The cult of fashion and the challenge of minimalism

As an environmentalist, I find minimalism a fascinating concept. I define minimalism as the lifelong journey to reduce your material possessions; to live with elegance — only with what you really need or what really gives you pleasure. Books like l’art de la Simplicité, Madame Chic and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying espouse some elements of minimalism as a path to happiness. Clutter creates stress, goes the theory. And who needs more of that in their life?

In this blogpost, I take clothing as an example. I find myself almost constantly looking for something to add to my wardrobe — the damn thing never seems to be complete. What are the barriers that keep me from completeness? I identify seven key ones below, each one harder to overcome than the previous. Together these challenges reinforce the strong cultural narratives we’ve built around consumption which make this prison hard to escape.

1. The unacceptability of wearing an items that looks old or worn out, and the unacceptability of wearing it twice

The fact is clothes get worn out over time, and especially in today’s world with washers and dryers and more frequent washing and drying, and given that fabric quality has even deteriorated in some shops in the quest for lower prices. The fact is that if a shirt has a small tear, it can be sealed with thread and its life can be extended. Instead, we choose to replace it, because we are judged badly by each other for wearing old or faded clothes. And because fast fashion has often made a new purchase less expensive than a repair.

Another problem is the endless quest for variety — on how we mustn’t be seen to wear the same thing too often. A positive change I have noticed is that some people are now bucking the trend. I smiled when I heard girlfriends at business school saying confidently that they wold wear the same dress to the next ball as they did to the last. And why not?

Alexandra Paul is an ex-Baywatch actress and a deep environmental thinker. In her blogpost on simple living, she recounts an incident of wearing the same dress again:

“About 10 years ago, I was at a premiere, going down the red carpet, and a TV reporter said to me, “I saw you in that outfit at an event last week, Alexandra”. My first instinct was to feel embarrassed, that I had been busted, but then I realized that was silly and I was kowtowing to odd societal rules that say you cannot wear the same thing too often or too close together, and I told him the truth, that I didn’t have very many dresses and that I thought I looked good in this dress. He didn’t know how to respond.”

Suggested Actions:

  • Wear it again, wear it proud
  • Don’t judge others for what they wear

2. The prison of fast-moving fashion

Fabrics and colors fall in and out of fashion making last season’s purchases irrelevant. This means if you wanted to stay current, you’d probably be shopping every month.

Suggested Action: Just ignore fashion magazines and do your thing

3. The proliferation of different occasion wear

I have a number of weddings to attend this summer and so embarked on dress-shopping. “ But you have so many dresses already” remarked my mother. “But none of these are suitable for weddings” I remarked.

Why? Because the fashion industry is about creating a different look for every single occasion. Cocktail party. Ball. Summer lawn party. Day at beach. Night in club. Night in a bar. A first date. Summer wedding. Sister’s graduation. Interview. IPO. Everything requires a different outfit — with accessories, and shoes.

We all know the person in the gym who is kitted out in the most scientific gym gear with their $100 Lululemon leggings and can barely lift 20 lbs, because they only ever make token visits to the gym.

Permit me to point out the obvious: we usually only need a few fabrics for a few different actual differences in physical conditions like temperature.

Suggested Actions

  • Don’t judge and make fun of people who choose to wear odd combinations. Recognize the ‘oddness’ is a perception created by a multi-billion dollar industry
  • Celebrate practicality in your own wardrobe. Look for items that are multi-purpose
  • Challenge yourself to leaving more space in your holiday packing for books/camera/hobbies/whatever and wear the same outfit again
  • In my experience, the only two shoes you really need for a holiday are one pair you can walk long distances in and one that looks good

 

3. The proliferation of different occasion wear

I have a number of weddings to attend this summer and so embarked on dress-shopping. “ But you have so many dresses already” remarked my mother. “But none of these are suitable for weddings” I remarked.

Why? Because the fashion industry is about creating a different look for every single occasion. Cocktail party. Ball. Summer lawn party. Day at beach. Night in club. Night in a bar. A first date. Summer wedding. Sister’s graduation. Interview. IPO. Everything requires a different outfit — with accessories, and shoes.

sneakersmodel.png
Apparently some types of sneakers can work with some types of dresses, but only if you look like a model already

We all know the person in the gym who is kitted out in the most scientific gym gear with their $100 Lululemon leggings and can barely lift 20 lbs, because they only ever make token visits to the gym.

Permit me to point out the obvious: we usually only need a few fabrics for a few different actual differences in physical conditions like temperature.

Suggested Actions

  • Don’t judge and make fun of people who choose to wear odd combinations. Recognize the ‘oddness’ is a perception created by a multi-billion dollar industry
  • Celebrate practicality in your own wardrobe. Look for items that are multi-purpose
  • Challenge yourself to leaving more space in your holiday packing for books/camera/hobbies/whatever and wear the same outfit again
  • In my experience, the only two shoes you really need for a holiday are one pair you can walk long distances in and one that looks good

4. The belief that looks can be compensated for by fashion

My view on this is that you can fool all the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. The astute observer, your partner, anyone who lives with you, they all know what you look like. The right clothes and hairstyle can only disguise you so much.

Suggested Action: Accept yourself as you are. And then you’ll need less fancy stuff to hide it. The key is also to accept other people the way they are. When you don’t accept others, your perspective is that they don’t accept you. When you accept them, you realize it’s both possible and reasonable that they accept you.

5. The general obssession with looks

We search for art in people, sometimes forgetting that beauty can be found elsewhere too — in nature, in paintings, in sculptures, in structures. The beautiful face is every culture is the average of human features. We’ve glorified it so much forgetting that very few people will actually be this average.

Have you ever seen an airline ad where the air hostess has a bigger than average nose or smaller than average eyes?

The real beauty campaigns that are finally gaining some traction are still far behind in my opinion. Aerie real campaign pictures present attractive girls with a tiny bit of cellulite and they’re like “see, it’s ok”. The real challenge is to show someone ordinary on multiple dimensions. The real challenge is to sell women products that appeal to their competence, their skill, their willpower, rather than their desire to be beautiful.

realbeautycampaigns.png
Left: Aerie real’s campaign features women with small imperfections, but are these really that big a deviation from standard billboard images? Right: Singapore Airlines’ perfect flight attendant

I’m a big fan of writer Laurie Penny’s views on this real beauty stuff:

“Rather than fighting for every woman’s right to feel beautiful, I would like to see the return of a kind of feminism that tells women and girls everywhere that maybe it’s all right not to be pretty and perfectly well behaved. That maybe women who are plain, or large, or old, or differently abled, or who simply don’t give a damn what they look like because they’re too busy saving the world or rearranging their sock drawer, have as much right to take up space as anyone else.”

Suggested Action:

  • Be the change you want to see — catch yourself when you are judging someone based on their looks and correct it

6. Not realizing the true cost of things

A fundamental driver of over-consumption is simply that a lot of us can afford items at the price they are sold. The problem is the price at which they are sold is not their true cost.

We don’t realize that everything we consume has a cost for the planet. Products don’t drop from the sky. They are made from materials in the earth and a lot of waste is produced in the process. I think if most people knew the details of how denim is produced, they’d be appalled and ‘need’ fewer jeans.

chinalesothopollution
First photo: Xintang, a Chinese city that produces 1 in 3 of the world’s jeans: “Huge amounts of polluted water flow out untreated from the factory into the East River” – Chinanetdaily, 2013. Second and Third photos by Robin Hammon , http://www.robinhammond.co.uk, are of Lesotho. He says “At rubbish dumps in Maseru, children as young as 3 pick through waste products thrown away by the garment industry. They are often collecting offcuts from jeans to burn for cooking. The smoke from the smouldering waste reportedly causes respiratory illnesses and eyes to sting and weep”. 

Incidentally, Alexandra Paul’s documentary “The Cost of Cool” part 2 on YouTube is a good watch. She traces in a simple way how T-shirts are produced from cotton.

Suggested Action:

  • Get educated on how products are made and spread the education

7. The fact that our entire economic system is based on consumption

The deepest challenge is that, to some degree, we are all condemned to the anti-minimalist life because it’s hard to change a behavior when you are one piece of a giant system.

Our whole economy is built on excessive consumption. You open up the The Economist in these days of economic gloom and you see writers lamenting about manufacturing indices falling; about how governments need to give people tax cuts; about the tragedy of people not spending enough. People’s jobs and hence their ability to support their families depends on endless consumption. This is the greatest tragedy of all. From it stems the greatest unanswered question of all: Does it have to be this way? Is this how value is created in the world? Through endless production and consumption of material goods? Or can we shift more towards experiences and towards the shared economy perhaps, or something else we have yet to imagine? What could another economic system look like? Even more fundamentally, is the point of an economic system to produce ever-more stuff or ever-more happiness?

Suggested Action: If you have a solution to this one, please let me know…Unresolved as this is, I still feel on balance we do more good than bad by consuming less than more.

So here we are: in the shackles of a society still obsessed with conspicuous consumption, wanting to break free but unable to because of a kind of tragedy of commons. It’s only good for me to stop buying shoes if we all decide that sneakers (any type) with a dress are fine. And I hope we will decide for ourselves and those around us that we need less than we initially think we need and we can shop less and spend our money better. Change starts with the individual. The herd only moves when the individual animals at the front start running. And so my run begins…

References

  1. Simple Living thoughts by Alexandra Paul

http://alexandrapaul.com/activism/simple-living/

2. Laurie Penny on beauty: I don’t want to be told I’m pretty as I am. I want to live in a world where that’s irrelevant

3. The denim capital of the world: so polluted you can’t give the houses away

https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/6283-The-denim-capital-of-the-world-so-polluted-you-can-t-give-the-houses-away

4. The dark side of denim

http://www.robinhammond.co.uk/the-dark-side-of-denim/

Photos from: https://www.ae.com/featured-aeriereal/aerie/s-cat/6890055 andhttp://pointmetotheplane.boardingarea.com/2013/06/07/becoming-a-singapore-airlines-girl-training/

 

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Homelessness, poverty and crime in the world’s richest city, and what it says about the unequal world we live in

For the past six weeks, I’ve been living in San Francisco and loving it.  It is important to note however that San Francisco is really two different cities. There is a city of progressiveness, leading-edge technologies and business models, wealth, beauty, abundance, fancy restaurants, organic, vegan food, weekend hikes – the city I’ve been loving.

And then there is then the city of cold breezy nights spent on the road; moving one’s stuff around in a shopping trolley; rummaging in bins for food and recyclables; lining up in the Mission waiting for the truck for day workers and hoping you get picked for a job today. There is a city riddled with pain; poverty; addiction and untreated illnesses juxtaposed cruelly with the lifestyles of twenty-somethings on six-figure salaries.

If you walk around San Francisco, you also get a sense for how normalized this juxtaposition and inequality has become – it’s almost as if everyone just accepts this is the way of life. There’s no sense of change or ‘we must do something’ or ‘this can’t go on’ in the air.  There is a sense of ‘we must install better burglar alarms’ in the air. A few locals have commented on the gridlock in local Government here. Mostly, we, like our politicians, are resigned to this never-ending tragedy. It’s the people who’ve known and lived in other cities that point out how grotesque this pain and crime-ridden equilibrium is.

My goals in this blogpost are to share my observations on the dark side of the city – something we don’t talk about enough due to our moth-like attraction to glamor; to argue that this is a relevant issue for everyone – the rich are delusional if they think they are insulated from this mess; and that we must do something because even if you (falsely) believe you can be insulated, it’s a moral issue.

The impossibility of insulation: one person’s poverty translates somehow into everyone’s poverty

Last Sunday, my friend parked his car in pretty Valencia at mid-day. He returned to a broken window and all his belongings (laptop, clothes, passport) stolen. I felt terrible just hearing this story, let alone having gone through it myself.Not only did he lose his material possessions, but also photos on his laptop of all his travels. Irreplaceable. And it’s not unusual or a one-off. Colleagues tell me about break-ins to their cars, to their houses, of bikes being stolen. “Never ever leave a bike parked out for more than a few hours in the day, or over night” said my Landlady when I moved in. Another classmate had his car window broken into when parked outside a restaurant whilst we were having dinner.

People tell me they’ve moved to the East Bay to avoid being in the city which is “ruined by the homelessness and destitution” you encounter everywhere. Ten minutes walk from my office in the Financial District, is a small strip of a refugee camp of homeless people – near 1st Street and Mission Street. Civic center is full of people ‘living in a different reality’, and people talk of the Tenderloin as a place to be avoided, despite its good bars and restaurants.

Everyone is affected, no one is insulated. San Francisco is a microcosm for the world, where the rich invest ever more in security systems and guards to protect their lifestyles from the hungry and desperate poor.

Poverty, Escapism and Illusion

I’m a well-travelled person and I’ve seen and known about poverty – in India, in Mexico, in Bolivia, through my volunteer work at Oxfam GB. But nowhere have I seen so many people who are coping with poverty by escaping its reality through substance abuse.

Nowhere have I seen so many people talking to themselves on the street, or talking to other people. Nowhere have I seen so many ‘crazies’. Whether you hate the word or think I’m being judgmental aside, the truth is the truth. Certain behavior is out of the realm of usual human interaction and well, we have a word for it: ‘crazy’.

There is a ton of ‘crazy’ in San Francisco. You see people yelling on the streets. I saw a woman at the Embarcadero going up to different sea-gulls and yelling at them. Yesterday, whilst walking in Valencia, a man looked at me and screamed ‘I see middle-eastern, Mediterranean!!’ (I’m so obviously Indian so this is also a sign of craziness). It was scary.

A classmate told me the story of a 40-year old man he saw on the street blowing bubbles and looking excited and happy. We sighed in sadness hearing this story.

Despite the substance-induced illusions of a fraction of the poor, I would argue a higher proportion of the rich are under the even more dangerous and unsophisticated illusion that they somehow deserve their wealth and poor people deserve to be poor. They’re also unaware of how complicit we are in a capitalist system that keeps the poor poor, and lets the rich get richer – but the rotten core of modern capitalism is another blog-post for another day.

The moral issue of poverty and inequality

If we would just step back and think about this, we would realize what a giant lottery ticket life really is – no one chose their genetic endowment (there’d be an awful lot of white men in the world if we did!) & no one chose their family background or the random events that would shape their life. Mostly, we were assigned, and some of us had to make do with a rubbish assignment AND then get constantly punished for it by the well-assigned blaming us as if it was our fault.

That’s how I feel about poverty for the most part – that if we’re better off, instead of being smug or rubbing it in, we should help those who are not and recognize humbly it could have been us.

My night-time trips to Patiala

Some nights I go to 45 Bank Colony, Patiala, my paternal grandparents’ house for tea. It’s my favorite house. It’s a humble and sweet mid-sized house with a metallic gate, a plaque with my grandfathers and fathers name on the outside and a little veranda with 2-4 chairs depending on the day. My grandparents like to sit on the veranda and read their newspapers and books and entertain guests here. Spring evenings are just lovely in this Patiala. Temperate, warm, beautiful, with birds and flowery plants, with colour and life.  This house is a respite and contrast from the skyscraper impersonal rush of the grey modern world which I sometimes feel is like a low-concentration poison I’m made to swallow and pretend it’s great. Time in this house stands still and there’s a charming tranquility to evenings and nights. There’s no abundance of material wealth, but there’s an abundance of time, and who really needs a ton of shiny stuff to be happy anyways? Sometimes you just need tea with your grandparents on a nice veranda in a friendly neighborhood.

Sometimes, I get the bus from Nottingham to Patiala. It takes about 30 hours to get from Nottingham to Patiala, and it’s always annoying when I think about how long it takes, but I do get there somehow without it feeling quite like 30 hours, though I know it is 30 hours. It’s also annoying how sometimes I barely make it to the bus-stop in time. The journey to Patiala is riddled with anxiety – will I find the bus stop? Will I get on the bus? Will I remember to make any changes on the way? It stops in different countries on the way. One time I missed the change in Tajikistan and have to run behind the bus with my stuff. One time I stopped to buy lamps and carpets in Azerbaijan on the way and the nearly missed the next bus. I sometimes watch the landscape with some interest – so much to explore, such a big world. But mostly I’m just restless to get to my destination, Patiala.

What a voyage
What a voyage

Anyways, I’m pleased when I get to the door of Bank colony and it’s open. I walk in and I’m so happy to see my grandparents there. Sometimes they’re both there, sometimes only one is. They’re alive! I’m ecstatic when I hug them and we hold onto each other. My grandmother used to be very ill and that’s how I remembered her from a few days/months/years before. (Time acts weird in this world so who knows how long it’s been since the last visit). But she looks well often on these trips. She talks. She is on her feet, no walker. I mean, she’s still her, she’s small and delicate, but she’s healthy. My grandparents pour me tea and get biscuits, and we sit and talk about all types of things.

Sometimes, other family members are there in the house too and I look at them and look at my grandparents and smile at them reassuringly, as if to say of course they’re alive. Everyone thought they were gone forever, but they’re here, alive and well. I smile because it confirms what I was thinking: such terrible things as death could never happen. Life would never be so cruel as to permanently separate people who love each other. It’s just hard to access them, because this house is far away but they’re always here in Bank Colony. You just have to make the effort to get here. I’m sad to leave the house. It’s really annoying I have to get back to work or to school in Boston. I sometimes fly from the International airport at Patiala and they all come to see me off. I wave sadly when that happens, and wish I could stay for longer.


….Of course, this all sounds ridiculous and it’s because it’s a dream. A recurring dream that I have every now and again. My grandmother passed away in 2008. My grandfather passed away earlier this year. Both times they broke my heart by doing so. When I wake up from these dreams, I’m left with an indescribable feeling that can only be vaguely approximately described as hope mixed with regret. And a desire to see that dream again, make that trip again.

Vadepapa in the courtyard at Bank Colony
Vadepapa in the courtyard at Bank Colony – 2014
Vademama, Me and Mummy hanging out in 1991. Good times.
Vademama, Me and Mummy hanging out in 1991. Good times.

The Vortex of superficiality: fur, cut flowers, manicures and the quest for worldliness (Part 2)

In my last blog-post, I looked at superficiality in the realm of career and relationships (incl. friendships). (Go read that first before this one, otherwise it’s a choppy read). Of course, superficiality is wider than career or relationships. Superficiality is a lifestyle, a shallow way of being. It affects how you think, what you say, what you do on the weekend, what you eat and what you think you like or need or want.

The rise of the intelligent lifestyle person

I observe the phenomenon of this particular type of person. You know them. There are too many of these people, usually in Starbucks, usually like to read ‘Intelligent life’ and feel good about themselves being intellectual. (Ok, that’s a bit unfair, the magazine does have some good articles, but mostly it’s written super-pompously on topics that are meant to be intelligent but are often just fashionable). Anyways, back to the species in question…these are people who have high-powered jobs; are always ‘having brunch with friends’ on Sundays and know all the good restaurants in town. And have absolutely no cause they actually care about in any deep way. Or they have a few causes they care about but don’t do anything about because they spend their free-time visiting art galleries even though they’re not really into art or getting drunk in posh bars.

My view is you can’t spread yourself too thin in life. If you spread yourself over too many activities, you acquire no depth in any. And whilst it is important to have phases where you try a bit of everything for fun and to learn about yourself, it seems excessive to spend several years just flitting around being fashionable and not actually being passionate about something.

The resource drain from keeping up with the fashionable Jones’

Being superficial extols a drain on our personal resources as well as the planet’s resources. I’m going to look at a few examples, take them with a pinch of salt as they’re very heavily my views.

There are certain things I will never do though they are the fashionable thing to do. Examples include wear real fur; buy cut flowers for myself; pay for a manicure. I have varying degrees of resistance to each of these. The first one is based on my abhorrence of the cruelty of production process for fur. I have a few friends who wear real fur, but I do hope if they knew how it was made they’d choose otherwise.

On cut flowers, I just don’t get why people buy something that is designed to perish in a few days and why land is dedicated to growing these symbols when it could be used to grow food-crops. And why flowers are put onto a plane from exotic locations in Africa to reach Western markets — that’s a hugely carbon-intensive gift. It’s become the thing to do. ‘I took flowers for my mother’, ‘My boyfriend bought me flowers’. I did this last November for my mother’s birthday because I thought it was the thing to do – I ordered cut flowers for her from here in Boston to deliver in Nottingham. I did it because it was the established cultural way to express love for my mother… even though I know very well she is a plant-lover and hates cut flowers! Next time, I stick to buying a real potted plant that actually lasts.

The third is a far less serious quirk and an observation I want to make that many people may rightfully disagree with. I’m using it more as an example, not that I feel so strongly about manicures per se. A manicure is essentially someone filing and painting your nails and usually charging north of £20 for such services in the UK and north of $30 in the USA. This may make sense for women with money to procure (though I’d rather just paint my nails myself), but the surprising thing to me is that many of the women in manicure salons in the UK are not that rich. And quite often they are non-working women of lower socio-economic strata. They’re out there paying good money for someone to paint their nails. It’s a thing to say ‘I need to get my nails done’. Though no one needs to get their nails done. It’s an aspirational cultural trap that many of these women are in. To get their nails done and then to show other women that they got their nails done.

It’s the same reason we pay extra sometimes crazy money for a T-shirt with a little crocodile on it, or pay stupid amounts for designer sunglasses. For some reason, it’s really cool in our society to spend a lot on money on things that have not-that-much-higher a production cost than their non-branded equivalents…..oh wait, the production cost might be higher because these brands have to spend tons of money on billboards to bombard you with images…..

This is what you need to look like. Always cool, always put-together. And this is the expensive hand-bag you absolutely need.
This is what you need to look like. Always cool, always put-together. And this is the expensive hand-bag you absolutely need.

Another borderline superficiality fashion is exotic food names. I’m entertained when we go to a restaurant and someone reels off foods they love from around the world: sashimi, tempura, gyoza…..on and on….tsunami. I’m just like *head explode, cannot store all this cultural knowledge*. Partly it’s impressive, but partly it makes me think we’re under so much pressure to be cultured, to be worldly, to have references that all ‘cultured, worldly’ people can share. It’s incredibly fashionable to talk about one’s favorite café in Paris, or one’s favorite club in London. That’s not an issue if it’s genuine. But you just have to ask yourself: How much do I really like that £10 hot chocolate? And how much is it just the cool thing to say?

The questions

Hair doesn’t blow backwards all the time in the wind; you can’t charm everyone in a conversation; you can’t be right all the time; you can’t walk in heels without tripping all the time; you can’t look cool doing everything.

So we have to ask ourselves:

  • How much of what I spend my time and money on is of real value to me, and how much is superficial go-with-the-crowd stuff I do to fit in?

On my approach to others:

  • How much do I judge people by the superficial? By how ‘put-together’ they look? By who their friends are? By where they work? By what they wear?
  • Do I give positive feedback and reinforcement when people are real with me? Or do I dismiss them as uncool?

This also begs deeper questions for which I have no answers like:

  • Why do we crave beauty?
  • Why do we then crave something ‘real’ when we have surrounded ourselves with superficial beauty?
  • Why do we follow fashions that have no underlying value?
  • Why do we make fun of sheep following each other and do the same thing ourselves?
  • Why is practically every woman in London (myself included – eugh!) carrying a ridiculously overpriced Cath Kidston bag? (A friend once correctly described my bag as ‘retro granny’. I was annoyed, but he was right).

Some go-with-the-crowd stuff seems essential to succeed, but can we tip the balance a little towards our genuine selves? In the words of Kiara from Lion King 2: “If there’s so much I must be, can I still just be me? The way I am?”

Style first, substance may be: the giant vortex of superficiality

One of the most interesting paradigms of our society is our obsession with style over substance. Few great beings are immune to this pervasive trend. I’m talking about an obsession with looks, lifestyle, kudos, status, glamour and doing things because it is the thing to do rather than for itself.

First, let me say I am as guilty in being complicit with this movement as anyone else, though there are some areas where I see no logic and draw the line and I’m recently making a conscious effort away from superficiality. The superficiality cultural paradigm affects every sphere of your life: career, romance, friendships, personal development, and may be even family life. Thankfully, personally I find my family life to be a respite from the superficial madness of our global civilization, and I think many people do and that’s one of the real beauties of family.

In this blogpost, I try to put some words on this amorphous topic and challenge us all to transcend this small way of thinking where we can, or at least just observe the absurd ways we govern our lives and the lives of others.

Career

“Dress for the job you want” and “Dress for success” are common mantras. Women and men spend good dollars on business clothes. Yet, here’s the fundamental question: Should it matter? Should what you’re wearing, beyond a basic professionalism, really influence people’s perception of how good you are at your job?

Are you a better investment banker in a crisper suit? Are you going to be a better scuba diving instructor if you have a six-pack? Are you a better airline hostess if your eyelashes are longer and more curled?

Yet these are the types of superficial qualities people are judged on all the time. It leads people to spend more time on things like these than on actually being better at the core skills required in their job.

That’s level 1 superficiality. Level 2 is more subtle. Level 2 involves characteristics like voice, tone, confidence.

I’ve been in so many business meetings where some senior businessperson has said something completely content-less or worse, even obvious (“We should focus on the customer”, “We should aim to be world-class”), and everyone has nodded and applauded as if it was a great insight. I’ve been left sitting in the meeting thinking “Well I guess I just didn’t realize they didn’t know they should be focusing on the customer”

If someone says something in a deeper voice or with more certainty or has a more prestigious title, does not mean you should not probe further, challenge them, question them or provide them feedback that it was obvious and you’re more curious on how to implement that recommendation etc.

There’s also the obsession with working in brand-name firms: the PE houses, the investment banks, the consulting firms. Whether you actually learn much from working there or not. You might learn a ton more working at a small unknown start-up, but then you wouldn’t have this badge on your resume. This is another form of pervasive superficiality. I remember a conversation with a friend working at a prestigious investment bank who said he’d basically learnt nothing in his 10 months there – he’d just been doing work like inputting numbers from annual reports into spreadsheets. I’m NOT saying that’s always the case. Indeed sometimes you do learn a ton, and I’m always impressed with PE peers at business school. But there is an upwards bias in perception of how well prestigious organizations train you, simply because of the brand name they’ve established. Sometimes the training is actually minimal. And sometimes your success is due to you being smart rather than them making you smart.

Another one of my bugbears is how the private sector has come to represent everything that is efficient and cut-throat, whilst non-profit work is considered ‘soft’ or not as efficient. There’s likely some truth to the stereotype BUT there are also tons of smart people having a much greater impact on the world through non-profit work. And anyone who’s worked or experienced private-sector companies knows there is a ton of waste and inefficiency in those organizations too. So I wonder if some day, people at my stage in their career will be able to follow their heart into working on conservation or a cause they really care about straight away, and learn and grow and develop on the job, without having to do the mandatory 10 years or so in the private sector just to gain some respect from people. “I learnt from the private sector and applied it to the non-profit sector” has become such a mantra. But can’t a person learn from an efficient non-profit and apply it to the wasteful large enterprises we see in the private sector? Just saying…There’s a superficial, sometimes unfounded, bias towards the private sector.

The wider theme here is the use of heuristics and signals rather than first principles case-by-case reasoning when evaluating candidates for jobs.

Oh and the whole money thing…I could be happy on a decent salary. But then I can’t afford to go on luxury cruises with my rolling-in-the-dough friends who can’t understand they need to sometimes adjust their lifestyle downwards to be more inclusive. Superficiality and the desire for money to fit in is affecting and will affect our career decisions sometimes more than it should.

The first in a series of paintings at HBS I will present in this blogpost. I classify/interpret these paintings in the theme of superficiality. (Not sure if the artist intended that).
The first in a series of paintings at HBS I will present in this blogpost. I classify/interpret these paintings in the theme of superficiality. (Not sure if the artist intended that).

Romance & friendships

Let’s talk then about how relationships start and which ones don’t…

One of my friends is a hobbyist match-maker. She has a whole database of single men and single women. And many of them continue to be single and continue to turn down people she suggests they meet for coffee. The reason? They don’t like the look of the person she suggests and therefore reject people on the basis of their Facebook profile picture. Confession: I’ve been one of those people. Not outright reject, but like I couldn’t really be bothered to meet the person because I’d decided that that’s not the genome code I want to mix with mine. In the spirit of candor, I also know I’ve been rejected on such grounds many times.

This is how men and women think. Whether they want to confess it or not.

An entertaining aspect of this superficiality is that even if one is not attractive oneself, one wants someone who is. If I had a dollar for every time someone overweight turned down someone else who is on the basis of ‘she/he’s just not in good shape’. Ultimately, most of us converge on some understanding of our ‘league’. Look around at the couples you know – there’s not that much of a delta between their average attractiveness where attractiveness is a function of a number of characteristics including money. Unfortunately, money is weighted much higher in the male function of attractiveness than for women. I can testify to this because women drool over Harvard Business School men, whereas for women it’s something you better hide on the dating scene until you have to say it. But the point is there are so many societal pressures that will prevent you from going out of your league – whether it’s the type of activities your or his friends do; the money involved; or just the feeling of ‘not winning’ if you date ‘below your league’. It’s like relationships have become an ‘attractiveness’ maximization equation, constrained optimization with your own ‘attractiveness’ as its bounds.

A number of male and female friends often ask me whether I think someone they’re considering is ‘pretty’ or ‘hot’. TBH, I usually answer in the positive even if I don’t think they are! Because ultimately it doesn’t matter what I think. If you like them, go for it.

The ‘league’ itself might be a manifestation of superficiality. There is this optimistic school of thought that leagues do not exist, and it’s all in your mind. I agree it’s all in the mind, but if it’s enough minds it’s as real as anything else. Confession: there have been guys who I have absolutely adored, thought were awesome, and not pursued because I felt like they’d never be serious with me because I’m not that fashionable girl that all their friends would expect and it just didn’t feel like it could be sustainable. I’m not going to wake up early to straighten my hair or wear make-up every morning. Not me.

On the other hand, on my own judgment of others, I’ve also had the good fortune of meeting guys who are outwardly nothing special but who have such a charming depth and passion to them, that you just don’t care what anyone else would think. It is possible…just so rare.

The worst is when superficiality extends beyond romance into friendship as it increasingly does these days. There are certain people who it is ‘fashionable’ to be friends with. And there are certain people who it is not. And the correlation coefficient between degree of fashionableness and degree of actual enjoyment hanging out with the person is less than 1. Probably positive, but less than 1.

That’s a pity. It’s a pity when we need to hang out with good-looking people, rather than good-feeling people.

Painting hanging in HBS
Painting hanging in HBS

……Part 2 to follow tomorrow with some deep-dive observations into particular examples from my life and questions to ponder over…..

Of Designer bags and respiratory illnesses: reflections on Beijing and the environmental movement

Earlier this January, I was in Beijing for a business school project for 10 days – a cultural immersion. On day 4 in Beijing, my lungs hurt. Being in Beijing on a bad day is like smoking a pack of cigarettes. This phenomenon is made worse by the fact that many people smoke cigarettes too (presumably because one pack of cigarettes is not enough). Our driver, for example, smoked in the car whilst he was waiting for us. I decided to wear my mask in the car too.

We continuously checked our apps for the air quality index and days where the air was ‘unhealthy’ were common.

Hello from the Summer Palace, Beijing
Hello from the Summer Palace, Beijing

I’ve done some work on air pollution before when I was working on the New Climate Economy project, on the report ‘Better Growth, Better Climate’ (newclimatecnoomy.report). In this blogpost, I tie back some findings from the report to some of the issues I experienced.


Let’s not be arrogant: air quality is a problem in many places

Although we bang on about Chinese air, let’s not be arrogant: a little known fact I came across whilst working at the New Climate Economy is that none of the world’s top 50 cities by population meet World Health Organization (WHO) air quality standards. Check it out (click on it to make it bigger):

This data is from various environmental agencies in these countries, mostly from 2011. It was compiled for the NCE project specially.
This data is from various environmental agencies in these countries, mostly from 2011. It was especially compiled for the New Climate Economy project.

Note: There are many types of air pollution metrics, and indeed air pollution varies even within the same day due to wind etc. These figures should be taken illustratively more than worth arguing about to decimal points. What they do show is that a number of cities are worse than Beijing. For example, Delhi is worse than Beijing!! It just didn’t get much media attention until lately (see: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/17/india-launches-air-quality-index-to-warn-over-dangerous-pollution-events)

The false tradeoff and outdated worldviews

There is a prevailing view that there is some kind of trade-off, that you can either have growth or good air not both. The findings of the New Climate Economy project were resoundingly that this trade-off is often false. Here I look at what I believe are misconceptions.

1) Misconception: “It’s a conscious trade-off they made”

My response: Really? Imagine for sake of argument there was a trade-off. Do people prefer to have a Louis Vuitton bag on their arm via a $80K salary instead of a $60K salary, rather than clean air to breathe? You’d have to really love LV…Do people want their children, their elderly relatives, their loved ones suffering from the myriad of respiratory illnesses associated with such dangerous levels of air pollution for the sake of driving a new car on already clogged streets? I suspect this is a horrible situation people have fallen into rather than consciously chosen

2) Misconception: “If they did something about the air pollution, it would take a few points of GDP growth”

My response: Well, actually air pollution costs China. The World Bank estimated that environmental degradation costs up to 9% of GDP, through health damages, soil and water degradation. Other studies have put air pollution alone as costing around 4% of GDP. Treating people for lung cancer is not free, and sick days reduce productivity.

The GDP costs could be even higher. Here’s a weird economics thought I’m grappling with: there is a paradox in the way we measure output: that extra doctor’s appointments count as extra GDP… Is that right?!

Also, there is the fundamental question of is GDP the right thing to measure? Are we trying to maximise GDP or wellbeing and happiness? Air pollution significantly damages wellbeing and happiness. Some noteworthy findings reported in the Telegraph in a 2014 story:

a) China’s ‘airpocalypse’ kills 350,000 to 500,000 Chinese people prematurely each year.

b) Between 2002 and 2011 the incidence of lung cancer in Beijing near doubled.

c) Nationwide, deaths from lung cancer have risen 465 per cent in the last three decades.

I’d say that’s quite a heavy price to pay.

3) Misconception: “Wind and solar are just so pathetic and ineffective they could never provide all the energy needed”

My response: Let’s not think in a binary way about issues. Most sensible environmentalists are not proposing switching off coal over night. The concept of transition is well heard in the environmental field, too well heard perhaps. I believe transitions should not be drawn out and slow when they involve human health.

It’s 2015. Renewable technologies have experienced rapidly falling costs and have improved in terms of power generation capabilities. Financing mechanisms are being developed and the innovation continues. The renewables industry is dynamic. Yet very frustratingly, public and indeed even politician perceptions have not kept up. Renewables will not need the kind of Government financial support they’ve needed in the past forever. Yet they need different types of sensible Government and public support now to take them to the next level. With the right policies and institutions, they can thrive. Indeed, new wind and new solar are already cost-competitive with fossil fuels in many parts of the world.

“Achieving Germany’s solar PV build-out today would cost a third of what Germany spent over the past decade – and potentially much less in a country with better solar resource.”

– ‘Better Growth, Better Climate’

Let’s look, for example, at wind turbines. Their power generation capability has gone up 100x since the 1980s:

Infographic from newclimateeconomy.report
Infographic from newclimateeconomy.report

It is not inconceivable that nearly 100% of energy could come from clean sources…if people stop holding us back with their blanket view that it’s just not possible because we haven’t done it up until now. If you don’t trust me, trust someone who has actually led the solar revolution in Germany (the largest solar power generator in the world): Herman Scheer. His thesis? 100% renewables is possible and we should not aim for any less. (His book lays out how: The Energy Imperative: 100% renewable now by Herman Scheer).

Frankly, naysayers, if you’re defending coal, you are saying “I don’t believe the human race is ingenious enough to be able to generate energy in any way except for the most primitive which is to burn stuff we dig out of the ground in a fire”.

4) Misconception: “Solar panels and wind turbines take so much energy to produce it’s just not worth it.”

My response: Let’s settle this once and for all. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the most respected authority on climate change matters. They cite studies that worked out the lifecycle emissions associated with different forms of electricity generation. Lifecycle emissions include the average emissions associated with manufacture, transportation etc. You’ll see why environmentalists like to talk about coal. It’s MUCH worse than any other form of energy. See below:

Source: IPCC
Source: IPCC

Air, water, soil: the little things in life?!

if only trees

Environmentalism needs a revolution that takes it from niche to mainstream. It’s everybody’s business. So if you are holding your designer bag, thinking ‘this is not my field or interest’, politely, many of us say ‘wakey wakey’ to  you. People are realizing this matters rapidly and educating themselves on environmental issues rapidly. I cannot be arrogant – I learn so much from people I talk to every day about the environment. Fundamentally, the air we breathe, the water we drink, how can this not be important?  Our air, our water, our soil, our planet feeds into everything else: the food we consume, health, economics, happiness, spiritualism, art, culture. The green movement is not just about green, it’s a movement for every colour. Its goal? A planet where humans and animals can be healthy, safe and happy enough to enjoy every colour.

Envrionmentalism being niche is one of the greatest tragedies of logic of our time. Whatever you're doing, it's a subset of the Earth. So if you care about what you're doing and you realize it's all connected, how can you not care about the Earth?
Environmentalism being niche is one of the greatest tragedies of our time, a sheer defiance of logic. Whatever you’re doing, it’s a subset of the Earth. So if you care about what you’re doing and you realize it’s all connected, how can you not care about the Earth?

Disclaimer

The views in this blogpost are mine. Though I leverage some of the exhibits I worked on at the New Climate Economy project, the views expressed in this post are not views of the Global Commission necessarily.

References

http://www.eldis.org/go/home&id=33800&type=Document#.VMVeYUfF9UM

Newclimateeconomy.report

World Bank

World Health Organization

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10555816/Chinas-airpocalypse-kills-350000-to-500000-each-year.html

The gradual destruction of the big blue 70%

Shimmering seas, I look out into the distance. I’m on holiday in the Dominican Republic with around 70 business school friends and their partners. This is where I decide I need to write about oceans.

Starting with a happy and personal pic first - this was in the Dominican Republic!
Waiting for the speed-boat to gear up in the Dominican Republic

This speed-boat (above) took us to a piscine in the middle of the ocean where we swam, and then to ‘Paradise island’ – a sandbar. We went snorkelling near the sandbar. This was my first time snorkelling. It was awe-inspiring. I kept thinking ‘Wow there’s a whole world under here.’ There was rich coral and fish of different shapes, sizes and colours, and the sound of my own breath. There were moments of panic when I’d forget to breathe through my mouth and think I couldn’t breathe. It made me value air. It made me realise how fish feel out of water.

~70% of the earth’s surface is water. Yet you might have heard scientists say ‘more is known about space than what lies in the depths of our own oceans’. On the whole, we’re land-obsessed, just because we live here. The oceans are neglected in our informationsphere, despite their importance and sacrosanctity. Life started in the oceans. Many deep-sea marine creatures today are very similar to what was around at the time of dinosaurs actually. One eye-feast example is the frilled shark.

Photo from the National Geographic. The Frilled shark - swims at depths of 1500m. National Geographic calls it a 'living fossil' because it looks similar to what creatures around the time of dinosaurs looked like. One was caught in Japan in shallower water once and taken to a marine park. It died a few days later. Beats me how humans are so naive as to think you can just take a creature that lives in immense depths and stuff it in a tank and it'll be ok.
Photo from the National Geographic. The Frilled shark – swims at depths of 1500m. National Geographic calls it a ‘living fossil’ because it looks similar to what creatures around the time of dinosaurs looked like. One was caught in Japan in shallower water once and taken to a marine park. It died a few days later. Beats me how humans are so naive as to think you can just take a creature that lives in immense depths and stuff it in a tank and it’ll be ok.

It’s easy to look into the vastness of nature and make the naïve assumption that we are so small in front of it therefore couldn’t possibly make a dent. But there’s SEVEN BILLION of us (and growing), consuming food, fuel, plastic. The effects our production and consumption decisions have had on the oceans are immense and undeniable.

Whilst working as a management consultant I did a six week project on oceans. This was the start perhaps of my journey into ‘hard-core’ environmentalism. I want to share with you several eye-opening insights about what plagues our oceans today.


 1. Oceans suffer from unbelievably poor global governance – there is no law covering two-thirds of oceans

Beyond 200 nautical miles off the coast of any land mass are the “high seas”.  These cover about two-thirds of the global ocean, amounting to 45% of the Earth’s surface. There is no law governing the high seas. This means any ship can dump any type and amount of waste there. Any ship can pass through waters emitting any type of signal.

Pretty much the only governance around oceans is The United Nations ‘Law of the Seas’ passed in 1982. In essence, the Law of the Seas states: “Each country governs fishing within its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends to a maximum of 200 nautical miles from shore.”  It has not been updated since 1982, despite the way we exploit oceans having changed significantly with modern technology e.g. newly started seabed mining.

Dark blue areas represent high seas - where there is no law. Fish, dump waste, mine, extract marine resources for pharma research here.
Dark blue areas represent high seas – where there is no law. Fish, dump waste, mine, extract marine resources for pharma research here to your heart’s content.

The Global Oceans Commission identifies the key gaps in ocean governance. You’ll be astounded these fairly basic points are not covered currently. Right now there is:

  • no formal recognition of the need to protect biodiversity on the high seas and no mechanism with a mandate to do so
  • no mandate for the establishment of high seas marine reserves
  • no place for emerging uses such as bio-prospecting
  • insufficient geographical coverage and lack of effective fisheries management
  • lack of regulation of ocean noise and its potential impacts on marine life
  • no conservation enforcement mechanism or competent enforcement body, and few or no sanctions against non-compliance.

2. Oceans are treated as the free garbage can

There are at least 5 great garbage patches in our oceans, covering a whopping near 40% of ocean surface. Rubbish collects where ocean currents sweep it together.

Here's a screenshot from the 5 gyres website, illustrating where rubbish collects.
Here’s a screenshot from the 5 gyres website, illustrating where rubbish collects. 5 gyres is a non-profit organization that conducts research and campaigns for reducing plastic pollution.

I’ve started thinking it’d be great if we can do a cruise for CEOs of the biggest companies to these giant marine garbage patches so they can understand first-hand what impact the current ways of doing business are having on our oceans. 

Firstly, the consequences for wildlife are tragic. One study found that nearly all Laysan albatross chicks – 97.5 percent – have plastic pieces in their stomachs; their parents feed them plastic particles mistaken for food

If you believe other species don’t really matter, you still can’t ignore this problem. It comes back to us. Plastic never biodegrades, but degenerates into small molecules. Plankton eat these molecules. Fish eat plankton. Big fish eat small fish. And then you eat sushi. The amount of mercury, plastic etc that you consume via seafood is astounding news to most people.

There's a reason pregnant women are advised to avoid sushi - high mercury levels
There’s a reason pregnant women are advised to avoid sushi – high mercury levels

3. Climate change is not just a land issue. It is one of the biggest problems for oceans – have you heard of Ocean acidification?

Oceans absorb 25-50% of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere (sources vary). Carbon dioxide dissolves in the water creating carbonic acid. This well-documented process is called ‘ocean acidification’ – see the schematic below.

Ocean acidification chemistry
Ocean acidification chemistry

The rising pH of oceans particularly affects coral reef and creatures with shells. Coral reef and shells are made predominantly of calcium carbonate. Ocean acidification reduces the amount of carbonate ions in the ocean for coral and shelled creatures to replace themselves and do repair work. If you look above at the schematic, you’ll notice that adding CO2 triggers a reaction whereby carbonate ions are converted into bicarbonate ions, which creatures and coral cannot use.

The long story short is that coral reefs around the world are degrading rapidly. We’ve lost 27% already (WWF: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/blue_planet/coasts/coral_reefs/coral_facts/). This is reef that took literally millions of years to form, it’s made of the fossilized remains of organisms. And we’re losing it in years now.

I saw a great ad by the Nature conservancy in TIME magazine lately:

Sorry guys couldn't find it online so the quality isn't great. But the message is bang on.
Sorry guys couldn’t find it online so the quality isn’t great. But the message is bang on: 51% of cancer-fighting drugs are derived from nature such as coral reefs.

4. Overfishing afflicts ~80% of fish species – global wild fish production has been declining every year since 2000

Wild catch (fish caught from oceans rather than farmed) volumes are declining year on year (FAO, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010). The decline is due to overfishing. Overfishing is when you fish more fish than should be left in the system to replenish themselves via reproduction.

Tuna Graveyard
Tuna Graveyard – Frozen bluefin tuna at Tsukiji market

Bluefin tuna prices are crazy. In 2011, one bluefin tuna sold for an unprecedented $396,000. As a blogger in 2011 noted:

“In economic terms, perhaps it’s only right that it should cost $20 or $50 or $100 a mouthful to eat what might as well be flesh carved from the last of the unicorns after Noah’s ark has sailed away…. what a waste, I think now, to let this most magnificent of oceanic fish slip away for what amounts to a fancy night on the town.”

Also, certain countries can’t seem to leave even big fish which have slower replacement rates alone. Think about it next time you see shark fin soup. 

We joked around a lot about sharks when were were swimming in the Dominican Republic. But a world with no sharks is far scarier if you think about the big picture of ecosystems.
We joked around a lot about sharks when were were swimming in the Dominican Republic. But a world with no sharks is far scarier if you think about the big picture of ecosystems. Text on LHS: “Horrifying”, Text on right: “More horrifying”.

5. The marine food chain is hardly traceable – you might have very little idea what you’re eating

In 2013, the UK was enraged by the horse meat scandal – it turned out sausages and other meat products people were consuming were not actually the labelled beef or pork but horse. If you thought that was bad, if only you knew how reliable seafood labelling is….Oceana (a non-profit) DNA-tested 1215 fish samples from across the United States and found that a third of samples bought from 2010 to 2012  were mislabelled. In New York, 94% of samples labeled “tuna” were not tuna!! So do you really have any idea which mercury-laden, plastic-containing seafood you are consuming?

6. Ship and submarine navigation interrupts whale routes

I like to think that there are some parts of the earth that have been untouched by our presence. That there are patches of ocean – perhaps in the Pacific – that thing is massive – where fish and marine mammals are swimming around blissfully unaware that land exists, and that we exist. But a little research into shipping routes reveals that this patch could conceivably be non-existent.

Here’s a plot of shipping routes:

Yups, we pretty much go everywhere
Yups, we pretty much go everywhere

Whales and dolphins use sonar to navigate through the ocean. That means they emit high frequency sound waves which bounce of parts of the marine floor and allow them to form a vision of where they are and what their surroundings look like. They also use it to communicate with each other.

Now when a submarine or a ship emits sound waves into the ocean, they introduce confusing noise for whales and marine mammals. This can lead to ‘beachings’ – when whales end up navigating onto a beach. Beachings result in death – needless to say, these are huge animals, and if they end up on land, they can’t get back into water themselves, and over hours, their huge body weight collapses their heart. The water is key to sustaining their huge body weight.

7. Ballast water pollution introduces new species into different environments constantly

Ballast water is the water taken on board ships to help them balance. They then emit this water when they get to a port. This means species from one part of the ocean are transferred to other parts, with sometimes grave consequences for human health and ecosystems. See more: http://www.fao.org/fishery/topic/14776/en

8. Deep-sea mining is taking greed to new depths

Several companies have started mining for minerals in the ocean bed. Examples of the types of minerals mined this way: silver, gold, copper, manganese, zinc.

Destroying coral that took millions of years to form to mine minerals
Destroying coral that took millions of years to form to mine minerals

What can we do?

This warrants a separate long article itself. But there are some obvious things:

1. Don’t eat rare fish species

2. Cut back on seafood – for your health and for the world’s ecosystems

3. Reduce consumption and waste in your life – reuse and find pleasure in other activities besides for retail therapy

4. Care and talk about it – let environmental issues be a factor in who you vote for. And the more you talk, the more it pervades our society’s and our politician’s consciousness as an issue.

Feel inspired? Donate to the Ocean Conservancy here : http://www.oceanconservancy.org/healthy-ocean/


References

For amazing graphs of the world and marine impacts check out: National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis: https://www.nceas.ucsb.edu/GlobalMarine/impacts

The Global Oceans Commission

The Ocean Conservancy

The economics of extinction, one tuna at a time:  http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2011/01/07/the-economics-of-extinction-one-tuna-at-a-time/

Where did life originate http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/0_0_0/origsoflife_03

5 gyres institute: http://5gyres.org/who_we_are/mission/

Coral facts: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/blue_planet/coasts/coral_reefs/coral_facts/

Horsemeat scandal: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-25715666

Ocean chemistry: http://chemistrykb.blogspot.co.uk/