By Laura Potts

Maintenance grants are a thing of the past and student accommodation costs are rising by the year. Is it any wonder that 80% of students worry about having enough money to get by? As a student myself I am surrounded by people whose rent is higher than their student loan, leading them to make sacrifices on important aspects of their lives, such as their diet. In many cases, students must choose to let their own health suffer as a result of lack of funds.

However, the impact of this lack goes further than just a lower quality of life for the student. A tight budget often does not lead to less consumption of items such as clothing or alcohol – we all want to live the life that suits us, regardless of our financial situation. Poverty instead leads to the consumption of lower quality goods which tend to have detrimental impacts reaching far beyond the lives of individual students.

Many big brands that put clothes on UK shelves are connected to exploitative practices including child labour

Importing goods such as food has a serious environmental impact. Every mile that a product has travelled to be sold adds to the real cost of its consumption in energy use, pollution from transport and greenhouse gas emissions. With 95% of fruit being imported to the UK, it is clear that this model is supported by much of society. Indeed, most of our economy is geared towards supporting it, creating the paradox that fruit from half the world away is often cheaper than fruit from the farms in your county. But we can act to change this. Buying locally is slightly more expensive, but buying seasonally usually isn’t. We must consider the overall real cost of maintaining a culture that expects to get any foods we desire all year round.

Low cost clothing, also has a very high price when we consider the environmental impact of its production, as well as the rights that are often infringed further up the line. The ILO estimates that 170 million children are engaged in illegal or inappropriate labour. Many big brands that put clothes on UK shelves are connected to exploitative practices, including child labour, poverty wages, disregard for worker safety and denying the right to unionise. Students suffer from insufficient provision, and simultaneously have little choice but to support a system that causes far more dire suffering for those that work to satisfy the consumer economy.


Nike workers in Honduras protest unfair treatment Credit: United Students Against Sweatshops

Make no mistake – when we talk about poverty in the UK, especially where students are concerned, we aren’t talking about the same kind of poverty as in the developing world. Though we often lack funds as students, this is not a reason to completely disregard the hardship of others and the ethics of our consumption. We cannot ignore that unethical clothing is produced to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe and the US, the desire for garments that we don’t really need driven ever onward by trends and fashions. But again, this can be changed. If we purchase fewer clothes and be sure that those we do buy were produced under more ethical conditions, we can reduce the amount of suffering we are complicit to. And we can do this without taking a hit to the wallet, by sticking to charity shops for clothes, and the Norwich market or student initiatives for food.

The UK has some of the highest tuition fees globally, and many students do struggle to get by. It is hard to do anything about this, but what we can do everyday is consider where and how much we shop. We are exploited enough by the existing fee and loan system; forcing us into a lifestyle that supports environmentally damaging corporations or exploitative labour adds insult to injury. The corporate obsession with quick profit and limitless growth no matter the human or environmental costs is well documented, and we need not support it. Even those of us with little of it can reject the worship of money.

Featured image by Kate Charlesworth, via Draw The Line

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