Thinking about Fashion Revolution Day

Last year, in the days immediately following news of the Bangladesh factory collapse tragedy, a BBC crew went out to a Primark branch to gauge whether the disaster made shoppers pause to reconsider where they go to buy the latest in trendy clothing. Even then, with the tragedy still so fresh, the response was lukewarm. Yes, most people agreed that large Western-based clothing chains must have responsibility in ensuring workers’ safety. But ultimately, many shoppers still want to get the most bang for their buck – indeed prioritising low prices over quality or anything else – and they’re not going to stop shopping at Primark any time soon. I say this without judgment, because I too am guilty of often falling for the same temptation.

A year on, some in the fashion industry are marking the anniversary with what they call Fashion Revolution Day. It’s part of a larger campaign ( to get consumers to think about the people and the processes behind the pair of jeans or the T-shirt they’re bringing to the till. There’s much to praise about the movement. One of the most striking things that emerged out of Bangladesh was the difficulty in establishing which brands or chain stores were actually linked to the garments being made in that factory. What came to mind, when I read this, was the horse meat scandal, where an equally complex and global supply chain with dozens of middlemen and agents made it extra hard for investigators to pin point exactly where things went wrong. The campaign cannot hope to untangle this problem right away, but it is at the very least drawing our attention to its existence.
Fair trade is now firmly established in the food industry, and there is no reason why something similar can’t take hold in the fashion world. Of course, the parallels aren’t exact. For a start, food is needed for sustenance; fashion isn’t. But in both cases the ethics are not black and white, and there are no easy answers. More expensive doesn’t necessarily mean more ethical. Forcing countries to enforce standards can rob workers of their living, where any living is better than no living. And ethical fashion, like talk about ethical food, can sound like the concern of bleeding heart middle classes, quite irrelevant to those not so comfortably off. Most people probably can’t be bothered to think too hard about buying a pair of socks.
Vogue UK, I think, considered some of these and other questions admirably. For example: “Suppliers aren’t used to this level of scrutiny and fear of losing business can give rise to greater corruption, while brands wishing to disassociate themselves from the corrosive PR of an inhumane supply chain are often reticent about joining the discussion.” And also: “We could stop buying cheap clothes altogether – but a morally high handed boycott isn’t going to do any good for people in developing countries who will lose their jobs as a result of it, or those in developed countries earning minimum wage for whom a £5 pair of jeans is the difference between drudgery and some semblance of materialistic pleasure. It’s the ethics of businesses we’re buying from that we have to campaign for, as well as keeping own morals in check.” (Read more of it here).
Still, you can’t go wrong with buying less and thinking more about each item of clothing we buy. As I walked down Oxford Street today it was thought provoking to see that while a small group of protesters gathered outside Addidas to question the brand’s responsibility in workers’ wages in China, a short distance away teenagers eager for a cheap wardrobe update were queueing outside Primark. That is likely the way it will continue to be for a while, but it’s heartening to know that subtle changes of attitude aren’t so far away.
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The Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography

I was very excited this week to receive in my inbox a PDF copy of my contributing article to the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography, a new 1,700-page volume of essays introducing the lives and times of more than 100 important Chinese historical figures. That ranges from ancient emperors and philosophers to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. My chosen subject is Liang Qichao, the political writer, journalist and reform activist whose life spanned the late years of the Qing dynasty to the early and turbulent years of the Chinese republic.

I’d worked on this a couple years back, and seeing the PDF of the published chapter is the next best thing to holding a copy of the volume in my hands. (I’m double excited because although I’ve published many an article in newspapers, magazines and on websites, I believe this is the first time I’ve published in an actual book.)

In Hong Kong, where I grew up, Liang’s name is known to almost every school child. He is best-known for his involvement in the efforts to reform Qing rule in the last decade or so of the 19th century; the ‘Hundred Days Reform’, led by Liang’s mentor Kang Youwei, is required reading in every Chinese history textbook. Yet revisiting the subject and diving deeper into Liang’s beliefs and writings, I found many new discoveries about his work to be impressed with. He was certainly one of the first Chinese intellectuals of his time to write about Western-style democracy and the people’s rights. To me, his searching and at times tormented questions about China’s political future are surprisingly relevant a century on. His observations about nationalism and his musings about the weaknesses of the Chinese national psyche, too, at times struck me as deeply as if he were writing in this day and age.

I’d encourage anyone with an interest in Chinese history to look up his writings. The link below opens a pdf of my chapter (all copyright to Berkshire Publishing and to myself; please cite if using). Enjoy!

(Pdf file: liang-qichao)


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Oldest-known Holocaust survivor dies at age 110

Sad news yesterday: Alice Herz-Sommer, a pianist widely believed to be the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, died in London at age 110.

Herz-Sommer, her husband and her son were sent from Prague in 1943 to a concentration camp in the Czech city of Terezin — Theresienstadt in German — where inmates were allowed to stage concerts in which she frequently starred.

An estimated 140,000 Jews were sent to Terezin and 33,430 died there. About 88,000 were moved on to Auschwitz and other death camps, where most of them were killed. Herz-Sommer and her son, Stephan, were among fewer than 20,000 who were freed when the notorious camp was liberated by the Soviet army in May 1945.

Yet she remembered herself as “always laughing” during her time in Terezin, where the joy of making music kept them going.

“These concerts, the people are sitting there, old people, desolated and ill, and they came to the concerts and this music was for them our food. Music was our food. Through making music we were kept alive,” she once recalled.

“When we can play it cannot be so terrible.”

Read more about her extraordinary life in the rest of our obituary here. An inspiring story, if there ever was one.

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It’s all Greek … or not?

I’ve no idea why Greek yogurt is so big these days. It’s just yogurt, but thicker. Or so it seems – lawyers will tell me I’m completely wrong.

Turns out that according to two British courts, Greek yogurt has to be made in Greece to qualify as such. Thick, creamy, but not from Greece? It can only be legally called ‘strained yogurt’ – at least in Britain.

Here’s today’s story documenting the Court of Appeal’s ruling in the Chobani v. Fage (better known as Total in the UK) intellectual property rights case.

LONDON (AP) — It’s not all Greek to yogurt makers.

A British court has ruled that Chobani, the company leading the burgeoning Greek yogurt market in the U.S., cannot label its products “Greek” in the U.K. because they are made in America.

Chobani said Wednesday it was disappointed with the ruling, but added that “the fight is not over” and it would continue the legal battle.

The court case was brought by Chobani’s rival Fage, a Greek company, soon after New York-based Chobani launched their products in the U.K. in 2012. Fage has dominated sales of Greek yogurt in Britain under the “Total” brand for decades.

(The full version can be read here.)

On a related food product protection note, Nestle and Cadbury are locked in a separate IP case regarding whether the shape of a KitKat bar can be protected. It’s hard to imagine how four fingers of chocolate can be a trademark, and I haven’t yet read the details, but Bloomberg has a brief story outlining that intriguing case here.

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Immigrant: The dirtiest word in Britain?

Or perhaps it’s “benefits”, now that January 1 has come and gone, and Britain has experienced no deluge of Romanian and Bulgarian beggars, layabouts, thieves and gypsies whatsoever. Critics will say time will tell, and the EU migrant benefit tourism media story refuses to die. Anti-EU rhetoric is here to stay, it seems, though at least now it’s not just about Romanian and Bulgarian migrants.

In any case, here is a write-up of the political storm stirred up by fears of an eastern European migrant influx that was published in late December.

LONDON (AP) — They’re portrayed as pickpockets who will steal British jobs. There are predictions they will beg, the unruly young ones will stir up riots, and some will even try to sell babies.

For months, Britain’s tabloids have repeatedly warned of the horrors they believe will ensue after Jan. 1, when work restrictions will be lifted across the European Union for migrants from Romania and Bulgaria — two of the trading bloc’s newest members. Those changes, the papers claim, will unleash a mass exodus of the poor and unemployed from the two eastern European countries to Britain.

“In January, the only thing left will be the goat,” a Daily Mail headline proclaimed, referring to a remote Romanian village where, the paper claimed, everyone was preparing to move to Britain for the higher wages and generous welfare benefits.

“We’re importing a crime wave from Romania and Bulgaria,” another headline declared, quoting a Conservative lawmaker who told Parliament that most pickpockets on British streets hail from Romania.

The rest of the story is available here. 

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Mauritania, Haiti, Pakistan top new Global Slavery Index

Last month I did a brief story reporting the findings of a new Global Slavery Index, which ranks 162 countries by estimating the number of people in each nation affected by modern slavery practices including human trafficking, forced and bonded labour, forced and child marriages and the use of children in the military.

Essentially the ranking system was compiled first by looking at existing data sets from NGOs, official bodies including the UN, the US State Department and the International Labour Organization, and media reports. Where data is missing or insufficient, as is often the case, the researchers did some statistical guesswork and projected estimates.

According to the index, published by a new charity called the Walk Free Foundation, Mauritania, Haiti and Pakistan rank among the countries with the highest prevalence of modern slavery. In terms of proportion of the population affected Mauritania was the worst, with  many people inheriting slave status from their ancestors. But in absolute terms, India, China and Pakistan topped the list.

My report is available here, and if you’re interested in reading more about the report and its findings you can read many more details, infographics and the entire original report on the Walk Free Foundation website. 

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British marine convicted of murdering injured Afghan

A royal marine murdered an injured insurgent in Afghanistan by shooting him in the chest at close range, a British court martial board found last week. The conviction could hardly have been surprising to anyone: Video footage shown to the court captured the killing, as well as the marine telling his fellow soldiers to hush it up.

The board ruled that the commando, who can only be identified as Marine A for legal reasons, was guilty of killing the unnamed man in Helmand Province in September 2011.

Prosecutors said the incident took place after a military base in Helmand Province was attacked by two insurgents. A helicopter opened fire in response, and Marine A, together with two other British soldiers, then discovered the injured Afghan in a field. The three dragged the man to a sheltered area, where Marine A shot the Afghan in the chest with a 9 millimeter pistol, before quoting a phrase from Shakespeare as the man died before him, according to prosecutors.

To continue reading, the rest of the story (published last Friday) is here.

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