How to rebuild the world
We are living in a moment like no other before. A global pandemic, caused by humans’ encroachment on the natural environment, has engulfed the planet. Far from being the ‘equalizer’ some called it at first, it has deepened already desperate gaps in income, education and human rights. Governments have seized on it as an opportunity to fan mistrust in media and restrict civil rights. Meanwhile, the climate crisis is accelerating.
These topics were all covered at this week’s Trust Conference, the flagship event of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and an established human rights forum. If the subject matter sounds gloomy, the day demonstrated that solutions are within our reach.
Livia Firth, Founder and Creative Director of sustainability agency Eco-Age, took part in a panel on how to rebuild economies post-pandemic. She spoke passionately about the fast fashion industry and why its business model is flawed. “Fashion has one of the biggest environmental impacts, and is one of the biggest employers of slave labour worldwide” she said. “If you’re looking for a spectacular narrative, one that follows the twists and turns of globalisation, you need fashion, because nobody tells the truth about globalisation like the cotton growers and the garment workers when they’re listened to, which is rare.”
She spoke about Bangladesh, where an entire population is enslaved by fast fashion brands like Primark, Zara and H&M, in the name of “development”, where they are allowed to dictate conditions irrespective of workers’ rights.
“This business model is completely unsustainable for the planet and for the people, but it’s very sustainable for the owners of those brands who are all multibillionaires” she said.
Instead of emulating Bangladesh, Firth suggested looking at the diamond mining industry in Botswana, an ill-reputed sector that in this country at least, she said had learnt from its mistakes. Here mining companies have formed partnerships with the government, investing profits into the country’s infrastructure to build schools and hospitals.
Undoubtedly the changes came about after the sector’s human rights abuses were exposed in the media. Firth believes the same will happen with fast fashion. “When brands are not able to tell beautiful stories anymore, people will listen” she said.
During the same session Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development at the University of Oxford, called for an overhaul of tax systems and more collaboration between nations around the world. Trump’s defeat in the US is a big blow to populism, he said, but with 71 million people still voting for him we need to look at the reasons for its rise – the increased divide between rich and poor, with populist leaders mobilising the vote by rallying against a “corrupt elite” (while leaders such as Trump simultaneously fill their pockets.)
Taxation was also covered in a session on our increased reliance on technology as a result of the pandemic, and whether we can trust the tech giants.
Safiya Noble, Associate Professor at UCLA and author of ‘Algorithms of Oppression’, stated that even before Covid-19, each year income inequality had “eclipsed the year before”. Now the unprecedented global, social, political and economic inequality we face is being actively exploited by the tech sector.
“Tech companies profit from the worst forms of disinformation and harm. They also benefit greatly from not paying taxes into local, state and national coffers. In fact, they create conditions of instability by not paying taxes.”
She gave by example the area she lives in down the road from Silicon Beach in Los Angeles. “Here in the state of California we are seeing public education, public higher education, public health and public media completely crumbling and vulnerable to financial challenges we may not be able to recover from given the pandemic. And here we are in one of the wealthiest states in the world. Silicon Valley doesn’t pay taxes. By not paying taxes, it weakens all of the democratic institutional counterweights that we so desperately need to address these problems.”
Echoing Livia Firth’s mention of countries in the pocket of fashion brands, Noble cited the catch-22 of cities in financial crisis because of a lack of corporate taxes to fund their communities, that are then forced to attract tech companies to create jobs. “They may indeed bring more white collar jobs, but it’s a handful relative to the rest of the local economy. And then the people doing the essential work are incapable of paying rent and incapable of having housing.”
Addressing taxation is essential to start creating a fairer society, one where it’s no longer possible for the Jeff Bezos’ of the world to become 65 per cent richer as a result of a worldwide pandemic that has devastated the lives of millions. But as long as policymakers continue to be under the influence of the private sector this will never change.
“The same actors that have brought us these problems and who are deeply implicated both personally and in corporate decisions are then put in charge of so-called tech reform” Noble added. “I will remind us once again, that it has been the women, the people of color, and the LGBTQ communities who have been doing the work for more than 20 years, collecting the data and telling these stories, trying to raise the alarm. And yet we are not the people in charge of making better tax policies and other social and economic policies to stem the harms we’ve researched. We have to get serious about these issues, because we’re truly in a race to the bottom.”
Watch recordings of the panel sessions on Trust Conference’s YouTube channel