Monday, October 11, 2010

Fashion with a Purpose?

A friend of mine who is a first-time mother has become a huge fan of the trend of baby-wearing. She has several different styles of the fashionable wraps. I was really intrigued when I first saw them, until I saw the price tags. Some higher end slings are well over $100! While I know that the premise of carrying your baby with you in such a way that you may continue to go about your daily tasks hands-free is by no means a new idea, one website touts their line of slings as "an essential, chic accessory in any contemporary parent's toolkit." While watching the film When the Mountains Tremble recently, I repeatedly noticed the peasants working in the fields with their babies sashed securely to them. I'm sure those women felt very chic slaving away in amidst the cane fields in the hot sun with their children on their backs. This wasn't 100 years ago, either. This was twenty years ago. And there are many cultures in which women are still working while carrying their babies this way. And I'm certain they aren't paying anybody any money for the pleasure of doing so.

Now, I'm not trying to stereotype, but I'm pretty confident that indigenous Guatemalan women going about their daily chores do not have a great deal of concern for whether carrying their babies strapped to their backs is particularly "on trend" or not. But it makes me think, what other utilitarian ideas have we commercialized in the name of fashion?

One of the first and most obvious things that comes to mind is camouflage. I don't think I need to lay out for you here the original purpose for camouflage, but nowadays the patterns have been applied to just about every type of clothing and accessory item you can imagine. I've even known some people who are extremely offended by the casual wear of camouflage by "civilians" outside of for hunting or military purposes. (While I may not wholly understand that, I can see how camo's purpose has been....ahem... subverted. Something tells me that blending in is not exactly what this chick has in mind.)

Ponchos are another item. Originated in the Andes to protect people from wind and rain, this ancient garment has fallen in and out of fashion numerous times over the last century. At least one designer version now sells for over $1100. (I know, right!?!)

Keep in mind, I'm not bashing any of these items. I am a huge fan of fashion and function intersecting. What I do want is to draw attention to how there are many items that are (or were at one time) necessary for enabling people to go about their daily tasks, that have been reinterpreted in the name of fashion or otherwise. It is often because of their very practicality that these things were noticed by designers and incorporated into clothing lines in the first place. I just want to point out another way in which we take things as simple as our clothing and accessories for granted, without the least bit of consideration for the fact that what has become fashionable for us, was once or may be still be a part of the daily lives of people for whom they have, in some cases, become luxury items selling for far beyond what many of them could ever afford. In particular, the way in which certain items that are essentials to poorer people in third world countries, become "must haves" for entirely different reasons to wealthier ones.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Who does not Like Butterfinger?

I want to give you an update of what is going on with my decision to boycotting products or companies that benefit from using forced child labor (slavery). As I shared with my wife the decision to stop purchasing Nestle cocoa three weeks ago, she asked me if we would boycott only the cocoa/chocolate product or the company. I commented to her that we should not buy any product made by Nestle. That way we would be boycotting the whole company. Well, I am so glad I had that conversation with her because I spent most of last week in a conference/training. In one of the team competitions, I was part of the team that won. As the winning prize, we were given a bag that included…

Do you see who makes this delicious butterfinger bar? Nestle makes it and as I found out, they also make a long line of other products. Well, that was the first thing I grabbed from the prize bag. The guys sitting with me at the table went crazy eating their butterfinger, while I stared at it. I immediately saw the Nestle brand at the top. Those guys looked at me like I was from another planet when I did not eat it. They asked, "Who does not like butterfinger bar?" I must admit that it tasted good before I knew that forced child labor was part of the work force that made Nestle profitable. I understood right away that I had to be on the lookout for products made by those types of companies.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

On Fish

I realize that ecological regard is not usually or popularly placed in the framework of human rights, but I must insist that what we eat or even if we can eat in the future, really, is directly tied to human rights. As Mandy has suggested already, the treatment of animals and the quality of the food consumed is a major concern. As stated in earlier posts, fishing practices are largely on a unsustainable track. If these practices continue, we could see not only a dramatic change in fish populations and the environment overall but an incredible effect on the availability of for human beings all over the world.

The environment is, of course, important but I've found in several conversations that you must humanize certain things for fellow humans to become interested. Moreover, we (humans) are not separate from the environment; we may live in a metropolis or in the modern trappings of the digital age, but we still breathe the air, eat what can be harvested, and so on. Therefore, the two subjects should not be looked at so separately, but as one having an effect on the other. And it's a two way street.

Aside from the probably better known issue of overfishing, "aquaculture" can and is proving to be just as problematic. Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish, looks into this matter extensively. More recently, he published an article in The New York Times about tuna (a fish I have mentioned in particular earlier on). Citing salmon as one of the earliest victims of aquaculture exploitation, he asks some pertinent questions about the fate of tuna and recognizes the sushi eater probably wouldn't enjoy Alaskan char as much. (True statement.)

The problem with raising fish on a farm is usually that the fish being raised must be fed with something. More often than not, it requires an exponential amount of more "forage fish", relative to the weight of the fish being raised, to produce the end result. So, while it may seem a better idea to raise some fish on a farm, thereby not fishing them out from the wild, it becomes just as problematic (if not more, as Greenberg suggests). This obviously has much to do with the environment and the other organisims that inhabit it, but if we are to continue as a human species and if we want to be gauranteed an adequate amount and a respectable quality of food, this issue should be considered.

As Greenberg suggests, "Perhaps, in the end, this is what the Atlantic bluefin tuna might really need. Not human intervention to make them spawn in captivity. But rather human restraint, to allow them to spawn in the wild, in peace."

chicken trouble

After seeing this photo on a Facebook post, I knew that I had to investigate where chicken comes from and the human and animal rights involved in the processing of chicken products. This is "mechanically separated chicken"--a main ingredient in chicken nuggets, hot dogs, etc.

So what is “mechanically separated chicken”? Is this really what it looks like? Really? I went to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspections web site to find out how our government defines “mechanically separated chicken.” Here is what they have to say:

“Mechanically separated poultry (MSP) is a poultry food product produced by high pressure machinery that separates bone from poultry skeletal muscle tissue and other edible tissue by first crushing the bone and then forcing bone and tissue through a sieve or a similar screening device. The result is a blend of soft tissue with a paste-like consistency and a cake-batter form. The final paste-like material, has a physical form and texture that differs materially from other boneless chicken and turkey products that are deboned by hand.

In November 1995, USDA's FSIS issued a rule requiring labels to list mechanically separated poultry as an ingredient in processed products such as hot dogs and bologna as "mechanically separated chicken or turkey" instead of simply "chicken" or "turkey." This requirement went into effect on the labels of products that include MSP as an ingredient in November 1996. MSP is a safe and wholesome food product with nutritional characteristics similar to ground poultry. Because of its cake-batter texture, it is ideally suited for use in hot dogs, bologna, nuggets, patties, sausages and luncheon meat-type products.” Copied and pasted from the USDA web site:

“Wholesome”!? That sounds pretty disgusting to me and confirms my staunch position against nuggets and hot dogs.

As revolted as I was by this knowledge, I needed to learn more about how chickens go from live creatures with feathers to food. I found this undercover video of a Tyson plant:

The chickens in this video are destined to be butchered and kept on the bone—I wonder if that means they are being treated even better than the ones who will be pressurized into paste. Searching YouTube, I found video after video showing that these practices are the norm in the chicken industry. That means there is no buying Perdue instead of Tyson to ease your mind.

Yes, some of these videos are filmed by animal rights activist groups that have a very strong agenda to show the worst of the worst, but the extent of the evidence presented, regardless of its source, shows that these are normal, routine practices in poultry processing. However, as awful as this situation is—is this a human rights violation?

I will argue that yes, it is. And here is why: first of all—regardless of whether you believe that animals have rights, I, as a consumer, have the right to know that the food I am purchasing in the store has been handled appropriately and respectfully during processing. Obviously, this is not happening at every poultry processing plant. Secondly, the people who are working at these plants have the right to a decent work environment and I would not describe what I saw in these videos as such. Poor working conditions, low pay, and the emotional stress of pressure to perform horrific acts may directly contribute to animal cruelty and abuse occurring—not to mention the passive aggressive act of urinating in a supposedly clean environment (or perhaps not being given adequate breaks to use the restroom). It is easy to blame the employees for their abuse, but many are forced to work as quickly as possible to meet quotas, get paid, and keep their jobs. It is also very common for poultry processing plants in the South to employ undocumented immigrants to lower their costs. It is easy for these plants to find cheap labor, allow ICE raids to remove up to a third of their employees for deportation, and then rehire new undocumented immigrants to fill the positions of those deported. One such incident can be read about here: Finally, it is personally disturbing to me that such a lack of respect for life occurs in this industry. Animal cruelty and abuse abound unchecked—even encouraged—in the slaughterhouses. Are you willing to ignore this fact when you sit down to eat a bucket of KFC or some Tyson “Any-tizers”? Not me, but to each his own, I guess . . .