Mama’s got a Brand New Bag (but was it an environmentally sustainable and ethical purchase?)

A brand new Mulberry Amberley satchel, in fact. The state of the art, new-style brass hardware lock bag; a soon to be modern classic. It’s price was £*!*$!! (*) and it was purchased after months and months of ‘mullberrying’ it over. I’m not naturally a designer bag kind of woman but as I hurtle ever closer to 50 I decided that a woman of a certain maturity should at least have an alternative to her pink furry Top Shop clutch. I spent months browsing handbag websites and at various times had settled on bags from every designer but really, my heart was drawn to Mulberry. Let’s face it, whose isn’t? 

I feel that a Mulberry bag is the kind of bag one should buy for oneself, to celebrate one’s success at surviving the shit storm of being a woman. Husbands buy you Chanel, lovers buy you Yves St Laurent but Mulberry … that you buy with your hard earned cash.

 Admittedly my cash wasn’t earned from a job but from the two years I sat by my grandparents bedside for the last two years of their lives, being an emotional and physical buffer between them and their loss of independence. Apart from a few gifts for myself and the family and our holiday last Christmas, I couldn’t decide what to spend my inheritance on. Those numbers on my bank balance were the last things my grandparents would ever give to me. I didn’t want it to disappear in a haze of supermarket shops and re-tiling the bathroom.  I decided that I would use the remainder of the money to buy myself, husband and son a really good birthday present from them every year. So, after wrestling with my inner critic who told me loudly that I didn’t deserve such an indulgence, this first year I pushed the boat out with my Amberley satchel. 

And I love it. But …. but…. can any bag be worth £*!*$!! (*)? Although I love beautiful clothes and objects, I’m not much of a shopper. I’m instinctively sceptical of the joys of consumerism and sometimes the amount of stuff I possess makes me feel queasy. I’ve noticed how the price of certain luxury goods such as handbags and perfume have risen at a ridiculously steep rate, far higher than the costs of production has increased. It can only be that designer brands sense we will continue to spend immense sums because we are now so invested in how these goods make us feel; how they identify us to other members of our tribe; how they cast over us the shimmer of our success. 

I’m resentful at this magic trick. The raw ingredients and the wages of the, presumably, underpaid workers who make the actual goods can’t possibly add up to such ridiculous prices, can they?  Vetements, purveyors of the cool girl joke outfit, has a string grocery bag for sale at £3000. Yes, it’s very funny. Because if you can afford to buy this ironic statement, isn’t the fact that you’ve blown £3k on being cool the very opposite of being cool? I can’t help thinking that the people they’re laughing at most are their own customers.

However, I must confess that on the day of the bag purchase, I really shopped because I also went to the huge nearby Primark there and spent £70 on 

  • A  of shoes
  • A pair of boots
  • A sweater
  • Body lotion
  • A tartan dress
  • A sweater
  • A nightdress. 

7 items for less that 10% of the cost of one handbag. As I unpacked (and little a little haul video for IG stories) the queasiness returned. All this stuff was crazy; I couldn’t help feeling that not only was it unnecessary but also, this kind of shopping is unethical. So I did a little research.

Half of Mulberry’s products are made at their factories in Somerset which employ around 600 people from the local community. The people working in these factories are generally skilled craftspeople and paid accordingly. Mulberry pride themselves on their intention to ‘build a legacy, train a new generation and invest in the future’. This contrasts with Primark’s previous approach to the people who manufacture their clothes. In the Rana Plaza collapse of 2013 in Bangladesh over 1,100 people died and 2,500 were injured. Some of them were making clothes for Primark. 

However, only 50% of Mulberry bags are made in Somerset. The others (mostly the lower profile items) are made at factories in Turkey where the wages and working conditions are very different from those of their U.K. counterparts. In 2015 Mulberry were petitioned for not supporting these workers when the factories tried to reduce their freedoms and working conditions. Mulberry acknowledged the issue but I haven’t been able to find out whether they did anything about the problem. 

Workers rights and pay is not the only issue. Environmental sustainability is a huge problem. Cotton farming, the mainstay of cheap clothes, lays waste to the environment. Primark is part of an organisation that tries to amend this and support a more sustainable approach to cotton production. But the sheer quantity of demand means it’s impossible to return to sustainable levels easily. 

Meanwhile, Mulberry uses leather and the skins of exotic species (from species listed in the Convention of Trade appendix which ensures the trade takes place ‘without detriment to the species’.) Mulberry seems to take it’s responsibility for ethical sourcing of materials very seriously which is good except of course that however responsible you are in your sourcing you are still, you know, killing it. We can be very fussy about the food that goes in our mouths but it’s easy to forget about the origins of the shoes on our feet or bags on our arms. 

The October issue of Vogue contained an excellent article about fashion sustainability which is also somewhat depressing because it makes you realise how difficult it is to enjoy fashion unless we become deaf, dumb and blind to the lack of sustainability in all methods of production. The chain of textile production is so complex, the article states, that some brands had no idea their clothes were being made in the Rana Plaza until their labels were discovered in the wreckage. It also points out that some of our favourite high street brands produce so much product that any environmental policy they have is only so much lip service. According to the article Zara is the worst offender, H&M is doing the best, if that helps you decide where to shop.

The bottom line is that fashion is about fantasy and consumerism. Neither of those sit well with ethical and environmental sustainability. The conventional answer is to buy less and better quality. It doesn’t eradicate poor working practice and bleeding the environment dry but it does lessen your contribution to it. 

Of course, then we are then left with another problem. The poor. The poor people who make these cheap clothes and the poor people who buy them. If Primark is what you can afford then no amount of middle class me’s telling you to save and invest is going to send you to the Mulberry shop. And the hundreds of thousands of people who make their living manufacturing cheaper clothes are not going to be better off if we stop buying them. We are in a Catch 22. Capitalism reduces people’s living conditions and destroys the environment. However it is also the engine that creates the wealth that allows us to improve peoples living conditions and save the environment. 

I have no answers. But I’m going to wait until consumerist amnesia kicks in before I have another big shop up. It will probably take at least 3 hours ….