The tradeable is personal

Ruth Bergan
Senior Advisor, Trade Justice Movement

There are debates raging about the limits of what is tradeable or marketisable: should we buy and sell healthcare, water, ideas? These debates rarely consider goods, yet even a cursory investigation suggests reasons why we should not cede total control of objects to the trade system. Maybe it’s time to reclaim some of that space, turn trade logic on its head and argue that the tradeable is personal.

Recent leaked documents in the UK have brought to the fore arguments about what should be included in the idea of “things that we can trade”. In this case, the argument was about whether or not we should lock in the privatisation and marketisation of the NHS and give US companies a more or less permanent guarantee of access to that market. Similar arguments are ongoing across areas including ‘intellectual property’ (ideas, research, inventions), regulations and industrial policy, to name but a few.

However, it is rare to find anyone questioning the idea that the trade regime should apply to goods, indeed it sounds positively Luddite to even suggest it. We have been making and trading objects for almost as long as we can build histories of people, of course they should form part of the trade regime, or so the argument goes. The critiques that do exist tend to question not trade in goods itself but the sustainability of long-distance trade, and urge localisation to reduce carbon emissions and boost local economies. 

Yet, it is also difficult to identify anything that could be dealt with exclusively by the logic of trade, with no interventions from perspectives of social and environmental justice. Even objects as relatively uncomplicated as a spoon or a t-shirt require a broader approach: both involve complex supply chains which prompt questions such as: where did the wood or metal for the spoon or the cotton for the t-shirt come from? Who mined the metal or cut the wood or grew the cotton? What were their working conditions and those of the people in the factories that produced them? 

An object, like a service, an idea or a regulation, almost inevitably embodies a significant portion of the personal, for better or worse. People expended their time all along the supply chain to produce the thing: if they were very lucky, their labour was compensated for adequately, though for the majority of workers in supply chains, this is unlikely. The workers probably underwent at least a few years of publicly-provided education which equipped them to work in the factories, they have families to take care of and who provide the reproductive labour that allows them to continue to work. There was an impact on the local environment and so on.

This has been brought home to me by a new and entirely uncool hobby I have adopted: crochet. The photo is of a crocheted scarf. I made it because I like the process of thinking about colour and pattern and having a finished, useable thing at the end of that process. It’s also easy to pick up and put down: I can do it watching TV or listening to the radio and I can easily abandon it if I need to deal with a phone call or my young son waking up. 

For me the act of producing a textile object is also linked to my family and cultural heritage. My great grandad was a trader in ‘shoddy’ (a cheap kind of yarn made from the shredded fibre of waste woollen cloth) in a small town called Osset in West Yorkshire. This was at the end of the UK’s period of dominance as a source of textiles. The industry has declined to almost nothing but there are still some yarn manufacturers in places like Guiseley and Halifax. Life growing up in Leeds was connected to the history through school trips and family outings to places like Salt’s Mill, now a UNESCO world heritage site which only stopped producing textiles in 1986, or the Halifax Piece Hall, built in 1779 to trade ‘pieces’ (30 yard lengths) of cloth. 

The history of the textiles industry in the UK was also my entry point for understanding many of the issues that continue to agitate civil society today. The most obvious is working conditions: Titus Salt was reacting to the poor working conditions he saw in other mills when he designed his own mill and model village, which included decent housing, schools and churches. There is also the contrast between the relatively detailed histories of the large mills and mill-owners and the limited histories of the workers. Production that was happening outside of the mills also receives limited attention: there is for example little information about the origins of crochet. One theory is that this is because the technique in fact only dates back to the 18th century but this seems unlikely given that there is evidence of it being used in places as far apart as Peru and China. Another explanation is that it is an example of women’s work simply never being given enough importance to be documented. 

The trade regime takes no account of the historical or cultural importance of goods, indeed it struggles to recognise the role of workers, domestic work and public services in value chains. Goods are reduced to a mind-boggling series of numbers: crochet is referred to many times, including ‘5804 Tulles and other net fabrics’, ‘5808 Braids in the piece’, ‘6001 Pile fabrics’ and ‘6002 Other knitted or crocheted fabrics’. As it happens, were I to try and trade my scarf internationally, it would probably fit under ‘6214 Shawls, scarves, mufflers, mantillas, veils and the like’ – those final three words suggest that the person tasked with coming up with the codes had lost the will to live by the time they got to scarves. 

The baffling codification of goods would be enough to stop me seeking to trade my scarf internationally. But even if I jumped through that hoop, there are other reasons why this good is destined to exist outside of the world of trade. In order to sell my scarf, I would need to decide on a price for it. When it’s finished, it will have taken me fifty hours to make (and will probably have caused me to develop RSI). Paying myself minimum wage and covering the cost of materials, I would have to sell it for at least £460. There are probably people who would pay that much for a scarf, but I don’t know any of them. There is no prospect of me ‘benefiting from economies of scale’, it will be some time before I consider making even one more of them. 

I therefore offer this crocheted item to the IEL pop up collection as a reminder that much of life cannot be subjected to the logic of trade. Even mass-produced goods need to be seen through not just the narrow trade lens but also through those of social and environmental justice. Some goods are, like services and ideas, not ‘things to be traded’ but embodiments of histories and cultures that resist being given a monetary value.