Trainers (or: a wide ranging comment on Western consumerism)

So I need some new running shoes. I’ve had flu for a while, pretty much bed ridden last week, and now am feeling the urge to get back on the run, back erging and back on the water (if I don’t, I literally go mental).

This personal issue – being poorly,  highlighting an obsessive compulsion to get back training – has made me think about a few things; mini ideas that would have crossed my mind anyway but have been given loads of space to germinate and grow in my fever-addled brain the last week or so. And I thought this would be a good place to start writing.

So here is my first ever blog post, casually entitled:

1)      Trainers (or: a wide ranging comment on Western consumerism).

Now, I LOVE running. And more than that, I love rowing, for which, while you don’t need trainers in a boat, to do well you need to train hard and well on land. Both these things necessitate a good pair of shoes. Running and rowing makes me feel strong and calm and happy and together. And if I’m going to spend money on a pair of shoes that I’m going to wear more per week than any other pair of shoes I own, I want them to be good. I want them to feel good and wear well, and to help train hard – when you have a good pair of shoes on you feel like you could run forever. And I’m a girl, and I’m 25, and I want them to look good. I’m not going to lie about any of these things.

So I’m going to treat myself to a new pair of trainers – I’ve felt ill since the middle of January and am so impatient to get back on top of it and go hard. BUT – and here is the issue – I’ve been reading a LOT of Naomi Klein lately, and supplementing my general awareness of certain brands perpetuating horrendous labour and human rights laws in the developing world with more specific stories of back breaking, monotonous work for next to no pay for individuals, and whole countries caught up in constant ever decreasing spirals of incentivising multinationals to outsource to them by screwing their labour force over (what Klein and others call ‘enclaves’ of tax breaks and desperation in  the face of globalisation). And while I’m not sure how much difference me buying the really fit looking Pegasus’ I saw in JJB the other day (Brixton Footlocker still not open after last summer!) actually makes,  I guess this decision has become less of a briefly considered pragmatic decision thing for me (had Asics last time, do I go hard and get the Nike Airs this time around? And also: which ones are most on offer?) and has actually been a lynch pin in deciding what I think and where I actually stand on so many issues that I’ve always been really interested in, and variously passionate, angry and sad about. I feel like it’s time to make a stand, it’s just I’m not convinced what my stand is.

So on the one hand it’s the trainers, and on the other hand it’s the rediscovery of a wicked collection of essays by Arundhati Roy on the American Empire that I picked up in Dhaka airport when I was interning in Bangladesh. I spent time in 2008 working in rural communities around Dhaka and getting a feel for the issues that abound out there – in particular I remember one really interesting conversation about sweat shops that I want to think about and research a bit more before I commit it to paper. But my time out there and everything I learnt, felt and saw is definitely playing on mind recently, and definitely informing my dilemma at the moment.

Someone said to me a few weeks ago that you can’t live in the western world without exploiting others. They may have just been trying to quickly stop me ranting at them, but maybe this is true; in fact, it’s definitely true. Now, I am a ‘liberal’, I’m way more left wing then right, and I hate the Tories firstly on principle and secondly because Cameron’s face makes me want to throw up. However, I am not too big a fan of the later Blair either, I don’t appreciate the inclusive, Oxbridge dominated nature of Westminster, and I think that Ed Millipede may be lovely and charming but has a way to go to creating a party I could properly get behind. So I’m also not one to start promoting the virtues of socialism or large scale social welfare, nor, now I’ve done some proper reading on economics in the last couple of years, do I “hate” capitalism.  I think that the idea of capitalism is essentially a neutral one, and possibly a natural one that sits neatly alongside our biological evolution and also makes sense from a business perspective. I also believe that multinationals are inherently neutral constructs, that they make sense in view of how we conduct business nowadays and that, managed differently, there is potential for them to act as be forces for constructive and productive action around the world. So far, so good in terms of being able to spend my hard earned, much appreciated wages on a pair of shoes that will make me flyyyy (in both sense of the word) (maybe).

On the other hand, I hate several things that all have an direct or indirect impact on how much I will ultimately love my shoes. Firstly, as mentioned above, I need to get up to date with the status of Nike (and I use ‘Nike’ as shorthand for ‘all major multinational sports shoes manufacturers that I may want to consider buying from because they make good shoes, innit) in terms of its labour regulations in wherever it is it is currently producing shoes. Apparently here is a good place to start: http://www.labourbehindthelabel.org/

I also take issue with the general problem of outsourcing, and the shape of ‘work’ in the modern day world. This is a bit of multifaceted one for me. Firstly, I hate the fact that manufacturing is a dead art in the West, the UK and USA especially, and that jobs like my granddads are now obsolete (he was a joiner in the docks in Southampton). I know I am a little biased as I work, to all extents and purposes, in “the city”, and so am stuck in that London-centic bubble, but it annoys me that so much of our ‘industry’ is essentially intangible – we don’t make “things” anymore, we construct ideas, create brand images and market them to varying levels of moral and commercial success. That goes for my job, even with the more ‘noble’ clients that I actually enjoy working for, and is one factor driving me to really think about what I want from my life. It also goes for much of the media: I’ve been told that the UKs highest grossing export in 2011 was the format for reality panel shows like X Factor (I am yet to confirm this but it wouldn’t surprise me). It also goes for Nike in the sense that they don’t ‘make’ shoes anymore, they assemble suitable parts together into a concept and market that. I find this sad, and I think it accounts for much of the dissatisfaction we feel in the West but can’t put a name to. Maybe its horribly clichéd, but I always feel a tiny bit jealous when I go home and go to the pub with mates in Southampton, and they’ve had a long hard day making things, or fixing things, (lots of them are sparkies or engineers or joiners) and have it all done and dusted and can enjoy their pint and relax. Because our office essentially deals with ideas and concepts and theories, I never feel like I ever really finish anything or create anything of real value; and this frustrates and annoys me. I guess nowadays the majority of us don’t go home at the end of the day having created something useful, and that doesn’t sit well with our natural need to work in cycles, and truly complete things for mental closure and satisfaction (I guess what Marx meant when he talked about alienation).

The process of globalisation and outsourcing has, as far as I can tell, directly contributed to this, moving jobs abroad where they can be done cheaper by people (arguably) more desperate for work. Furthermore, multinational outsourcing has not only moved jobs abroad but deprived whole other continents of their own source of livelihood and creation, destroyed their economy and set the population to task doing menial, mind-numbing jobs  for humiliating wages and crap conditions, setting whole countries and continents in a competition to provide the lowest wages and least effective unions. Does anyone really benefit? I don’t know… I guess I do because I can afford to buy nice shoes whenever I want, but this clearly isn’t a nationwide luxury, especially when it comes to shoes which are such a status symbol – I don’t think it was an accident that Footlocker got so royally trashed during the riots. (On another note, I read a really interesting case study about an American youth project that educated disenfranchised youths about where their trainers and trackies really came from, sparking massive political empowerment and getting kids socially fired up and really engaged in politics and trade regulations – inspiring stuff that I think could have a proper place in the UK today and something I want to get my head around properly).

I guess my urge to get back on my training and run around a lot with some good, supportive shoes has made me really think hard – about things I already knew and cared about hadn’t quite connected the dots on. And it is all connected. My trainers (as yet a metaphysical entity) are part of the same spider web of questions and issues linking social justice, domestic policy, international trade and the developing world. The two most infuriating issues for me at the moment are the fables that abound any reasonable discussion about any kind of socio-economic issue – firstly that capitalism equals meritocracy (social mobility in the UK is arguably worse than it was in the 1950’s) and secondly that outsourcing perpetuates a trickledown effect in poorer countries. I don’t see that it does. When people can’t afford to turn down overtime even when they’ve worked 20 hours straight, then where do they get the time or resources to contribute to their economy?

I’m not going to rehash the wonderful Klein or start citing Chomsky; that would clichéd and I couldn’t do either justice. But the older I get the more I understand how it all fits together (more about this below), and the more p*ssed off I get.

I haven’t quite decided about the trainers yet. Somehow (possibly due to the flu-delusion I had all of last week) they have become a really crucial issue in my head. On the one hand, I like having the money to buy what I want, never really having quite enough when I was growing up. I worked hard, went to a good uni and got a good job out of it. I’m living the capitalist dream, essentially, and I like spending my money on things I want, especially when they make me feel so good and make me run so fast.

But equally, I’m angry about a lot of things, and for some reason this purchase has become, at least in my head, the seminal purchase that will define what I do from here, and who I am (granted, that’s possibly a bit over dramatic). I’ve always known I’ll end up working in social policy, and I’m starting to get the urge to move and start looking for jobs there – maybe that has something to do with it too. In any case, I’m 25 and I feel a change in the air. When I look out the office window over St Pauls and the Shard, oddly, I feel inspired and I feel hopeful, I don’t see a stronghold of greed and money like I thought I might. There is space, as Chomsky and others have pointed out, for business to be moral, and for individuals and companies to make a difference, and maybe this is my first (very baby) step in that direction. Or maybe not, who knows. What I do know is that, flu-addled as it may be, the discussion I’m having with myself about these trainers and the issues around them has been the most interesting I’ve had for a long time.