Attempting to Tread Lightly

July 24, 2009

burtynsky2About two weeks ago, I watched the documentary, Manufactured Landscapes. It follows Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky around the globe and examines his beautiful photographs of the seldom seen consequences of globalization (read a full review here). At first while watching the movie I found the images of gigantic factories and mountains of industrial waste to be completely spellbinding and otherworldly. Because I was watching a movie (a medium in which we’re used to seeing completely unreal images projected before us for our amazement), I was just sort of mesmerized by these incredible, impossible seeming images as though they were merely pictures conjured up in a Hollywood studio using the latest computer generated digital imaging techniques. But slowly it began to dawn on me that these unreal images were actually completely real. And the fact that they seemed otherworldly to me was because those scenes do exist in a completely different world than the one we, as Westerners inhabit on a daily basis. But what affected me most about these images was the realization that we, that I, am in part to blame for this horrific treatment of the earth and our fellow human beings.

burtynsky6I haven’t been able to shake off these thoughts since watching the movie. I’ve been obsessively checking the tags on all my clothing and turning everything I own upside down, looking to see where things were made. Without fail, everything was manufactured overseas: China, India, Vietnam, etc. With each new tag I read, my heart sank a little more as I wondered under what conditions these goods had been produced.

burtynsky5This week I went shopping for a new pair of sneakers with all of these thoughts in mind. In store after store, and website upon website, I kept running up against shoes made overseas, usually in China. Even searches for small, supposedly ethically produced shoes led to manufacturing plants in China. I conducted what I consider to be a fair amount of research before buying a product, and nowhere was I able to find a sneaker whose origins I didn’t have at least some misgivings about. I finally settled on a shoe (made in China), which claims to be made from 100% recycled and sustainable materials (old car tires, plastic bottles, bamboo, hemp, etc.) and whose website alleged that all their products were manufactured according to legal (if not ethical) guidelines. I made the purchase, because I wasn’t sure what better alternatives existed, even though I questioned the trustworthiness of this (multimillion dollar) company’s claims. The sad fact of the matter was that they were the best ethical option I could find, but with each step in my new shoes I wonder: is this the best we can do?

Watch the trailer for Manufactured Landscapes below. It is a difficult film to watch, because it poses difficult questions. But ultimately, these are questions we all need to be asking in a conversation which must be had.


Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.

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