical” is subjective — one person or corporation may value environmental concerns, for example, not focusing then on other political issues.
And while it’s difficult to focus on all the issues at one time, Devinney isn’t saying to give up altogether. In the case of fashionable feathers, for example, it doesn’t require much thought or research to realize that their origins could be considered questionable, leading people who consider themselves ethical and in favor of animal welfare to boycott the trend.