Is fashion good for the environment or bad for the environment?

So I just finished watching An Examined Life which I wanted to like but wound up finding pretentious.It made academics sound like a bunch of unreflexive whiney liberals. Which isn’t true. For every Cornell West or Judith Butler–whose work I admire tremendously, don’t get me wrong–there are others who have more moderate and conservative views, like Thomas Sowell, whom I also enjoy reading. It’s like equating all economists with Milton Friedman. However, Peter Singer–whose work has had a huge influence on me–has got me thinking about the quality of his thinking on the following:

So we are outside Bergdorf Goodman, where they have got a display of Dolce & Gabbana shoes. It’s kind of amusing to me because about thirty years ago I wrote an article called “Famine, Affluence and Morality” in which I ask you to imagine you are walking by a shallow pond, and as you walk past it, you notice there is a small child who has fallen into the pond and is in danger of drowning. You look around to see where the parents are, and there is no one in sight. And you realize, unless you wade into this pond and you pull the child out, the child is likely to drown. There is no danger to you because you know the pond is just a shallow one, but you are wearing a nice pair of shoes and they are probably going to get ruined if you wade into that shallow pond.

So of course when I ask people this, they say, well, of course forget about the shoes, you just have to save the child, that’s clear. And then I stop and I say, OK, well, I agree with you about that, but for the price of a pair of shoes, if you were to give that money to Oxfam or UNICEF or one of those organizations, they could probably save the life of a child, maybe more than one child in a poor country where they can’t get basic medical care to treat very basic diseases like diarrhea or whatever it might be.

So just looking at the shoes here at Dolce & Gabbana, they are probably going to be worth quite a bit more than just your basic kind of shoes, and it made me think, if you are wearing these kinds of shoes and you still want to wade into the pond, that’s probably a large number of children’s lives they could save…..

It is obscene that people are spending thousands of dollars on a handbag or a pair of shoes when there are a billion people in the world who are living on less than a dollar a day. As UNICEF tell us, there are 27,000 children who die every day from avoidable, poverty-related diseases and malnutrition. And clearly there is something we could be doing about that; there is something we could be doing to help them.

Ok, but wait:

1) What kind of fool can’t flip off his shoes fast enough to save the kid? Did you never go through lifeguard training, Peter?

2) Here’s the one part I don’t get. I have a pair of D & G shoes that I bought 10 years ago (similar to those pictured). I still wear them. They cost $250. They have no signs of wear; they will never go out of style. This is the equivalent of buying one $25 pair of shoes each year. $25 shoes are in general made in places where work and environmental conditions are terrible; depending on where they came from, they may have been made by child labor. My D&G shoes were made by Italian craftspeople. $25 shoes generally last me two to six months, depending on what they are for. So…I’d have had to spend more going the $25 way than the D & G way. In addition, when my D & G shoes start to show wear, I can take them to the nice shoe repair man downstairs. $25 go into the landfill. Should I tell you about the Miu Miu purse I have had for 9 years or is my point made?*

3) The people who buy luxury items are also often major philanthropists, at least it seems to me. I think many people with far fewer resources also make a big contribution to philanthropy, of course, given some of my friends’ work in philanthropy. But does it make sense to engage in philanthropy to people who are underpaid and structurally excluded from the economy or does it make more sense to demand shoes that cost $400 rather than mass markets and beef that costs $20 a pound, humanely raised and slaughtered, so that people make a living wage and environmental standards are high?

This is the worst part of environmentalism for me. Honestly, was the energy that went into An Examined Life worth its carbon footprint? All that jetting to Sundance and Cannes and other film festivals, all that jetting around to talk to famous talking heads? Wouldn’t we have been better off planetwise if they had stayed home?

Instead using the money to make the film, shouldn’t the money have gone to the poor? What about the money I have spent on Peter Singer’s books?

Yet, fur is terrible. TERRIBLE. I think we have Anna Wintour to thank for bringing back fur from fashion oblivion where it belongs** (and Leon Talley, oye). Many exotic skins are TERRIBLE, harvested cruelly and stupidly.

And the wheel of consumption that the fashion industry leads is terrible.

Reconciling my questions sounds like a good use of Life Cycle Assessment.

**Fur, yuck. It’s cruel, and it even makes skinny people look fat so guess what it does to people like me?