my simple life: the suffering behind our luxuries

I reckon we’re good people, you and I and everyone reading this blog. None of us would want to cause harm to another, or would tolerate mistreatment of another. We certainly would never want to see an innocent person’s liberty, safety and wellbeing taken from them, let alone participate in the taking. Yet it seems, these days, we’re accomplices in the suffering of many.


I’m talking about the many that are behind the products we buy. Not just the end products, but the raw materials that go into the products. Clothes, necklaces, chocolate, coffee, gold... there are people behind everything we consume and stories behind all those people. Don’t we owe it to each other to know those stories and to fight for better versions?

On Saturday I read a disturbing account of the lives of young illegal miners in Papa New Guinea, in The Age’s Good Weekend mag. The miners are just young bear-kneed runny-nosed kids (dirt poor and uneducated and with families to support) trying to make a living by stealing gold from the lucrative goldmine of the PNG Highlands. The mines are owned by a Canadian resources giant Barrick Gold. They have a shiny website heralding their top-notch environment, community and human rights policies and programmes. Yet, according to the article, the PNG locals are largely locked out of the wealth of the goldmine – one of the most lucrative in the world – and entire communities are forced to relocate without adequate housing  as their own villages are either bought out by the company or swallowed by waste rock from the excavations. According to Human Rights Watch, the mine discharges 16,000L of waste water every day into the nearby river.

Later that same night I watched a Four Corners report on garment factories in Bangladesh. You can watch it here if you missed it. Big name brands including Forever New, Rivers, Coles (who knew they made clothes ay?) and more Australian fashion giants were named and shamed as using garment factories with poor conditions, some (particularly Coles) forcing lower and lower prices on them. A few garment workers were interviewed, mostly young women, who say that when they don’t deliver the overwhelming work load expected of them, they face verbal abuse and harassment by the supervisors. They work all day every day for $8 a week and no rights. One woman cracked her spine in the Rana Plaza collapse and has received no compensation. Her husband is sick and can’t work and they have children to support.

I don’t know anyone who would want these lives for others, but in an inextricable way, we are sustaining them. Unless we say no more. Unless we stop giving our money to the sort of companies that condone this suffering. I think we owe it to each other to know the story behind the products we buy, to know the people and the places that make up that story. Once we know the story, we can do one of two things: we can choose to give our money to it, or we can choose another author.

Had you heard these stories before? How did they touch you? For me, they expanded my definition f a simple life and cemented my ambition to live one.


  1. What happened in Bangladesh made me finally rethink where I buy my clothes. I will no longer use stores like H&M or other big clothing sellers, my next piece of clothing will be from a fair and green company. Right now I have more than enough clothes, so using them and wearing them is what I'm going to do. Constantly buying new clothes was thankfully never my way.

    What really angers me is that one piece of clothing from a store like H&M would only have to be 20 Cent (Euro) more expensive to make sure that workers would receive a fair salary and would be able to work in good conditions, but of course the big companies have no real interest in making these changes.

  2. Maria are there any real solutions to these issues? They seem so deeply entrenched and so tied to global structures of power so far out of our control.

    I'm a big believer in localisation – in strong local economies and businesses that are sustainable and fair, and more accountable for what they do, even if prices are higher – but there are now hundreds of millions of workers whose lives depend on the consumerism of the western world, and if these workers don't like their working conditions there's probably hundreds in line to take their place, or people in other countries more desperate and therefore more exploitable than they are. Can therefore the philosophy of buying local (and minimalism for that matter) be universalised if it would mean the livelihoods of overseas workers are put in jeopardy? I guess only if at the same time truly sustainable and ethical investment was being made to compensate. Though I doubt it would ever come to that and if it did it would mean people and governments cared sufficiently enough that they would want to compensate in some way. Truly I don't believe corporations really improve the wellbeing of 'developing' economies or their citizens as they claim.

    Ethical, fair and sustainable businesses in these countries are the answer, but can such businesses ever really gain a strong market presence while powerful corporate interests with million, perhaps billion dollar marketing machines and distribution capabilities remain in control? In an ideal world I think all economies, to be fair and sustainable, would need to be as local-sufficient as possible and not run by monopolies.

    The PNG goldmine story and the Rana Plaza collapse are horrific stories, but without belittling them, these stories have been coming out for as long as I can remember, so why aren't we truly hearing them and changing our consumer practices? Why haven't the majority of Australian retailers, owners and corporations ensured their products are being ethically produced and sourced?

    Maybe not many of them read the Good Weekend, or watch Four Corners or other left-wing sources; or if they have seen and heard, maybe the message quickly gets drowned out by everything else; or maybe industry and corporations haven't wanted to risk falling profits, or risk losing out to the competition, and maybe governments are far too tied to corporate interests to ever intervene with strong laws and binding world agreements...

  3. ...Unions won many hard fought battles, but eventually the owners went offshore. With no work you need no workers and without workers there's no union, cheaper goods maybe, more profits for owners and shareholders yes. It seems a problem of not being able to regulate a global market which creates an unfair playing field. So even if an owner wasn't driven by greed to move a company offshore they would still be left struggling to compete against a saturation of cheaper goods, unless they found a strong point of difference, or people saw the multiple other values local business and industry bring to society and so saw the extra dollars as an investment in that. In many cases, for the person who has wanted to support local and fairer industry or products there hasn't been any option. This is probably all more complicated than I understand.

    Could there ever be a fair global economic playing field where all governments and industry agree to enforce the protection and rights of workers and the natural environment? Many developing countries might see human casualties, bloodshed, exploitation and environmental degradation as a reasonable price to pay to have what we have in the west. To some extent the lifestyle we enjoy in Australia today was built on the exploitation of previous generations.

    Perhaps as with food we have to be prepared to spend a greater percentage of our income on other goods too, prioritise clothing, etc in the short term. That is, be prepared to pay, say, more for ethical and good quality shoes in the short term knowing that they will last a long time and save money in the long term. Spending more on quality, and a good and just story, while being less concerned about the quantity of things we buy and own. That way we value more what we have and discard less of what we don't have because we never truly needed it to begin with. But that can take quite a significant shift in values, outlook and perspective – how does that come about?

    I personally try to purchase as little as possible and tend to buy from opp shops where possible, but by doing so I'm not really helping support local businesses or fair and ethical overseas goods (though there is the issue of CO2 emissions) that help those who would otherwise struggle, so I'm rethinking that practice. p

  4. I have been reading your blog for a while and want to say how much I enjoy it!

    This is such a tough issue and I agree with many of your points. I have recently started sewing my own clothes again (I've always been a wearer of used clothes and shoes). That said, I'm an economist, though not a specialist in these issues, and I do know a bit about the literature of economic development and it's conflicted about these problems. For example, the consensus coming from the data is that child labour doesn't end with regulation, but rather with development, i.e. once people have enough money their children no longer work. Research in economic history also shows that this was the case in the development of North America - legislation to end child labour came after child labour was no longer a big issue, not before. So in some sense if we're not buying from developing countries we're not giving them an opportunity to gain the resources to guide their economies better.

    I know your argument is not that we shouldn't buy from developing countries but that we should buy if possible from ethical sources in those developing countries. The fundamental problem is that in developing countries capital is expensive and labour is in oversupply and as a result very very cheap. At the level of desperation that many people face when living at subsistence level, there will always be individuals willing to work in terrible conditions (and of course people who will exploit that). It doesn't make it right, but it makes the forces at work very difficult to manage. I really don't have any answers, as my brain is still ticking on a lot of these problems...I've been listening to a lot of stuff recently about successes in some countries in regard to educating workers and women or whatever oppressed group that we are talking about, about the rights that they should expect to have honoured. In some countries, individuals are mobilizing to demand those rights themselves (rather than having westerners try to regulate).

    I tend to be in the camp of buying something made locally in my own country (Canada) or in Italy (where I spend a lot of time), under ethical conditions, even if it is expensive. I buy high-quality things when I do buy, e.g. winter boots, coats, etc., and take the leap and pay a price that reflects the cost of labour in my own country (with the expectation that I will use them for a long time). I definitely don't buy from dollar stores, as the damage we're doing to the environment with the externalities associated with those goods is outrageous. In theory, if we all took this attitude, it would force manufacturers making goods abroad to make things of higher quality (to compete with high-quality local goods) and they could in theory also charge higher prices (and hopefully pay workers a living wage). Anyhow...I could go on forever about this...and this was rambling! In the end, I don't have any additional wisdom.

  5. Thank you all for your comments, truly very well thought out and intelligent comments they are! I don't have the answers either, I guess the point is there is no silver bullet. I agree with everything you have all said, as much as it saddens me that that's the state of the world today.

    All I know is this - On a very practical level, I have a finite amount of money. Therefore I cannot spend money on higher-priced quality and locally made goods as well as spend money on goods made overseas 'from those sort of sources'. I have to choose. I'm not going to choose to give money to corporations who aren't doing the right thing by workers. You are right, that action alone won't help those workers and those countries, but I believe it's a vital action as part of a whole series of actions consumers can take.

    I heard a radio interview with Peter Singer a while back, and he said something like this "If you want to help a poor farming community in Africa, don't buy beans from Africa, find an honest charity organisation doing good work there and give your money to them instead". It was something along those lines, this was a long time ago!

    To me, this is the key. There are grass-root, community-led organisations doing excellent work for communities all over the developing world. These are organisations that are helping to empower communities to become more self-sufficient. They are helping communities grow their own food, set up alternative sources of income etc. I strongly feel that's one of the best things we can do for these communities. Of course I could be wrong, so I'm constantly trying to learn more about the issues so I can make an informed choice...

  6. P.S Peter Singer had been on the radio talking about this book The Life You Can Save:

  7. value both your comments. p



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