One of The Etho's central goals is to learn about, and to help educate others on, the issues at stake in Fast Fashion. At its core is the issue of global poverty. There is no way that the problem of poverty on any scale can be boiled down to 500 words (let alone the 446 available after this first paragraph). So while not comprehensive, this post will define poverty, outline universally used benchmarks for wealth, distinguish inequality from poverty, and finally, provide some suggestions for taking action to curb global poverty.
WHAT IS POVERTY?
Poverty, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions.” Of course, “a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions” looks differently in Austin, Texas, U.S.A., compared to Rawalpindi, Pakistan or Santiago, Chile. These countries' currencies each have different buying powers or purchasing power parity (PPP). PPP means that if all goods were bought in a common currency (let's say the dollar) their price levels would be roughly equal in the long-term across economic regions. (E.g., a Big Mac should cost roughly the same proportion or ratio of money across different currencies). That is not the case. What happens in reality, however, is that Big Mac costs $1 in the United States and the equivalent of $2 in France. The PPP exchange rate in this example is 1:2.
There is a significant difference in purchasing power between each of these countries based on the power of their currency. Even though all currencies are weighted differently, there is one number that everyone agrees on: eradicating poverty worldwide would mean that every person makes the equivalent of at least $1.90 per day (adjusted for buying power based on the PPP). This level of income does not mean that people and families are making decisions between buying the new sneakers today or buying new sneakers tomorrow. Poverty means making the decision between feeding yourself or feeding your children today. These life or death decisions are made every day by 702 million people worldwide––about one-tenth of Earth's population.
WHAT IS WEALTH?
The U.S. dollar benchmark is convenient for economists and residents of the United States. And there is poverty in the United States, but it has historically been more widespread in the Global South, disproportionately affecting women and children (the same population often working in the fashion textiles industry). These women and children are not only in foreign places, speaking in distant dialects, but also in the United States and in China trying to forge a way forward for themselves and their families. The world is interconnected by fast fashion manufacturing and sales cycles, with textile moving from New Zealand to Bangladesh to France to the trash or the ocean. Still, living in a nominally rich country does not mean you cannot experience poverty.
POVERTY VS. INEQUALITY:
Wealth is relative.
If you currently make $1million but your neighbor makes $10million, you are going to think differently about where you stand compared to neighbors who both make $50,000. According to HUD, you can be a family making six figures in Northern California and still be considered low income. Making $100,000 per year divides out to approximately $273.97 per day––significantly higher than the $1.90 globally accepted as the poverty line.
Obviously, wealth is relative.
Another wealth indicator is inequality. Inequality is the imbalance or unequal distribution in a system. Socially, inequality is seen more readily than poverty because there is always someone with whom you can compare yourself in a particular way. Oxfam says that economic inequality is a major risk to human progress and political stability. With almost half of the world's wealth in the hands of 1% of the population, there is a real national security concern in the United States. Clearly, neither poverty nor vast inequality is going to abate tomorrow, nor, most likely, by the ambitious 2030 deadline championed by the World Bank, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), and its Development Programme (UNDP).
TAKE STEPS TO CURB GLOBAL POVERTY NOW!
Even if poverty and gross inequality cannot be solved or eradicated immediately, there are steps to curb their impacts and improve the lives of many people. Just like in fashion, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, nor is faster necessarily better. There are many questions and their answers can be daunting; but here are 4 concrete actions you can take right now:
- Contact your government officials about raising the minimum wage (you can find your elected officials in the United States HERE!).
- Make a personal commitment to participate in and support Slow Fashion.
- Donate your gently used textbooks to schools abroad through organizations like Books For Africa.
- Spread awareness about how and why to combat global poverty. You're now armed with resources, numbers, and new ideas––you can do this!