ABELLO: A really UGG-ly affair

 

 

Oscar Abello

At the turn of the millennium a single pair of winter boots found themselves in an office somewhere in Chicago, Ill., where winters are notoriously unkind. They were made of sheepskin, and they had traveled all the way from the shores of Australia. In their previous life, they had adorned the feet of surfers fresh from the waves. The boots’ new mission was to wrap themselves around the legendary feet of the woman whose office they had infiltrated. In doing so, they assured their iconic status for years to come. The woman was Oprah Winfrey. The boots, were UGGs.

Winfrey thought so highly of the boots that she immediately ordered another 350 pairs, one each for the staff members of the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” One could imagine she merely wished for her pioneering pair of boots to feel no longer the pangs of solitude; but in subsequent repeated appearances on annual episodes featuring Winfrey’s “Favorite Things,” it became clear that she simply believed every woman must have a pair of her own.

On weeks such as this week, one can peer around Villanova’s campus and gain a sense of Winfrey’s immense power to influence trends in contemporary America. UGGs are everywhere.

UGGs are also an expression of American consumers, who value usefulness at least as much as they value appearance. UGGs are hideous devices. You will not find them trouncing around Europe. But they are warm and comfortable and for that reason they have conquered much of America, starting with Oprah.

They are not just everywhere; they also come from everywhere. Australian sheep produce the wool, which goes to China for processing and assembly into boots. Greek shipping firms own one out of five commercial ships in the world, most likely including those that ferry the wool and later UGGs across oceans. The fuel that powers the ships probably comes from the Middle East.

UGGs are also supported by a first-rate global marketing department, likely fueled by coffee from South America or tea from Africa. When Americans purchase them, they express their sometimes-reluctant acceptance of this global state of affairs.

The thought should not surprise anyone; on this matter, choice is scarce if not fictional.

Globalization is not so much the trend of supply chains running around the world as much as it is the sudden realization that these chains wind tighter than we might imagine. Nevertheless, as certain as Newton’s apple falls from the tree, a world united is better off than a world divided.

Today at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Muhammad Yanus speaks about the Grameen Bank Foundation, an arm of the Grameen Bank System that has brought many to reconsider the role of the poor themselves in their own uplifting story.

By pooling their financial and entrepreneurial resources, the Grameen Bank system helps Bangladesh to weave together the 11 percent of the country that works in manufacturing, 26 percent that works in services and 63 percent that works in agriculture. In many poor countries, lack of access to financial services keeps these populations separate, as they are unable to create small businesses within the social networks that already exist in the small towns and villages where most of the population lives.

Weaving these people together has lifted 64 percent of member families out of poverty, according to the Grameen Bank Web site, with the rest of families on the way.

The weaving together of people to produce prosperity is not always pretty. Sometimes it looks like UGGs. The process itself has potential to look a lot better than smokestacks and mega-container ships, but that would require a critical examination of the choices we make. How many people really purchase UGGs because of how they contribute to the global economy?

For that matter, how many people really purchase UGGs because Oprah says they should? A fair number perhaps. Most, if not everyone, who owns a pair has them at least for their warmth and comfort. If we want something more than warmth and comfort from the global economy, we have to ask. If we want peace and justice, we have to ask; not just from our political leaders but from our business leaders as well, with full respect for the position they occupy in the global space.

You can trust they have the ability to produce anything consumers demand, no matter how pretty or how revolting. After all, they made something as hideous, yet useful, as UGGs.

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Oscar Abello is a senior economics major from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected]