We’ve come a long way


A photoshopped model wearing sustainable clothes.

It’s tempting to think that the world is a pretty terrible place. And it’s tempting to think of yourself and your fellow human beings (OK, mainly your fellow human beings) as inclined to all evil and incapable of doing anything good. There’s an odd kind of comfort in cynicism.

So, let’s get out of our comfort zone for a bit and celebrate the fact that the world might not be such a bad place after all. In some respects, it’s definitely getting better.

Six years ago I wrote a cynical piece about my quest to buy an organic cotton t-shirt (read it below; spoiler: I failed). Rereading it made me realise how much has changed since then: the workers who make our t-shirts still die in factory fires, but at least they might’ve been sewing organic tees.

Wait, that still sounded cynical. Let me try again.

In 2013, I can buy my organic t-shirt on practically every street corner. Major retailers like H&M, C&A, and HEMA offer fair and sustainable clothing lines. You can save up for free organic towels every time you fill up your car at a chain of petrol stations Google can’t tell me the name of (but I definitely remember seeing it on billboards). Even the companies that don’t actually do much, seem to acknowledge that fair and sustainable trade is a Good Thing. And even the more indiscriminate shoppers are signing petitions to urge C&A to offer compensation to the Dhaka fire victims.

This is happy news. These are things that we should celebrate.

We’ve come a long way since March 2007:

I had to be in Amsterdam today. Now, to foreigners, the word ‘Amsterdam’ glows with a seductive red light and carries along a faint whiff of forbidden substances – a place one visits just to be able to tell one’s friends that one has been there. To me, today, it was a place to buy a fairtrade, organic-cotton t-shirt. There are not many places to buy these things in the Netherlands (where idealism of the fairtrade, organic-cotton kind is usually met with a mixture of suspicion and ridicule) but Amsterdam, apparently, is one of them.

Whenever I’m in Amsterdam, I feel like a tourist in my own country. The odds that a random passer-by actually speaks Dutch are about as large as the odds that a bar that says ‘Coffee Shop’ actually sells coffee. And it’s busy – far too busy. As soon as I walk out of the train station, I find myself engulfed in a multicoloured mass of people – elderly American couples on Europe-in-two-weeks-trips, carrying plastic bags full of Van Gogh reproductions in poster format; large Japanese families under large black umbrellas, taking pictures of everything or debating heatedly over opened city maps; groups of dazed teenagers pursueing their vision of paradise on earth – and I feel the sudden urge to hide myself, to put up my collar, to wrap my scarf around my face, to buy a burqa – anything to be able to observe without being observed; anything to be safe. It’s an overwhelming inferno of colour and sound and movement, an energy-draining beehive.

It’s raining slightly, but that doesn’t stop the two fake-gypsy street musicians opposite the shop that’s my destination for today from playing on, though with the way they look (wearing shapeless coats and shapeless woollen hats and worn trainers, faces and fingers red with the cold), their whiny accordeon and their slightly off-key trumpet, their music sounds like a parody of itself, mock-cheerful – irony of the kind that no one finds funny. Or at least I don’t find it funny. Not today.

The shop is organized in such a way that it forces every customer to pass through the makeup and perfume department. A heavy, nauseating smell grabs me by the throat as soon as I step over the threshold – hundreds, maybe thousands of different scents, mixed up beyond recognition and robbed of every subtlety. Perfect women in white labcoats smile helpful professional smiles from behind sterile counters – as if they don’t just sell various ways to paint one’s face, but scientifically evidenced sources of eternal youth. I head straight for the escalator and not much later, I find myself completely lost in the Lingerie Section of Doom, which is only a small part of the two-floor Women’s Clothing Section of Doom, but nevertheless large enough to get lost in.
I’m feeling more unhappy by the minute. It is hard to believe that my fairtrade, organic-cotton t-shirt is hiding somewhere in here, in this bastion of materialistic perfection, perhaps modeled by one of the same disturbingly perfect manikins that display the designer lingerie. Eventually, I decide to use my last resort: to ask for directions.
‘I heard you sell fair-trade clothing,’ I say.
The woman, who is a living proof that face paint is not, and will never be, a source of eternal youth, looks at me in a way that tells me clearly that we are from different worlds. ‘I don’t know if we…’ she says. Then her face brightens. ‘Oh, yes, I think I remember. Second floor.’
I head for the second floor, where I quickly get lost in the Women’s Clothing Section of Doom: Part Two. No organic tee. After a while, I find another employee. I ask my question, an unmistakeable edge of despair to my voice. She studies the ceiling for a moment, then says she’ll ask one of her colleagues. She comes back after a while, professional apology written all over her face.
‘I’m sorry. We did sell them last season, but they’ve been removed from our collection now. People just didn’t buy them, you know? Well, they were rather expensive…’
A funny thing to say when one is surrounded by Armani suits, I think, but the only thing I say is ‘Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. Thanks anyway.’

On my way back to the train station, I pass the Beurs van Berlage, where Bodies: The Exhibition attracts long queues of curious visitors who will gladly pay twenty euros each, about the price of a too-expensive fairtrade tee, to look at dead Chinese people who never gave their permission to be turned inside-out, dissected, displayed for everyone to see.
What a crazy world.


About hannadevries

University lecturer (in linguistics/artificial intelligence) with occasional opinions on religion & social justice-related stuff.
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