I’ve got an ex-neighbour up the road whose family owned a local farm for an entire century. Graham is a salt-of-the-earth character who often tells me about just how tight things were when he and his brother first took over the family farm. He came around for a cup of tea and a scone recently and pointed out the fenceline that, a few decades past, had a huge stand of pine trees which Graham and his brother cut down and milled with an old sawmill they’d inherited from their uncle. That timber went to build sheep yards on their own farm and all the way up our road. Those yards are testimony to that good old Kiwi spirit of just getting it done and mucking in.
As Graham and I were yarning, I had a think about the changes that he’s seen in his 70-odd years. When he was a lad, paddocks were still ploughed by horse, his mother likely made most of the family clothes (and repaired them, to boot) and I’m pretty certain that the majority of the family’s diet was filled from their veggie garden, fruit trees and, of course, paddocks. Maintenance of everything around the farm was done on the farm, and there wasn’t much that couldn’t be fixed with a grease gun and a length of #8 fencing wire.
Fast forward to today and we head to Pak n Save to buy bananas all year round. We don’t think twice about the reality of buying a Bangladeshi-made $10 cotton tee shirt that has circumnavigated the globe several times and relies on poor labour and environmental conditions to achieve its price point. And as for performing running repairs on our vehicle, it’s straight to the mechanic we go. In the space of a single generation, we seem to have lost almost the entire ability to do anything for ourselves without leveraging global supply chains, low-cost labour from the developing world and other peoples’ expertise.
Which all sounds really great, and works a charm. Until it doesn’t. And that is the legacy of Coronavirus, a time in which the fragility of our outsourcing model is discovered for what it really is – paper-thin and heavily reliant on some very marginal variables.
All of a sudden, when our Bangladeshi clothing factories shut down, we can’t get our cheap, throwaway clothing. When the Ecuadorean banana harvest is impacted by their own Coronavirus woes, our fruit options are curtailed, and when our local mechanic is shut down because of the lockdown, we can’t get our shiny new (imported) car maintained.
As I write this, I can hear in my mind the howls of protest from the rampaging mob of free marketeers. “But wait,” they howl “you’re not suggesting some kind of ridiculous neo-Muldoonist return to protectionism and isolationism are you? Remember that the ferries went on strike every single Christmas holidays and the Trekka, the Kiwi knock off of a Russian four-wheel drive, was a disaster on wheels. Surely you don’t want to take us back there?”
And no, rest easy, I don’t envisage a return to the times when we built crappy products on inefficient production lines that people only bought because they had no option. Anyone who suggests that the alternative to globalization is a return to the dark ages is conveniently ignoring the fact that the world, technology and industry, have moved on greatly from the 1980’s.
We now have all manner of technological advances that make the tools of production eminently more attainable and efficient. I’m talking 3d printing, self-contained miniature robotic factories, hyper-personalization and bioengineering. I’m talking AI-powered connections between consumers and suppliers, the ability to disintermediate the consumption process and a world in which provenance and the impacts of production are seen as key drivers to consumer behaviour.
At a time when headline news is being made because yet another fast-fashion retailer is closing many of its stores (in this instance Max Fashions) we seem to have ignored the fact that we no longer have to follow a race-to-the-bottom strategy. Instead, we can leverage technology to deliver what consumers want, where and when they want it.
We’re seeing this in so many industries: Tesla updating its cars via software over-the-air. A growing acceptance of local food supply and seasonal eating. Even, dare I say it, an increasing focus on the fact that, yes, our clothes can actually be made right here in Aotearoa.
My mate Graham, despite getting on a bit, could still swing a farm gate and fix the farmhouse water supply on his own. He grew up in a time when “on your own” was the only option there was. Maybe it’s time to reinvent that way of living?