The Excessive Nature of Overconsumption in American Culture

by Lexie Woolums

One of the things that dominate American society is what I like to call the “epitome of excess.”

We live in a capitalistic culture that thrives on consumers’ dissatisfaction. Our society’s culture defines American success as getting promoted to a position high enough that one can make enough money to purchase a big house in the suburbs, add a few cars, and have an annual family vacation.

Influencers on social media have added to this growing consumption. People have access to information via “Get Ready With Me” vlogs on TikTok, which feature various (expensive) products to desire based on trends that go in and out of style in just a few short months. This cultural desire to keep up with trends causes a constantly growing urge to have more. Nearly everything is capitalized on, giving us a concept initially coined by Herbert A. Simon in the 1960s known as the attention economy. Digital creators earn money based on views and engagement from their followers. People online regularly discuss strategies to “trick the algorithm” to further capitalize on this economy where time is one of the most valuable things someone can “give,” similar to how we have traditionally viewed money and, later, information. The phrase “time is money” comes to mind, but not in the same way that my grandparents would understand it.

Beyond seeking to maximize the number of seconds a viewer will stay on the video before swiping, this culture has other effects. It pushes for overconsumption. It has become common to see content creators post videos of six dresses they ordered while asking their followers to “help them choose which one to wear” to the event they have coming up. When I was in high school, everyone wanted the Hydro flask. Today, it is the Stanley Cup. As I wrote this article, I was notified that the newest cup fascination is an Owala.

A girl taking a picture of a folded piece of pizza with her phone
Figure 1- Source: Yahoo Images; Taking photos and videos to put on social media is easier than ever.

It has even become ordinary for content creators to try and capture views by “de-influencing” whatever the sought-after object is at the time. Spoiler alert: this is generally just pointing to a different brand of metal cup on Amazon that is better and cheaper than the almighty Stanley cup (and, coincidentally, listed in the person’s Amazon storefront, where they earn a commission on every purchase made).

This is just influencing—a system that attempts to capitalize on the attention that follows dissent.  The concept is not new, but it has changed how people earn money.

People run entire side hustles by making videos showcasing “Five Products You Need from Amazon,” with aesthetic videos of acrylic containers or trendy dresses.

It is normal to hear people joke about “doomscrolling” for hours online, highlighting the over-encompassing nature of modern social media and its role in our everyday lives. The pervasive nature of this beast has become an accepted fact of life, so we do not always think about questioning it. It takes a degree of separation before one might stop and think, what is the cost of this lifestyle? We do not generally stop to consider how the Amazon package made it to our house in two days. We rarely ask who made the trendy cup we found at Walmart or the skirt we found at American Eagle.

We rarely ask any questions about the actual cost of what we consume.

Customers entering and exiting an escalator to enter Zara fashion store.
Figure 2- Source: Yahoo Images; Zara is a well-known fast fashion brand.

As a culture, we are so far disconnected from the places and communities that create the products we use that many Americans would struggle to imagine what life would be like if we did not have access to these things. As a culture, we love a bargain, especially when we get to tell someone else about the three-dollar T-shirt we found at Target. What a steal!

It is a culture of mass consumption, and no one is immune to it. From a nicer car to a bigger house to a new water bottle or wardrobe (even when you do not use most of what you have), the desire to have more continues, especially within fashion.

Overconsumption has more negative effects than I can effectively capture in one blog post. It exists in all aspects of life across all sectors of commerce. Based on personal experience as a woman living in the world, fast fashion is one of the most pervasive issues that could be addressed more effectively if more people stopped to question before they purchased.

For this reason, I am honing in on fashion today, but by no means is that to imply that fashion is the sole or most important issue of our insatiable, overconsuming culture.

 

History

To contextualize the history of fashion consumption, it is important to mention how the fashion industry has shifted its production model over time.

Historically, most clothing purchased in the United States was produced within the country, created by garment workers during the Industrial Revolution. While I will not delve into much of the history here, my colleague, Kala Bhattar, wrote a phenomenal blog that delves further into the history of fashion. I highly encourage people to check that out if they are interested.

A black and white photo that shows a large textile machine with a child standing in the foreground and an older person standing blurred in the background
Figure 3- Source: Yahoo Images; A child working on a textile machine in the industrial era

For the purpose of this blog, the critical thing to note is that this system of domestic production and consumption is no longer standard (and is actually pretty rare) and that most large fashion companies have shifted production into different countries in the Global South, so they can take advantage of the cheaper labor.

 

Pollution

According to the United Nations, the fashion industry is the second largest polluting industry in the world, sitting right behind big oil. As of 2019, H&M was known for having $4.1 billion worth of unsold clothes. Some of the unsold clothing is used to fuel a power plant in Sweden. Still, H&M (and many other brands) still produce a high quantity of textile waste that never gets used, and in many places, it gets sent straight to landfills. People consume 400% more clothing today than twenty years ago. This excessive consumption tends to contribute to human rights inequities like gender inequality since most garment workers are women. It also contributes to the climate crisis due to the manufacturing of chemicals and landfilled textile waste.

The entire business model of fast fashion companies exists based on the idea that consumers will buy things, wear them a few times, and then toss them out and buy more to try and keep up with cycling trends. This model relies on (and intends for) the products to only be used a few times before being thrown out.

With our current consumption habits, the best-case scenario is that an item will be purchased and worn a few times before being discarded. That is a pretty pitiful best-case scenario.

A landfill with dirt to the right and general waste to the left. A large tractor can be seen in the background.
Figure 4- Source: Yahoo Images; Fast fashion is often landfilled after only a few wears

 

Varying Disparities

Fast fashion’s impact on human rights depends on the location, which widely varies. In the United States, the textile waste predominantly goes to landfills. A 2007 North Carolina study showed how solid waste landfills are disproportionately located in Black neighborhoods. In the world abroad, it is known that fast fashion companies like Zara and Forever 21 capitalize on the cheaper labor in the Global South, resulting in what many have called “modern slavery.”

Extensive human rights violations are associated with fast fashion, from child labor to exposure to toxic chemicals to dangerous working conditions. For instance, in a 2022 undercover investigation, it was discovered that Shein employees work 18-hour days with one day off per month and make as little as 4 cents per garment.

I am keeping this section brief not because these problems are not important but to discuss potential solutions because the ultimate truth is that many people already know about these issues, and we need action.

 

Affordability

I would be remiss without mentioning the most significant barrier to purchasing slow fashion, and that is affordability.

Since we live in a culture that encourages overconsumption, some may scoff at spending more than twenty dollars on a pair of jeans. We are used to the cheap stuff and accustomed to buying something to use it for a few times before pawning it off at the thrift store or throwing it in the trash can.

Sustainable brands are notoriously expensive by modern standards, and not everyone can afford those brands because they are the exception rather than the rule. In the past, clothing has been made to last for generations, so it was expected that consumers would pay higher prices upon the new purchase.

I want to be clear here that in no way am I trying to overromanticize the past systems of the fashion industry. I would highly doubt that some Americans today seek to abolish the minimum wage or have children working in our factories again. With that being said, we have lost the skills, knowledge, and willpower to make our purchases last in a way that respects the resources and labor it took to make the piece.

 

Conclusion and Solutions

In terms of solutions, there are some things that we can do to spark change within the fashion industry. These actions exist on two primary fronts: purchasing and—let me emphasize this one here—NOT purchasing.

Regarding true ethics and sustainability, relying on companies to make ethical decisions is not the best strategy since many of them are dishonest about their products’ true social and environmental sustainability. This includes many brands that some would consider to be “sustainable.” Fashion companies are notorious for greenwashing their products, making them appear a better option, even when most of their clothing is not produced ethically or sustainably.

Due to this, consumers should focus on reducing their consumption overall rather than buying when possible.

The best way to minimize the impact on people and the planet manipulated by the fashion industry is to stop buying from those brands. If you need something new and want to buy it, I encourage you to return to your closet and shop from there (because you probably do not need anything). This might sound crazy, but most of us have more than we need, and we must recognize that and act accordingly.

Another solution is to borrow something from a friend or family member. Thrifting or buying secondhand can also be good options to minimize your impact.

All of these examples mentioned fall under the front of not purchasing. If a shirt has holes, learn to mend it to be re-worn. If you want to wear something new to an event, ask a friend to borrow something or try to style something in a new way. Use what you have, and you will be forced to be more creative.

Two women talking to each other. They are standing between two clothing rails on the street at a secondhand clothing sale.
Figure 5- Source: Yahoo Images; People shopping at a clothing swap

It can also be helpful to consider the washing instructions for specific items. Many articles of clothing would last significantly longer if they were hang-dried or hand-washed.

When these options have been exhausted, and you must purchase something new, be selective. As a consumer, making conscious choices when purchasing new clothing dramatically helps. Suppose you cannot picture yourself wearing something often, or you know the item does not go with anything you have. In that case, it is probably a good idea to refrain from purchasing it.

If you cannot afford to spend a lot of money on clothes, fast fashion is going to be the obvious choice, so it is best to focus on making a mindful purchase with an item you will wear for a long time. Beyond that, the best thing is to take care of your clothes as best as possible to maximize the use you can get out of them.

If you love a staple piece from a sustainable brand, try to save up to invest in it—I guarantee you that it will probably last for years. I recommend this website to check on brands you are interested in—it rates brands based on environmental impact, labor conditions, and animal welfare.

 

Final Thoughts

We all experience the desire to have more, and that is not always a bad thing. Still, our culture has a lot of work to do regarding setting realistic expectations about the number of things we think we need.

For better or worse, I am an optimist at heart, and I am confident we can do better.

The Separation Between Human and Nature

A Philosophical Take on the Detrimental Climate Effects of European Colonization in North America

A Native American elder wearing a traditional headdress made of beads and feathers.
Much Indigenous cultural and epistemological wisdom is passed down by their Elders. Source: Yahoo! Images

I would like to begin by recognizing that the land I sit on while I write was stolen in cold blood by European colonizers. On a once flourishing forest valley now sits tons upon tons of concrete. On land once occupied and cared for by Creek and Choctaw peoples now sits freshly mowed yellow lawns painted blue, overflowing drainage pipes, and office buildings filled with tired, underpaid workers. It is with a heavy heart that I mourn the loss of Indigenous people and their cultures at the hands of greedy White supremacist colonizers. With this article, I do not wish to convey that climate effects are the only or the most detrimental result of European colonization and their genocide of Native peoples. Life, culture, language, and knowledge, to name a few, are some of the more immense losses. The purpose of this article is not to reduce this catastrophic event to solely how it affects the climate today but to bring attention and reverence to Indigenous philosophies, traditions, and ways of life that can inform our modern discussions of climate change. 

As a precursor to this article’s more philosophical take, you may want to read about the historical contexts of colonization. In this case, please check out this article recently posted by my colleague here at the IHR, Kala Bhattar. 

Concrete Jungles

How do you provide for yourself and your family? 

Your answer probably involves producing a product or carrying out a service that society deems valuable enough to attribute money to you for it. You then use that money to buy food, water, and shelter from those in your community who produce or own it. Money probably plays a huge role in your everyday life, and if you’re anything like me, it’s probably one of the larger stressors on your mental health. How much of our lives do we have to sacrifice doing hard labor or sitting behind computer screens in order to make enough money to stay alive to do that work all over again? When was the last time you ate food that you or your loved ones didn’t spend money on? When was the last time you wandered into a forest to breathe unpolluted air and observe the plants and bugs that call your land home? Why does modern culture demand of us that we focus all of our energy on acquiring wealth and ignore our own mental health to do so?

A bright orange monarch butterfly sitting flat with wings open on a yellow flower.
The monarch butterfly has recently become endangered because of deforestation and climate change affecting their migration patterns. Source: Wellfield Botanical Gardens

Modern Western society does not live “at one” or in harmony with the Earth. We no longer heavily rely on nature and the climate, but increasingly rely on money and the economy. It’s as if this planet is solely a stomping ground for a “holier than thou” species to level out and cover in concrete. The Earth has been screaming back at us for years. We’ve seen endangerment of species such as the monarch butterfly, rising sea levels, and one of the worst wildfire seasons to ever be recorded. This is consistent with deforestation, the degradation of the ozone layer, and rising global temperatures. These are all aspects of the climate that human activity has affected. In North America, the notion that humans are separate from the ecosystem, that distancing oneself from nature is “more civilized,” and that relying on the flora and fauna of one’s homeland is “primitive” or “dirty” roots all the way back to 1492. 

Symbiotic Humanity

Before European pilgrims traveled over to the North American continent, the land was inhabited by vastly diverse Indigenous tribes and nations. Some of these tribes were nomadic and lived by moving around the landscape, hunting and gathering an array of foods as they traveled. Others were mostly stationary, growing crops and raising farm animals to provide for themselves and their communities. There were many groups with many different worldviews, religions, and philosophies. The one thing that united them all was their profound reverence for the forces of nature. They saw themselves as a part of the ecosystem of the land they lived on. It was an honor to raise crops and livestock and to participate in their homeland’s well-being. They promoted biodiversity, expressed empathy and gratitude towards the animals they ate, and valued cooperation in and between their communities. They practiced herbal medicine, tending to their sick and injured with natural remedies that they had identified to have healing properties. They even had their own forms of religion/spirituality centered around connecting one’s spirit to the Earth, feeling what Mother Nature needs, and providing that for her in exchange for her providing for them. The human population on the North American continent was thriving and developing. There was peace within and between nations for the most part. All of their needs were taken care of so they could focus on negotiations rather than violence. 

A drawing of three pilgrims meeting three Native Americans in front of the Mayflower.
Squanto (right of center) was a member of the Samoset tribe, known for being friendly to the European colonizers, teaching them language, agriculture, and traditions. Source: Yahoo! Images

Property and Greed

When the Europeans arrived, the Americans taught them how to live on their continent. They taught them how to grow crops in their soil, hunt for their own food, and use every part of the animal including the hide, bones, and meat. They were more than willing to allow these settlers to join them in their symbiotic relationship with nature. To them, more people meant a more diverse and stronger community to help each other out. 

One can imagine their surprise when the Europeans introduced them to greed. They introduced them to the ideas of personal property, wealth hoarding, and social status based on material goods. They saw all of this land as unclaimed and up for grabs since the Americans had no formal ownership system. They started violently enforcing this ‘property view’ of land onto the Americans. They would claim plots of land as their own and hoard all of the resources that could be obtained from it. They also were not fond of the Americans’ religion. They started threatening them with eternal damnation if they didn’t convert to Catholicism. They called them “primitive” for their symbiotic relationship with nature, and “savages” for their denial of Christianity. 

Centuries later, after colonizing the East Coast, the English-speaking Europeans separated from the British monarchy and believed it was their god-given manifest destiny to own the land all the way to the West Coast. So they loaded up their swords and crossed the Appalachian mountains, slaughtering and relocating the Native people along the way. Although many Native tribes had helped Great Britain during the Revolutionary War, Great Britain was nowhere to be found when the colonizers perpetuated their genocide.

A huge wildfire burns in front of a dark sky and behind a row of trees in Quebec.
This wildfire season has been the worst Quebec has ever seen. Indigenous people, while only 5% of Canada’s population, make up 42% of wildfire evacuees. Source: Global News. Click here to read more about the personal effects that these wildfires have caused Indigenous families and communities.

A Culture of Climate Apathy

Today, we live in a world where we mow our lawns once a month and call it environmental care. We plant uniform gardens outside our homes solely for aesthetics without caring that the ‘weeds’ we pull up are the only sources of food for certain butterfly and bumblebee species. We stomp spiders into our carpets for daring to wander onto our property. We spray poison on our foods so that humans are the only ones that can eat them, and we pack hundreds of cows into small barns with no ventilation to steal their children’s food for ourselves before slaughtering them when they stop producing. We can’t survive without constant air conditioning (partly because global temperatures have been consistently warming for over 50 years) and the air we share has record-high levels of carbon in it. 

We have taken ownership of the Earth and drained it of its resources. The Earth was never meant to be claimed for oneself; it was never meant to be commodified. It was never meant to be drained of oil to fill the pockets of wealthy CEOs. The Earth was meant to be shared by all its living beings. Similarly, humans were never meant to be in solitude. We were meant to live symbiotically with each other and with nature. Greed has divided us as one humanity; it murdered the Native American tribes and robbed the Earth of its biggest supporters. And I am afraid that Mother Nature might never accept our apology. 

 

COP27: Solutions in the Face of Rising Climate Change Concerns

COP27 Flag
Yahoo Images

As the sun strikes the arid, blazing desert in Southern Egypt, the leaders of the world gathered to attend the most prominent, consequential global climate summit. During this event, leaders discussed commitments to finance climate action in developing nations by urgently reducing greenhouse gas emissions, building resilience, and adapting to the inevitable effects of climate change. An international conference synonymous with climate change, the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) was hosted by the United Nations in Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt) from November 6th to 18th. COP27 seeks to renew international solidarity in the face of an unprecedented energy crisis, a record of extreme weather occurrences, and an increase in concentrations of greenhouse gases. Ninety heads of state, including US President Biden, attended, alongside staunch environmentalist Greta Thunberg and other sustainable advocates. Everyone is affected by climate change, but some regions will experience the most adverse impacts of climate change. It is essential that these influential heads of state keep these areas in mind when formulating their environmental policies.

President Biden Speaking at COP27 Climate Change Conferece
Yahoo Images

Failures of COP26

Hoping to avoid the pitfalls of last year’s COP, there was a lot at stake this year. COP26, held in Glasgow, made a few, modest steps forward, such as reducing emissions, declaring zero-emission vehicles to promote greener transportation, and acknowledging deforestation. However, there were some shortcomings. To keep the possibility of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a firm commitment to zero emissions by 2050 was expected. This required a 45% reduction in emissions in 2030 compared to 2010. However, the signed agreements put us on track for an average temperature increase of about 2.4 degrees Celsius. Another major setback was that one of the objectives to phase out coal and stop financing new coal-fired power plants was revised to “phase down” because Australia, China, India, and the United States, some of the largest coal producers, were not present for the proposals. Despite some strides, adherence to these treaties has not resulted in the action required to alter the course of global climate change. Enacting impactful, effective change can only be achieved collaboratively.

Expectations for COP27

“COP27 comes in the wake of a terrifying summer in which the Arctic burned, scorching heatwaves ravaged Europe, and floods submerged huge swathes of Pakistan and Australia,” noted Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. With this in mind, three policy areas have been proposed: mitigation, adaption, and loss and damage. Mitigation is concerned with lowering greenhouse gas emissions in order to stabilize the climate. A primary example of mitigation is the use of renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels. The following step would be to adapt initiatives supporting climate resilience and reducing vulnerability, such as interventions to address food insecurity and biodiversity. Finally, loss and damages refer to the economic and non-economic damages caused by slow-onset events and extreme weather events caused by global warming, as well as the tools and institutions that identify and mitigate such risks. Climate policy recognizes and incorporates mitigation and adaptation. However, highlighting loss and dames in international treaties and negotiations has been proven to be difficult. Additionally, COP27 is tasked with dealing with the tragedy of the commons, where neighbors benefit from shared goods, such as an area of pasture or an irrigation pond, but their overexploitation ends up degrading the shared resource. These issues are all things are all on the table this year.

Controversy

COP27 has also been at the center of controversy. This year’s environmental, global summit took place in Egypt, which is known for their human rights grievances. Last year Amnesty International ranked Egypt as the third worst country by number of executions. Additionally, Human Rights Watch states that thousands of people, including children, have been prosecuted in mass trials, “in unfair proceedings lacking the simplest resemblance to due process.” As well as subjecting people to torture and ill-treatment in detention, Egypt arbitrarily arrests and detains people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2014, Egypt’s authorities intensified their restrictions on human rights and environmental groups. Since then, there has been a corresponding decrease in independent organizations and assemblies for environmental activism. Egypt’s response on the matter was disheartening and unsatisfactory.

Climate Change Graphic
Yahoo Images

Human Rights Implications

A healthy, safe, and sustainable environment is necessary to fully exercise a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water, and sanitation. Millions of people are at risk of being displaced in the next few years due to rising sea levels and massive food shortages. Climate change is exacerbating existing inequalities, and the inability to limit greenhouse gas emissions is especially felt in communities already facing severe human rights violations. The impact that climate change will have on other, existing human rights will be catastrophic. The right to clean water and sanitation, the right to health, the right to food, the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to life, all hang in balance in the wake of the current climate. Elected officials and industry leaders must hear public calls for strong, rights-respecting climate protection measures. States must protect the rights of people everywhere. We must ensure that the voices of young climate change activists around the world are heard.

The Drive for Quality Education in Kenya Faces Massive Challenges

by Grace Ndanu

A teacher looks on as a young African girl does her school work.
Source: Yahoo Images

When everyone gets to know and understand the importance of education, they are interested to be part of it, and parents or guardians (those who understand the need to have a learned child) try to fight for them so that they can be educated. There is a very big knowledge gap and also the quality of education between the advanced areas and the areas that are trying to come up. I will name it a crisis.

In Kenya we had a curricula that really didn’t consider every kind of person. I think everyone is intelligent on their own way, but this curricula focused on children who sit down, listen to a teacher and are able to solve a mathematics equations. It didn’t consider the capability of every child. Thank God the curricula was changed and it was effective as early as last year so that at least now there are classes that can help children discover what they like and most of it all, what they can do best. But still, it is tiresome. The kids need to be in school as early as 6am and they are off school at 6pm.

Every year there are children who needs to join high school, but you know what, those who make it are children who come from the wealthy backgrounds, and we developed a saying that said ‘education is for the rich.’ I believe there are funds that are kept aside by the government to educate the needy students. But the ones who are in charge of issuing the funds to them are guilty of using the money for their own benefit. I have heard of two cases this year.

One, there is a boy who scored very high marks in primary school, and what his mother could afford are two bars of soap. The poor mother took his boy to school with two bars of soap with no school fees nor shopping. Another incident was about a disabled boy who was abandoned by his mother and since he has been living with his grandmother. The boy also had scored high and he absolutely qualified to join high school. The grandmother was old, so the boy had to walk to the school, which started at 8:00AM. Keep in mind that he had nothing with him. These are the cases that we know of because the media reported them. I know there are still those who suffer in silence maybe they really don’t know what to do. All this happens because there are people somewhere who are using money that is meant to help the needy. And I will add that this also happens in employment. And with this we have another saying, ‘if you have no connections stay with your mum.’ This is because you will find almost the whole family in good paying jobs.

Another big challenge, is about teachers being so serious which to an extent I may call it being harsh. There are teachers who beat the children, and as a result, children lose interest in school or even completely hate everything about school. Recently somewhere in Kenya, 14 children died and 39 injured in a stampede. The pupils reportedly started running out of the classrooms after a bell rung to go home. Some pupils said a teacher, who was carrying a stick behind them, ordered them to leave quickly and they started running down the stairs. The pupils in front stumbled and fell and those behind also tripped. And that’s how the children met their death. With this you may find some parents may fear their children attending class in the name of keeping their children safe.

Among the disadvantaged families there are also girls who don’t attend classes due to lack of sanitary towels. They are forced to stay back home for at least a week so that they can get through their menses. This makes some of the girls fail their exams because they have missed several lessons and as a result they may end up dropping out of school due to their low self-esteem, which probably developed due to poor results. At the end, men remain on top of women in everything. There is a lot of gender-based violence, and the affected are the women, while the top positions in every sector are for the most part held by men. Hopefully we will get out of this because the government and some NGOs are trying to distribute sanitary towels to school. Thanks to them.

Young African girls in the classroom
Source: Yahoo Images

In the map, among the countries that borders Kenya are Somalia and Sudan. These countries war still exists, note that it is not a one time thing. The fate of school children trapped in conflict areas deserves even more agent attention. According to my research, there are many attacks staged on Kenyan schools that are around the boarder.in ¾ of those, troops and rebel forces turned classrooms into military posts. Hundreds of children are recruited to fight, sometimes made to serve as suicide bombers, or forced to endure direct attacks. The learning environment is not be at peace if learning continues because of the gun-shots, gangs, and unruly youths and by sexual predators on school premises. This is another reason why parents won’t let their children go to school, and of course, girls are the most affected.

In every society there is what they believe which may be considered not to be true. There are some communities that are tied to culture. In the Samburu, Masaai, Pokot, to mention but a few, believe that girls are meant to be wives and not to be educated. Boys are taken to school and even they are lucky enough to attend university while the girls are forced to stay with their mothers at home so that they can be taught how to be the best wife.

Sustainable Development Goal 4 says, ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning.’ Despite the considerable progress on education access and participation, there are children and youth who are still out of school. For us to reach the goal, they should fix the learning crisis. Maybe the following should be considered: Promote gender equality, social mobility, and intercultural understanding. Safeguard that persons with disability are included in the education. Respond to those learning challenges caused by conflict. Align school curricula and work needs for competencies and skills. And most of all fight corruption.

I believe that education has the power to shape the world. A quality experience in the classroom helps promote mutual respect and understanding between people. It can help change behaviour and perceptions, thereby fighting unsustainable practices. Above all education does not choose because it empowers everyone, meaning that it protects both men and women from exploitation in the labour market, and the empowering of women enables them to make choices. Everyone needs freedom, and education sets us free.

Community and Conservation in Maasai Mara

On Thursday, January 23rd, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Sparkman Center for Global Health to present Nelson Ole Reiya (CEO/Founder) and Maggy Reiya (Education and Gender Coordinator) of Nashulai Maasai Conservancy. During their lecture and discussion with the audience, they addressed their remarkable mission to protect wildlife, preserve culture, and reverse poverty within their community in Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Nelson began with the admission that, amid farming and development efforts in the region, a group of Maasai elders convened under a tree and decided to start a conservancy. In response, Nashulai began in 2015 after a meeting with landowners resulted in the leasing of their land for conservation.

Most Maasai face severe poverty by living on less than one dollar a day, while girls and women are particularly vulnerable. More specifically, many girls are subjected to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) which is to prepare them for marriage. Additionally, young women who menstruate without pads are prevented from attending school. In addition to these social issues, because 68% of Kenya’s wildlife lives outside of parks and reserves, the country has lost nearly 70% of its wildlife over the past thirty years. These social and ecological issues demonstrate the need for a ground-up approach that advocates for the Maasai’s people, wildlife, and environment, hence Nashulai.

This is a picture from the event with the speakers facing the attentive audience.
Nelson Ole speaking to the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Nashulai means, “a place that unites all of use people, wildlife, and livestock in common hope for a better world, today and in the future”. Nashulai offers an array of social projects that benefit the Maasai community. Among those projects are: 1.) Nashulai Academy – subsidized education for adolescent girls and a safe house for girls avoiding FGM and early marriage, 2.) Community Water Project –  clean water retrieval system from the spring which reduces the distance to fetch water and incidences of waterborne diseases, 3.) Tourism for Social Change – two safari camps where many proceeds support community projects, 4.) Sekenani River Restoration Project – rejuvenation of the main river that support the Maasai community, 5.) Nashulai Cultural Training Centre – knowledge center to preserve indigenous practices of the Maasai, and 6.) Cattle Breeding Project – ecologically sustainable project to support the Boran and Zebu herds of the region, and 7.) Stories Café – upcoming facility where Maasai elders can manage and pass on local culture to the youth.

This is a picture from the event with an audience member asking the speakers a question.
Audience member engaging with the Reiyas. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Particularly within these remarkable endeavors are the Women Empowerment Projects which address anti-FGM, creating lady pads, education, an ambulance for expecting mothers, soap making, and a drama theater club. These efforts highlight the human rights fundamentals to support the education and autonomy of girls and women. Additionally, Nashulai’s ecological efforts demonstrate the need to protect vulnerable environments that threatened by habitat destruction and wildlife depopulation. In sum, Nashulai’s community-based conservation model conveys the importance of ground-up human rights approaches that reject external influence and place community first.

If you would like to support Nashulai Maasai Conservancy, please follow this link.

The Plastic Problem

A crushed water bottle lying on its side.
Crumpled. Source: Jesse Wagstaff, Creative Commons

The world is built to run on cycles.  The water-cycle.  The food-cycle.  The carbon-cycle.  The resources on Earth exist to be used and reused.  At some point, humanity lost sight of that, our eyes drawn to the concept of disposability.  Now we must face the consequences.

Think for a moment: when garbage day comes, how much trash have you collected?  If the millions of people who send their trash to landfills every week have as much as you, what does that look like?  It is important we remember that, after the garbage truck drives off into the distance, our bags of trash do not simply disappear from existence.  They must go somewhere, and they pile up.

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.  You have heard it before.  Place your plastic bottles and paper in the blue bin rather than the trash can.  Take shorter showers.  Unplug electronics when they are not being used.  This is often accepted as doing enough.  The sad truth is that this makes a very small dent in the pollution of our environment.

Background

Despite being aware of its impact on the planet, most of us cannot imagine day to day life without plastic.  However, the world has not always relied on plastic as we know it.  Though naturally derived plastics have been in use for ages, the first fully synthetic plastic was not developed until 1907.  In the 1930s, its use was common in aspects of the war such as military vehicles.  Since then, plastics have become increasingly commonplace and depended on in everyday life.  It is estimated that over 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s.

Plastic does not decompose like other materials.  It is estimated that it takes at least 450 years to decompose but may never actually do so.  It shrinks and is often mistaken for food by animals or ends up in our water.  More than five trillion pieces of plastic are already in the oceans due to litter and mismanaged trash that never even reaches a landfill.  According to the United Nations, it is possible that the oceans will hold more plastic than fish by 2050 if something does not change.

We are constantly surrounded with promotions of the concept of “out with the old, in with the new.”  Replace clothes every time a new style gains popularity.  Replace technology as soon as newer models are released.  Perhaps this is why we are so comfortable with the concept of “disposable” products.  We have developed a frame of mind where the norm is to dispose and replace.  The results of this attitude have huge, negative impacts on the environment, and by extension, human beings.  In his TED talk, “The economic injustice of plastic,” Van Jones sums it up perfectly: “In order to trash the planet, you have to trash people.”

Human Rights

The pollution of the environment is a human rights and public health issue.  In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25 states that we have the right to a standard of living that supports our health and well-being.  The United Nations also recognizes many specific environmental rights.  For example, we have the right to “a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.”  We also have the right to seek information regarding environmental issues and to “participate in public decision-making.” Plastic pollution is an increasing contributor to violations of the human rights of people all over the world; we have the right, as well as the responsibility, to be a part of the solution.

Landfills are a specific example of how plastic harms people.  Many items that end up there contain toxins that often leak in to water and soil and remain for years.  Problems can also be found when organic materials, such as food waste, are in landfills.  When they start to decompose in the middle of an enormous pile, they are deprived of oxygen and produce methane, a serious greenhouse gas that can become dangerously flammable.

Landfills also have a direct impact on the lives of entire communities.  As of 2003, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund co-represents the Ashurst/Bar Smith community (ABSCO) in a Title VI complaint against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.  ABSCO’s complaint is that the department has discriminated against the community, “by permitting the Stone’s Throw Landfill to open and expand its operations in their predominately (98%) Black community without conducting an assessment of the Landfill’s disparate and discriminatory social, economic, and health impacts on the majority-Black community.”  The landfill had been closed but was reopened in 2002.  Landfills are often placed near low-income, black communities, especially in Alabama.  Many members of the community can trace their family’s ownership of their land back many generations, such as Phyllis Gosa, whose great-grandparents bought the land as former slaves in the 1800s.  As decades have past, such families have been able to see the changes that have occurred since the start of the landfill.

The effects of Stone’s Throw Landfill reported by ABSCO include fear of toxic run-off polluting their water sources, health problems like cancer, respiratory problems, migraines, and dizziness, and gardens no longer producing food.  In the past, this community has been heavily self-reliant, using their own water sources and growing their food on their own land.  Due to the impacts of the landfill, they are now having pay significant costs to replace what their resources can no longer provide.  The EPA closed the complaint in 2017, but the problems continue.

This case is not unique.  Landfills pose daily threats to the health and well-being of people across the country, and yet they continue to grow.

A pile of old, worn down toothbrushes that have been thrown out.
Plastic Toothbrush Debris. Source: NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Program, Creative Commons

Legislation

The implementation of some large-scale efforts to decrease the use of plastics and their detriment to societies and the planet have increases as the world realizes the problem that plastic creates. China, who had been the world’s main destination for plastic recyclables until January, banned the import of plastic waste this year.  The European Commission has proposed a ban on nearly all single use plastics.  In 2016, France implemented of a “four-year phase out” of single use plastics such as cutlery and plates.  California banned single use plastic bags and began to require a ten-cent charge on recycled plastic bags in 2014, supporting the use of non-plastic bags for carrying purchases home from the store.  Nearly all of Hawaii’s highly populated cities have banned non-biodegradable plastic bags and paper bags that are made from less than 40% recycled material.

However, the United States as a whole has a lot of catching up to do.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we produced 258 million tons of solid waste, and 136 millions of those tons were sent to landfills.  Multiple states, including Michigan, have gone so far as to ban plastic bag bans.  They have prohibited the creation of legislation that regulates “the use, disposition, or sale of, prohibiting or restricting, or imposing any fee, charge, or tax on certain containers.”  Supporters of this law often consider themselves to be protecting businesses from having to make changes that disturb regular operations.  The question is whether or not it is worth it.  Is it worth accepting the harm caused by plastic bags in order to prevent businesses from being inconvenienced?

What We Can Do

While the average person cannot do very much about the landfills that already exist, we can help by not adding to them and limiting our waste.  Half of all plastic that is produced is only meant to be used once.  This leads to an enormous amount of plastic destined for landfills, even if we disregard any that could potentially be recycled.  Cling wrap.  Candy bar wrappers.  Ziploc bags.  The list goes on.

A lot of it (if not all of it) is completely unnecessary.  Take it from Lauren Singer.  She has minimized her waste production to the point of being able to fit all the trash she could not compost or recycle from four years of her life into a single mason jar.  She promotes the “zero waste” lifestyle through many different media, such as her blog, Trash Is For Tossers.  According to Singer, being zero waste means to “…not produce any garbage.  No sending anything to the landfill, no throwing anything into a trash can…”

How does she do it?  Through her blog, Singer has offered a lot of information on how to work towards living a zero waste life.  For example, to replace plastic toothbrushes, she recommends opting for a bamboo one, which can be composted when the bristles are removed.  Instead of buying all-purpose household cleaner, she suggests making your own, which is often cheaper and healthier for you to use.  Additionally, single use menstrual hygiene products can be replaced with washable and reusable options, such as menstrual cups and reusable pads.

Many people who are part of the zero waste community abide by the five Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, rot, and recycle.

The Five Rs

1) Refuse.  Do your best not to accept things that are unnecessary or that will end up being thrown away.  Before accepting that free pen, think twice about how much you actually need another one.

2) Reduce.  Try decreasing the amount of stuff you bring home, especially if you are only going to use it once.  Consider buying products that have multiple uses and/or can be bought in bulk.  This leads to less plastic and is often less expensive.

3) Reuse.  Buy items of higher quality that can be washed and reused repeatedly, such as a stainless-steel water bottle.  Bring your own cutlery instead of using plastic ones.

4) Rot.  Compost anything you can.  Here you can learn about how to start your own compost and about what can be composted.

5) Recycle.  While it is good to recycle anything you can, it is important to note that it is at the end of the list.  Strive to find the need to recycle as little as possible, especially when it comes to plastic.  It still involves buying more disposables that will most likely end up in a dump (or worse).

If you decide to try out being zero waste for yourself, please remember that it is not about being perfect.  It is about doing the most you can to maximize the positive impact you have on the world.

Fast-Fashion: Unethical and Unsustainable

Garment workers working at sewing machines in a factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh.
Bangladesh.Gazipur BIGUF.2015.Solidarity Center. Source: Solidarity Center, Creative Commons

Prior to the 1960s, about 90% of the clothes purchased in the United States were also made here.  Since then, it has been reduced to only about 3%.  Over the years, companies have increasingly chosen to outsource their labor to countries with lax labor laws (or a willingness to overlook them) to pay less for the work that is necessary for clothing production.  The purpose of this blog is to highlight the negative impacts of these choices based on the information given in the documentary True Cost.

The term “fast-fashion” refers to the shift in the fashion industry that has resulted in faster production with lower costs.  At first glance, this appears to be an extremely beneficial change, especially for the general United States consumer.  We can buy more clothes and spend less money in the process.  However, it is important that we take time to ask how it is possible to the industry to have changed the way that it did.  What does it really cost?

Garment Workers

When discussing the costs of the fast-fashion industry, one of the most well-known examples is the Rana Plaza building collapse of 2013 that occurred in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At the time, the building was being occupied by garment factories for western companies such as Children’s Place, Joe Fresh, and Walmart.  Workers in the factories told their managers that they had noticed cracks in the building but were told to go back to work.  At one point, the managers were even given an evacuation order (which they ignored).  Nothing was done.  As a result, 1,129 workers died, and even more were injured.

Outside of the tragedies that have occurred in the industry’s factories, many of the factories cut corners on a regular basis to reduce production costs.  Work areas are frequently found to have poor lighting, which can be damaging to the workers’ sight, and toxic chemicals, which can be harmful to their respiratory systems.  As of 2016, the minimum wage in $67 dollars each month, which is far less than fair compensation for the labor of these workers, especially in such poor conditions.  More often than not, these workers cannot simply quit and find work with better circumstances.  They must be able to provide for themselves and their families and lack the education and qualifications for more favorable employment.

Environment

Fast-fashion is also an incredibly unsustainable industry.  Eileen Fisher, a high-end fashion retailer who aims to use sustainable and ethical production methods, has called the clothing industry “the second-largest polluter in the world.”  It’s easy to see why.  In 2013 alone, 15.1 million tons of textile waste were created.  The majority of this waste ends up piled up in landfills.  These piles release methane as they decompose and are a noteworthy factor in global warming.  Even if their relationship with global warming were not an issue, the amount of land required to store of all this waste is simply unacceptable.

Leather tanneries are also a significantly harmful part of the clothing industry.  The chemicals used in the tanning process are extremely toxic and are often disposed incorrectly.  This leads to the pollution of the drinking water, soil, and produce of the communities surrounding the tanneries.  These chemicals lead to serious illness and diseases.  People living in these areas are facing skin problems, numbness of limbs, and stomach problems.  The chemicals are poisonous to both the environment and the health of human beings.  Not only do climate change and pollution have harmful effects that we can see today, but they are also severely damaging to the world and resources that future generations will have access to.

People in the street in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Wide avenue in Old Dhaka. Source: Francisco Anzola, Creative Commons

Human Rights

The issue of fast-fashion is one that impacts many different areas in human rights.  Regarding employment, Article 23 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that every person has the right to “just and favourable conditions of work,” as well as the right to “just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity.”  The harmful work environments and low-wages involved in the clothing industry prevent workers from accessing these rights. Additionally, Article 25, the UDHR depicts the right to a standard of living that is sufficient to maintain an individual’s health and well-being, which requires an adequate income.

Fast-fashion also has a connection to gender equality.  In the garment industry, 85% of the workers are women.  Often, these women are single mothers without any other real employment options, due to a lack in access to education and other similar resources.  They continue to work in poor working conditions because they want their children to be able to go to school and have better job opportunities in the future.

What You Can Do 

It is easy to fall into feeling like there is nothing you can do on this side of the counter and ocean.  Fast-fashion seems to be a very distant issue.  However, there are changes you can make in your own life to be a part of the transformation of the fashion industry.  First and foremost, it is important that you make an effort to stay informed on the issue and inform others as well.  A problem cannot be solved if no one acknowledges that it exists. Second, if you can afford it, buy from brands such as Eileen Fisher and People Tree who work to produce clothing through sustainable and ethical methods.  Such companies are generally more expensive than what we have become accustomed to because of the fast-fashion industry, but the products are typically of a higher quality.  If you need more affordable options, try to get clothes second-hand, whether that be through clothing swaps or going to thrift shops.  Apps like Depop and Poshmark, make it possible to buy clothes directly from other individuals, or sell your old clothes directly to other people.  Selling your unwanted clothes through apps like these, you can help keep clothing out of landfills.  Donating clothes can be a great option when you want to clean out your closet, but it is best when you can come relatively close to directly giving clothes to the people who will receive them.  Of the clothes that are donated to “mission stores” like Goodwill, only about 10% are purchased in those stores, and the rest have the potential to end up in landfills.

Finally, though the aforementioned options are wonderful and should warrant consideration and use, it is imperative to recognize that we do not need to purchase clothing nearly as often as we do.  Advertising glamorizes things that we do not really need so that we will spend more money.  New trends come out nearly every week, so we feel the need to buy more stuff just to keep up.  Society has become very consumeristic, and this contributes to industries, such as fast-fashion, that disregard the health and safety of their workers to allow people in countries like the United States spend as much money as possible.  By purchasing less of what we do not need, we can avoid supporting these harmful practices while also saving money ourselves.

You may not always be a part of large-scale change, but you can make small, daily changes that, when combined with the efforts of others, can truly make a difference.

Sustainable Blazers

Green Life… Source: Julie Rutherford1, Creative Commons

On Wednesday, April 11th at UAB Edge of Chaos, dozens of Blazers met, in the spirit of Earth Month and Earth Day (4/22), to hold a discussion titled A Conversation about Sustainability. The event centered on a faculty panel, consisting of Dr. Hessam Taherian (School of Engineering), Dr. Suzanne Judd (School of Public Health), Dr. James McClintock (Department of Biology), Dr. Tina Reuter (Institute for Human Rights), Dr. Josh Robinson (Collat School of Business), and, moderator, Dr. Shauntice Allen (School of Public Health), alongside an inspired, and vocal, student body.

Conversation began with a simple question: Why should we care about sustainability?

The conversation began as far from Birmingham as possible, in Antarctica, where Dr. McClintock conducts research, inspiring him to mention risks to the continent’s biodiversity and its resources that enable pharmaceutical innovation. Dr. Taherian asserts that with almost 7.5 billion people on this planet and counting, so it is imperative we think about our actions, especially as finite resources dissipate. Dr. Judd mentioned how she just came back from Paris, where, in recent years, often rises, and threatens to flood the heart of Paris.

Discussion then turned to Alabama, where raining has increased, resulting in river erosion. Although the effects in Birmingham are minimal, as hurricanes travel through warm water, their strength compounds and influences greater threats to our environment and communities.

When discussing resource distribution, the tragedy of the commons became an immediate talking point — a scenario where individual actors are capable of taking a resource with no clear owner, leading to its depletion. This concept was then related to big hunting in Africa because no one owns the wildlife; therefore, excessive hunting practices have guided many species to their endangerment. Since human behavior was addressed, conversation quickly shifted toward a human rights perspective, demonstrating sustainability’s impact on conflict and displacement of vulnerable communities, namely poor and indigenous persons. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an international document that aims to protect security of the person, was proposed as a framework to protect these communities. However, no legal mechanisms are yet in place to protect “climate refugees”, a growing phenomenon.

Following, concerns from the crowd asked if we’ve reached the point of no return. Without hesitation, it was claimed we have because the Great Barrier Reef has experienced recent catastrophic loss from climate change, serving as a canary in the coalmine for what is to come.

Panelists exclaimed we need to incentive sustainability because it directs responsible behaviors. For example, in France, one is charged if they don’t bring their own grocery bags, while, in Dr. Reuter’s home country of Switzerland, she mentioned trash bags are $2 each, incentivizing sustainable behavior. Inevitable critiques of business practice then emerged, where Dr. Robinson claimed businesses are designed for sustainability, meaning accumulating costs of unsustainability will pressure enterprises to adapt. However, it was insisted major oil companies don’t want to leave their product in the ground because of it investment, pitting money against environment. Strikingly, the same researchers hired to protect the tobacco industry about the harms of smoking now help Big Oil with denying the existence of climate change.

As the topic of taxing the population entered the discussion, audience members suggested such an approach would disproportionately affect society’s poorest. Although, it was insisted taxes are not monolithic and can be tiered by income brackets. In addition, the groundswell of communities pressuring the Chinese government to clean the polluted air was mentioned. This generated conversation about the multi-stakeholder process that has been excluded from many environmental decisions, leading to a strong suggestion for non-state actors to be included in such discussions.

When formal discussion ended, students forwarded more insightful questions to the panel, which many responses resulted in conversation about behaviors such as beef consumption, sustainable transportation, Styrofoam cups and the importance of not being aggressive when discussing sustainable behaviors with others. As the lively dialogue ended, it was clear that UAB is the largest electricity consumer in the state, inside a city with poor transportation, and represents a state with some of the nation’s greatest solar potential, meaning Blazers are in the unique position to participate in a global cause by leading local initiatives that advocate for a greener, more sustainable community.