Democracy Is In Danger – Let’s Start a Media Revolution


In the center of Helsinki there is a curious sight. On opposing sides of the Helsinki Railway Square two collections of bedraggled tents face off. In February activists favorable towards refugees and immigration gathered to demonstrate, now still standing their ground in tents on the southern end of the square. Only weeks later “Finland First” tents had sprung up on the northern side of the square to counter-demonstrate despite the freezing temperatures and snow that still covered the square in early March. It’s hard not to see the events as symbolic of the attitude climate throughout Europe as attitudes harden and opinions polarize.

Walking through the square, I also find myself rolling my eyes and thinking scornful thoughts about the slogans of the Finland First group, among them EU critical bits – “Fixit – Finnish Exit from the EU”. Do they really not understand what all the EU has done for us? Stable and global markets? Human rights? Peace? Jobs and careers? Academic cooperation and research?  The list could go on …

But sometime later I ran across a video on the internet that really stopped me. In the video a man from Texas, apprehensive towards blacks, discusses why he feels the way he does directly with an African-American to try and change his feelings. The video illustrated how we all have reasons to feel the way we do and to fear the things we fear. And often that fear springs from a lack of conversation and information between us – a lack of open communication. Labeling this man a racist and telling him to get over his prejudices is not going to change his perceptions or help him get over his fears of others as a threat to his community and to his job.

What if instead of outright scorning the feelings of others, in this case even the quite radical Finland First group, I – we – at least heard what they have to say, even if in the end we don’t agree. What if I initiated a conversation where I really sat down with the people I disagree with instead of blaming, labeling or scorning what they have to say? Especially since the rise of social media, we seem to think that there are certain “bad” people who stand for things that we don’t like or understand, and thus everything that they stand for has to inherently be wrong. Opinions polarize and rational discussion disappears.

To really build a solution instead of dividing people, fears and problems need to be addressed from all sides before a solution can be found. There will always be radicals who are not willing to work towards solutions, and some beliefs may be so deeply rooted that only conversation will not change them. But when the media, our window of society, purports viewing the world objectively (which cannot be humanly possible in a world where we all have some background) we tend to view people and their opinions as static, fixed on certain preconceived notions that cannot be influenced. We understand opinions as simply “being” instead of “forming”, when in reality the majority of us do pay attention and consider our position, if someone also takes a moment to look us in the eye, see things from our side and listen.

Like the huddle of tents opposing each other on both sides of the same square, we are unable to meet each other in the middle to recognize that we both have valid points. If you are refugee and EU opposed, it does not matter whether you are worried about proper health care for your own family or jobs for yourself, you are labeled a racist and ignorant, thus denying the validity of your opinion altogether. If you are favorable towards immigration, you are labeled a hippie and an idealist with no real understanding of society.

We tend stick to our own bubbles of similarity; we interact with those of a similar social status and similar interests. When Brexit and Trump happened, they surprised the majority of the population, who just did not see them coming. Journalists worldwide are concerned about following their ethical principle of reporting neutral and unbiased news, but the bigger problem seems to be not saying anything at all about the problems and worries of underrepresented demographics and challenging the valid “truth” about society.

When I travel outside of the metropolitan area, I notice how much of a bubble we really do live in here with our tight-knit city layout, non-stop public transportation, shops open 24/7, medical care just around the corner, and entertainment facilities available for every taste and location. Meanwhile outside of the city areas, Finland stretches on in waves of green and blue countryside with very different worries and ideals. Each election we all wonder why the results look the way they do, why certain political trends happen without actually turning around and discussing the vantage point of the “rest of the nation”, whether city-dweller or country-lover.

Our modern understanding of the principle of democracy can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks. The original “demoskratos” could never be considered democratic by modern standards, as only white males with property were counted as citizens. Nevertheless, the idea that common people should be the ones deciding on government issues and taking part in the forming of government has passed down from the Greeks. Today we define democracy as “government in which people represent by voting”, but a core ideal of the original democracy was that every citizen should have the opportunity to make their voice heard and have the chance to take up a topic for discussion within the Assembly. Discussion was the main political activity of all citizens. But how can we discuss when the amount of participating citizens has gone from thousands to millions?

The demographic gaps in modern society, the trend of increasingly enclosing ourselves to our own spheres, and not openly hearing the rest only drives society further apart. So maybe we should go back to the origins of what democracy meant. To try to hear every voice and understand that for democracy to really work, we need to remember that society is a collection of people of all different backgrounds and with different needs. And for that we need a new perspective on how discussion works – or rather a quite old one; especially starting with public domains of discussion and representation.

Apparently “Value” Is a Four Letter Word Now

Jesper 2

I find myself at a bit of a loss for words. Maybe I spent them all on what turned out to be my longest article yet (but more on that later). Or maybe it’s because I currently find myself in that awkward phase between graduation and finding a steady job. It’s a weird state where you simultaneously feel proud of your accomplishments, but also have an almost disappointing sense of “now what?” Maybe this confused state of mind is why I find myself unable to think of a topic for this note. Maybe I’m not really sure where to go from here. Or maybe I’m being a tad melodramatic.

As I sit here looking at the sun setting behind some trees (by the way, I wish you could see this view), I’m listening to a song by The Mountain Goats called “This Year.” It makes me feel nostalgic for my time at the university, but it’s also a song about charging forward. In between verses of bittersweet reminiscing, there’s the cry of the chorus saying “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me!”

My first year out of university will most likely be defined by the work that I find. Unfortunately, quality work is something that seems to be increasingly undervalued these days. Back in January, Helsinki University announced plans to lay-off 570 employees by spring of 2016, and we’ve recently started to see some of these plans come into effect. It’s an effort to cut costs, but it’s an incredibly short-sighted way of looking at things. Getting rid of education is a surefire way to derail progress. We’re just digging a deeper hole now.

In addition to teachers and translators, this under-valuing can be seen regarding writers as well. I recently saw a series of tweets by an author named James Bloodworth who has written a book on the “difficulty [that] working class kids have breaking into professions because of [the] proliferation of unpaid work.” Because of the urgency of the topic, Bloodworth was approached by the Huffington Post website in relation to writing a piece about his book for them. He was interested until he found out that the Huffington Post would not actually be paying him. Just think about that for a moment. The sheer nerve of that site asking an author to write an article about the proliferation of unpaid work for free. The magical word that they offer in exchange is “exposure.” But you can’t buy food with exposure. But hey, whatever, giving exposure doesn’t cost them a thing. Sweet, huh? They’re essentially saying that the value of their writers is nil and, unfortunately, they are not the only sites doing this.

And I want to make a clear distinction here regarding sites like the Huff Post and BTSB. We’re a none-profit collection of writers looking to better our skills. As a group, we frequently discuss each other’s articles before and after a new issue comes out in order to help each other develop as writers. And yes, many of us might be doing this partially for that magical word “exposure.” Yet the difference here is that there aren’t people profiting from our writing. Every article is owned by the writer themselves, and they are free to do whatever they like with it. Rather than implying that the value of the BTSB editors is nil, I want to make it a goddamned point to say that their work is incredibly valuable. It makes me truly proud to be the Editor-in-Chief of such a talented group of people, and we value our work. We own it. THIS is the way to get exposure, not by helping other people get rich.

Our teachers and professors have been undervalued. Our translators have been undervalued. Our writers have been undervalued. Things need to change, and cutting costs is not the way to go about it. I do hope that we can make it through this, preferably with it not killing our value.

In this issue, we have an excellent variety of topics. For another perspective on writing professionally, you should check out Inka’s article on the qualms with getting the dream job. In other journalism related news, Kaisa takes Ylioppilaslehti to task for yet another one of their stunts. We’ve also got a few travel pieces right in time for the end of the school year, as Eve gives you a tour of Scotland, while Saara returns to tell you all about Italy. On top of that, you should definitely read Emma’s reaction to Anna Paavilainen’s powerful monologue “Play Rape.” If you’re looking for that longest article yet of mine that I mentioned earlier, you should read my piece on the womens’ revolution in professional wrestling that I hope you’ll find interesting even if you’re not a fan. Finally, if everything is getting a bit heavy for you, definitely check out Hanna’s brand new comic strips about living with her cat.

 We thoroughly hope you enjoy this issue. I value it highly.

Most sincerely,

Jesper Simola



The Helsinki Distilling Company Takes Finns from Binging to Experiencing

Despite having stayed up distilling to the late hours on the previous night, Séamus Holohan opens the door to the Helsinki Distilling Company with enthusiasm. He has agreed to show the place around for BTSB and to shed light on the ins and outs of the first distillery in Helsinki for some hundred years. Located in the ever-so-trendy Teurastamo in Helsinki’s Kalasatama, the company started production this past September, despite ongoing renovations at the site. Keeping with the industrial spirit of Teurastamo, the distillery has been set up in the former heating center of the the area – complete with a red-brick chimney that will house the world’s first whiskey-powered sauna sometime next year. According to Holohan, the plan is to create a place that promotes understanding over effect, to educate as well as distill and serve alcohol. The beautiful copper still is to be visible from both the entrance and the upstairs bar, complete with a cabinet and a roof terrace, which is scheduled to open next summer, if all goes according to plan.

Holohan and long-time friends Kai Kilpinen and Mikko Mykkänen, the partner with a degree in distilling, had been talking about starting a distillery in Finland for ten years, seriously for five, but they nearly had the steam knocked out of their enterprise when suitable locales seemed nowhere to be found. Having checked out places with industrial history and picturesque environments in places like Fiskars and Porvoo, everything seemed either too expensive or very difficult to turn into a working distillery. However, when the trio turned their eye to Helsinki, the situation quickly changed. In 2012, when Helsinki served as the Design Capital of Europe, the former abattoir are of Teurastamo became rejuvenated. Seeing the hustle around first-comers like the restaurant Kellohalli, then run by Antto Melasniemi, inspired the aspiring entrepreneurs to bid for the right to rent one of the buildings from the city of Helsinki. The winning bid, of course, was only the beginning of their project.

Holohan is sorry not to be able to offer a taste of their first product, a gin highly praised by both amateur and expert test groups, as Finnish alcohol legislation is not very lenient about the production and serving of alcohol. Holohan calls the regulations draconian, wondering aloud why energy spent on the supposed protection of Finns could not be turned to promoting a healthy moderation when it comes to hard liquor. He quotes education over effect as HDCO’s prime directive several times during the visit, hoping for a better appreciation of drinking culture in Finland which would also lead to a better stance to compete with international brands for private entrepreneurs. One of his pet peeves are raw materials. For example, the Finnish malts he praises and HDCO uses for their whiskey are mostly exported to be used by the immense whiskey industry in Scotland. The malts are made into Scottish whiskey that is then imported back to Finland for consumption. To Holohan, there is no reason why Finnish whiskeys couldn’t be among the greatest of the world – especially if the industry and the regulators would see the potential and act together accordingly.

(c) Esko Suoranta

Séamus Holohan, Carl the distilling pot, and the Helsinki Dry Gin.

It’s not against the law to sniff at alcoholic beverages and Holohan is happy to say a thing or two about the different products HDCO has in the pipeline while I hold my nose over a small tank of gin. Their first brand is the Helsinki Dry Gin, already served in the Teurastamo restaurants Kellohalli and B-Smokery. In Holohan’s words, it’s a smooth, honest gin with lingonberry notes that is equally suitable for sipping as well as gin and tonics. It will hit Alkos in early 2015, as HDCO wants to be absolutely certain of its excellence, but also due to the fairly large production amount that Alko requires. The end result will retail at some 43 euros for half a liter, making it a bit pricier than, say, the Scottish Hendrick’s.

As I raise a bit of skepticism about the popularity of gin in Finland, Holohan is quick to counter by saying that Finns do enjoy lonkero and GTs. Still, he admits that the company has a way to go to bring the variety of gin to the audience, a variety that he compares to that found and recognized in whiskeys. One way to get on to the bandwagon are the HDCO gin tastings commencing in 2015, arranged in collaboration with the neighboring Flavour Studio.

While gin and applejack, a Calvados-like drink made of apples (the excellent Finnish varieties, of course), have been in the company catalog already due to their less extensive maturation periods, the first ten year plan for HDCO naturally includes whiskey. The first batch of a 3-year rye is already in the making with single malt and more to follow in coming years. Sergei, Jari, and Hamidi, the HDCO fermentation tanks, work malts, Carl the copper pot distills, and a legion of French oak barrels nurse the unmatured distillate to become what Holohan sees as a range of whiskey that is not Irish or Scottish, but distinctly Finnish in nature.

Co-founder Kai Kilpinen has on numerous occasions said that a distillery is as central to a civilized city as are theaters and libraries, an idea which the Helsinki Distilling Company aspires to introduce to Finland by showing, hands-on, the processes behind those clear and brown bottles on Alko shelves. Their emphasis is strictly on the experience that different liquors offer rather than the effects Finns (stereotypically) consider most important. On the Teurastamo website, Kilpinen says that they see a middle ground between binge drinking and high-class snobbery, believing that the Helsinki Distilling Company can cover exactly that ground. While the team doesn’t look for for a ton of profit, they are still about to bring something new to the Finnish liquor table.

Chief Editor’s Note: A Tiny Christmas Story


Christmas in Helsinki has always been miraculous to me. Unlike many of my peers, I’m always spending my holidays here. People often feel strongly about having a white Christmas and I admit that for some years now it’s been a gamble whether we get that in our capital.

But I have this strong memory that every single of my childhood Christmas was snowy. Except once and that is the Christmas Eve I want to share with you.

My brothers and I were active Girl Guides and Boy Scouts for years and traditionally some of our members collected the offertories in Tuomiokirkko on Christmas Eve. We lived close by, so we were often asked to help out and I can honestly say that we weren’t too happy about it. But my little brother and I dug ourselves out of our cozy PJ’s, ironed our uniforms, tied our scout neckerchiefs, and headed out. It was dark, depressing weather, the streets were cold and black without a trace of snow. The church went fine, but we were restless to head back home and get on with our Christmas Eve traditions. We were walking back home and talking about how lucky some of our friends were since they were celebrating in Lapland, where surely, there was snow.

And yeah, you guessed right – suddenly, as if it was a Charlie Brown Christmas special, it started snowing.

I’ve been renovating a new apartment, packing, moving, and coughing dust for the whole December, but now I’m sitting in my new place, piles of brown removal boxes around me, staring over my laptop into the yard. The tiniest snowflakes are slowly coloring the scenery and this warm feeling is fluttering inside me.

Let the Helsinki Christmas and winter charm you, skate in Brahen kenttä, when there’s two centimeters of snow, head up to Kaivari or Kaisaniemi for toboggan rides, walk in Seurasaari and go see the big cats being surprisingly active in Korkeasaari, and share some warm drinks with friends in numerous cafés. But most of all, let us all be grateful of what we have this Christmas, brown boxes, dust, and everything.

Join us for the last issue of 2014! As fits the season, Susan tells us a little about not-so-pleasant presents and Ari goes through a list, ahem, alternative Christmas movies. For those of you who are having a hard time me saying Christmas this many times (Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, lalalalala), Laura reviews the latest from Middle Earth, Esko introduces the Helsinki Distilling Company, and Jesper has a confession to make: He totally loves wrestling. Tights and everything.

From all of us, have a Merry Christmas or any festivity of your choice! See you next year!

The City Life – A Stress Factor Or An Opportunity?

The train stops, I step out, the train rolls on again. It’s quiet, surprisingly so. I walk out of the train station and stand there for a bit. Only a couple of cars drive past, and a man walks by, but after they’re gone, I’m the only person there. The parking lot is almost empty even though it’s Saturday afternoon.

This is the town of Toijala in Akaa. Browsing the internet, we can find that Akaa is a municipality in The Tampere Region, Western Finland. Our good ol’ Wikipedia tells us that like many towns in Finland today, Akaa was formed in 2007 in the midst of the global financial crisis as the union of Toijala and Viiala. In 2011, Kylmäkoski, another municipality, joined. Toijala has a population of about 8,000. It’s also where I was born and where I lived for almost 20 years, apart from a brief 7-month stay in England – also in a small village – before moving to Helsinki this year.

(c) Saara Viitanen

The hustle of the city…

Toijala is much like any other small town in Finland. As sad as it sounds, it’s hard for me to think of anything particularly positive to say about it; maybe it’s difficult to be objective when it comes to the place you’ve lived in most of your life. It’s got the essentials, and I can understand why a family of four would want to move there to have their children grow up in a relatively safe, quiet environment. Through summer jobs, I have gotten to see the scale of people that fits in a small town like Toijala. There are the grumpy men who pay for their coffee without saying a word, but also the occasional happy, talkative elderly, who stay to talk for another 5 minutes if it’s not busy, and sometimes when it is busy.

I’ve wanted to move to a big city since my early teens. The need to get out arose from curiosity and frustration. I wanted to do things I felt like I wasn’t able to do in a small town, meet new people and see new places. I realize now that the differences between living in a small town and a big city are evident, but the smallness of my world only hit me after I moved out of my hometown. I’m sure many who have lived in a small town for a long time will agree with me on this: living in a small town is boring. There’s not much to do, whereas a big city is more interesting, especially as a student. There’s always a party somewhere, you can start practically any new hobby instead of just going with the few that are offered, and there are always new people to meet.


…or the calm of small towns?

Now, on a Saturday afternoon, I sit on a tram in Helsinki. There are lots of cars and everyone seems really busy, like always. Ironically, it feels like my life, too, has gotten more hectic in every single way. Again and again, I’m surprised to find how much your surroundings affect you. Every now and then, I consciously try to get out of the rush, the vicious circle, if not physically but mentally. A good way is to do some people watching. You can’t do that in a small town – or at least it’s a lot more difficult. In Helsinki, there are the businesswomen dressed to kill who you can’t help but respect and be slightly intimidated of, the cool hipsters, and the groups of elderly tourists at Senate Square. It’s fascinating to see all the different people from different backgrounds and imagine what their lives are like. In a small town, it’s very likely you see the same faces every day.

When I went to visit my parents in my small hometown for the first time after moving out, I was genuinely surprised to realize the calming effect of silence. When you open the window, it’s quiet. When you walk out the door, it’s quiet. When you walk down the streets, it’s quiet. The air smells fresh and like grass, trees and water, like it’s supposed to smell. It’s refreshing after walking all week in the centre and listening to the noise. I now see nature as even more beautiful and fragile.

It was then that I noticed, for the first time in a long, long time, I was actually enjoying my hometown. Before moving out, I was obviously seeing the world as black and white. At the time, the city life – or my mental image of it – seemed flawless, and I thought I’d never go back to a small town. Walking through the city of Helsinki, I find something to appreciate every day, but I’ve grown from that teenage rebellion to realize that it might just be impossible to find perfection. For now, this is my home, but maybe at some point I’ll go back to a smaller town. Maybe I’ll even switch between the two. I’m lucky I’m free to live wherever.

Re-inventing the Persian-Jewish Death Surf Genre: Secret Chiefs 3 Live @ Kuudes Linja

Secret Chiefs 3 in New York. Some rights reserved by ampersandyslexia

Secret Chiefs 3 in New York. Some rights reserved by ampersandyslexia

Live concerts have failed to impress me the way they used to back in my more impressionable youth. This conundrum was highlighted by the long-awaited performance of my all-time favorite, Queens of the Stone Age (Rock the Beach Festival, Helsinki, 2013), which I can only sum up as a phlegmatic let-down. I wonder whether I’ve developed an understated obsession over sound quality, and that listening to studio recordings on a decent sound system has become the only way for me to get proper kicks out of music. Enter Californian group Secret Chiefs 3. After hearing about their upcoming club gig in Helsinki, I went in with trepidation, expecting some cool live renditions that would ultimately fall short when compared to the phenomenal album counterparts. What I did not foresee was a two-hour instrumental onslaught, which I would modestly describe as the most bitchin’ musical experience of my life. Check out the selected tunes below and kick back, while I dish out a couple of non-subjective points as to why a live performance by Secret Chiefs 3 is better than any music you will ever stumble across (no hipster).

Secret Chiefs 3 (affectionately dubbed SC3 from here on) hails from San Francisco, although the music itself is anything but geographically bound. Trey Spruance, founder and guitar player extraordinaire, hires a revolving door of session musicians, resulting in tasty smorgasbords of genre-hopping compositions – much in the spiritual vein of the late, great Frank Zappa. The band’s styles and influences include surf rock, numerous iterations of progressive rock and jazz, spaghetti westerns, Giallo horror films, trash metal, noise music, Iranian classical music, Jewish klezmer madness, Arabian disco and drum ‘n’ bass – just to name a few! Spruance establishes SC3 as an ensemble comprised of seven smaller ‘satellite bands’, each representing a distinct set of sounds and philosophies. Throw some cosmic mysticism and numerological obsessions over medieval diatonic tones into the mix, and you end up with a collective of wacky shamans who can play the crap out of most instruments and movements known in contemporary music.

Back to the actual concert: the band’s arrival on stage was relatively nonchalant, with many of the audience mistaking Trey Spruance and his hooded cohort for roadies in wizard robes. Greetings and introductions were short and to the point (there were none). And then the band started playing, and the fans saw that the music was good. The cover of a 1960 war film theme, “Exodus”, opened things in Morriconesque grandeur, featuring majestic trumpets and guitar riffs that practically screamed for an accompanying visualization of The Man with No Name riding into some Spanish sunset. Things then spiraled into relative weirdness with “Toccata”, a doomsday piece fusing church organs with death metal beats. The following Middle Eastern tunes, “Fast”, “Balance of the 19” and “Tistrya”, demonstrated just how great off-kilter time signatures and syncopation can be at keeping the awful concert dancers at bay. It is also worth mentioning the interludes between songs, which were short and to the point (there were none).

Given that the line-up consisted of just five guys, the multi-instrumental showmanship was humbling: core member Timba Harris defied specialization by transitioning seamlessly between the violin, guitar and trumpet, while Spruance would occasionally spice things up with an electric saz, a funny-looking guitar traditionally featured in Turkish and Iranian folk music. There is the off-chance that keyboardist Matt Lebofsky was pulling a fast one by churning out pre-rendered samples, but Occam’s razor leads us to assume that the talent here simply kills the competition, especially when blasting through the Dadaist complexities of “Danse Macabre”, “Radar” or “Anthropomorphosis: Boxleitner”. After an experimental mid-portion (including an unsettling cover of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” theme), the set would veer back into the territory of Ishraqiyun, i.e. the satellite band focusing on the badass Persian/rock hybrid stuff. The set ended on a glorious high note with groovy snake charmers “The 3 (The Afghan Song)” and “Vajra”, but the ultimate showstopper would precede them in form of “Brazen Serpent”, which can only be described as a 10-minute extinction event with an abundance of progressive insanity and introspective breaks of serenity. After the ashes of the finale settled over the mesmerized audience, the crowd burst into relentless applause, which was eventually rewarded by encores that were short and to the point (there were none).

The concert’s last minute relocation to Ravintola Kuudes Linja in Kallio turned out to be a blessing in disguise; the unassuming venue deserves two thumbs up for delivering some top notch acoustics. Kuudes Linja is undeniably small for acts with larger egos, yet the intimate physical space was ideal for the no-nonsense supergroup epitomized by SC3. The guitars and keyboards were crisp, Toby Driver’s bass was phat, and Kenny Grohowski was given the perfect aural setting to back up his self-imposed title of “ultimate drumming machine”. Kudos also to the unsung sound guy Eppu Helle, who nailed the sound levels of each song, and who was nice enough to provide us obsessed fans with an indispensable tracklisting of the show <3

Music critic Napoléon Bonaparte once said that glory is fleeting, but obscure bands such as Secret Chiefs 3 remain forever close to the heart of all six people who listen to them. And after such a formidable display of live music, I’ll be sure to give any future concerts the benefit of the doubt. Anyone happen to know the next time Cheek is playing in town?

For further reading on SC3’s records, check out Mark Prindle’s vivid reviews here.

Official Secret Chiefs 3 site

Ethics, Clothing, and the Cash Strapped

In the wake of a series of tragedies in Bangladesh garment factories, a wave of articles expressed dismay at the lack of brand and consumer follow through after the initial outcry. Commenters especially branded a great mass of people apathetic and heartless, pointing to the exponentially growing number of ethical fashion companies while simultaneously stating that consumer habits showed no sign of change.

Aspects of these responses are problematic. Accusing the average shopper of greed, entitlement, and willful ignorance isn’t fair, and worse, it’s a shallowly considered and completely unproductive response to a real and immediate problem.

Before Rana Plaza collapsed, every first-world adult grasped, at least in broad outline, the social, economic, and environmental realities behind their clothing purchases. And the vast majority of adult human beings do have an ethical compass and capacity for empathy. People don’t continue to shop at The Gap, H&M or Zara out of ignorance or callousness, and insinuating such is lazy and unhelpful.

Garment Factory in Bangladesh (Taken by Fahad Faisal)

Garment Factory in Bangladesh (Taken by Fahad Faisal)

Any time I look at a price tag, I see the number of home cooked meals it represents. In Helsinki, a three pack of H&M undies equals three, no-frills, one-person dinners, a meal per pair. The cheapest fair trade, organic underwear I’ve found costs eight meals per pair. It’s obvious that the production of a seven euro pack of underwear took advantage of a series of human beings and poisoned the environment, but my budget doesn’t forgive. And it only covers myself – imagine being a parent compelled to do that kind of math.  When you fall under a certain income bracket, participation in corrupt systems is a necessity.

People who earn less are frequently strapped not only for money, but for time. The oft proposed alternatives to chain shops rely on an abundance of one or the other. If you don’t get lucky, finding a specific item of clothing that fits well and is in decent shape from a thrift store can take hours of browsing and visits to several shops. Making your own clothes or altering items from the thrift store for correct fit requires time to develop skill, time to pour into a project, and money for supplies. As for ethical fashion companies, recently designer Anniina Nurmi broke down the price of a jacket. This is wonderfully transparent, but does not change certain hard facts. 229 euros is one month of food, it’s almost five months of transport to and from school, it’s most of my yearly, migri mandated health insurance.

What to do? Well, behaving ethically isn’t all or nothing. Plenty of people shop at thrift stores but get underwear, socks, and sudden need purchases at chain shops. Others save up for one purchase from an ethical fashion boutique while getting most of their clothes elsewhere. Some people buy cheap clothes and mend them rather than throw them away. Some people sew their entire wardrobe of casual clothes, but a structured work wardrobe is beyond their skill level.

All or nothing attitudes that guilt financially and time strapped people lead to nothing but despair and resentment. It sets up a bullshit moral hierarchy directly correlated to income. It’s a sad aspect of modern life that behaving in a completely ethical manner, respecting human rights, animal rights, and the environment may be the providence of the rich only. But doesn’t every little bit help? There’s no shame in optimizing within your means or doing your best to choose the lesser evil.

So, how do you bring your purchasing behavior and your ethics into rough alignment on a tight budget?

When it comes to figuring out which bad choice is least bad, nothing replaces a little research. This can be daunting. The web is full of sites with conflicting or partial information, and chain stores are constantly changing their supply chain to maximize profits. The Ethical Fashion Forum, Clean Clothes Campaign, and Ethical Consumer’s guide to high street shops provide lists that are quick to search and give basic information. I’m sorry to say that hours of research does not yield much more depth.

Should you find yourself in a fast fashion outlet, subject the clothes to some quality tests. Often similar styles, and even individual pieces in the same style, have noticeable differences in quality. Check the seams, are they straight? Does the stitching hold up to a little tugging? What’s the fabric? Will it take on an ineradicable stench after the 20th wear (viscose and other cheap acrylics do that for me)? Will it pill if your bag rubs against it (cheap jersey and sweater material, but you can wear a jacket or vest and protect it)? Is it so thin that it will have pinholes after a couple of washes (summer weight jersey)? Do any embellishments like sequins, beads, or studs seem like they’ll fall off? And lastly, be honest with yourself, do you anticipate wanting to wear it in a couple months, in a couple years? Basic mending skills can put years of life into cheap clothes. It’s easy to re-stitch a seam or replace a button by hand.

If your wardrobe has gaps, clothes you know you’ll need at some point, make quick, frequent visits to thrift shops. Ask about their delivery schedule and pop in for ten minutes on delivery days. This reduces the chance that you’ll be caught without a button down shirt when you have an office job interview the next day – the sort of situation that sends a person straight to a big chain shop.

For basics, socks, and underwear, which can be difficult (or just gross) to find at thrift stores, there are a couple of almost affordable online options. Paige Wolf has put together a list of affordable eco-friendly apparel brands, unfortunately US-centric, but some ship internationally. Style With Heart provides a similar list for Europe and the UK, as does The Guardian, though the price range skews somewhat higher. American Apparel, great for cheapish basics made sweatshop free and including an organic line, also ships to the EU, though purportedly, and I believe it, their ad campaign regularly exploits underage models.

An American Apparel Store

An American Apparel Store

Animal treatment is a concern close to my heart, but choosing vegan shoes or a belt isn’t unambiguous. Synthetic leather is made of petroleum in a process just as filthy as leather tanning. There’s a good argument for purchasing a second hand fur coat rather than a synthetic one. When treated well, a fur coat can last for more than 100 years, perhaps 10 times the life of a synthetic coat made from environment-taxing materials. A well made pair of leather shoes in a style that can be resoled will last decades if you take care of the material. Will the vegan option fall apart in a year? Do you need to have a leather look (in some work contexts the answer is yes), or are there other, less environmentally harmful, more durable vegan options? I’m not saying these are black and white issues, and I respect that gut reaction and emotion enter into these decisions for many people. Personally, I see the sense in a second hand fur coat, but I can’t bring myself to wear someone else’s skin! But do think about your boundaries in light of the production realities and durability of different materials.

When your clothes give out, how do you dispose of them? If you can’t wear it anymore but a piece of clothing still has life, donating to a thrift shop is the first thing that crosses many people’s minds. However, it’s good to check your thrift store’s policies first. Many dump clothes they can’t sell in developing countries, and this constitutes most of what they receive in donations. This damages the country’s own textile and clothing businesses. Finland’s energy waste program is pretty awesome, and it accepts most fabrics baring leather and PVC imitation. Incidentally, Finland also boasts the first no-waste denim fabric company. Price wise, their collaborations with designers have been only for the wealthy, but keep an eye on Pure Waste denim as prices may lower if the company is successful.

Finally, if you’ve a deficit of cash and surfeit of time, you can get involved with organizations making a difference. Labor Behind the Label fights for labor rights for textile workers in developing countries. Clean Clothes Campaign pressures chains to take accountability. The Ethical Trading Initiative does similar work. Or just write to a chain where you’d shop if only they’d clean up their act and tell them what they need to do to get your business.

Obviously, this is not a complete treatment of the subject. What steps have you taken to bring your clothing purchases more closely in line with your ethics? Have you found ethically responsible, affordable shops? Have a favorite, durable vegan material? Do you know of an organization doing good work? Please share in the comments!




Witchery of the Intellect, a Chelsea Wolfe Live

Orange and yellow lights cast long shadows across the stage. Hundreds of upturned faces catch the glow, bright as the early November maple leaves I waded through on my way to the show. A funeral rattle from the drum kit and the synths’ sigh sway the audience. I peer through the forest of tall bodies.

On stage a thin, white shawl lifts, catches the autumnal light in its gauzy weave. Grey suggestions of limbs shift beneath the fabric. The voice emanating from shroud belies the scene, pulsing through the reverb. Her long, dark frame emerges from the cloth and merges with the shadows. The audience bends as the thrumming gusts of bass pick up intensity, and her face slips from beneath the shawl, a still oval with two watchful smudges. Chelsea Wolfe’s voice twists across and between notes with sinuous power.

It’s a strange sort of witchery we willingly subject ourselves to, music. Some genres work a direct sort of magic, the kind that taps into the animal fact of your body. Others stir their audience through methods more obscure.

I’m a fan of genres of music wherein performers routinely refer to their concerts as rituals, candles get lit, censers are borne through the crowd, and Satan/Yog-Sothoth/nature/Hecate is invoked. Some bands elicit unfettered participation from a spellbound audience. Others induce a mass evacuation to the bar.

The success rate has nothing to do with how seriously you might be able to take the music on your home stereo. Inquisition’s got a song about cutting one’s man boobs for Satan, which, catchy piece of music though it be, induces giggles every time it comes up on shuffle. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t witness Dagon build an atmosphere of mounting fervor and solidarity in a sweaty, bro filled Mission attic. Jex Thoth, on the other hand, transports you to a world of ancient magic through your stereo, but when she purified Kuudes Linja with a ritual straight out of Spells for Teenage Witches, I was not the only fan in the room she almost lost.

Chelsea Wolfe attempted nothing so direct at her Helsinki gig early this November. I’d anticipated the show for a couple of months, but arrived late because I can never remember how to put on eyeliner. Tavastia was packed to the back and drenched in low, frosty sound. Wolfe was in the middle of her first song.

Chelsea Wolfe. Credit to Vitor Mazuco.

Chelsea Wolfe. Credit to Vitor Mazuco.

Wolfe’s music falls squarely under the label of  drone-metal-art-folk, according to her website. With four albums behind her, Wolfe’s style has shifted over the years in a way that defies the trend of hyperspeciation within any given music scene. Her first album, The Grime and the Glow was 2010′s hit chillout soundtrack for metalheads. Two albums later, her take on acoustic folk, Unknown Rooms, invites you to close your eyes and let the rusty Chevy of your mind embark on a Hunter S. Thompson-esque road trip through a mythical Nevada replete with psyche-bats.

On Wolfe’s albums the vocals drown in reverb and filters. Live, the distortion can’t contain the fullness of her voice. The albums saturate the listener in sonic atmosphere; her performance inspires consideration of verbal objects. Her live singing communicates the same melancholic reflection and wistfulness but demands her listeners attend to the stories her songs weave. Chelsea Wolfe’s is an observational sort of witchery.

The experience of a concert is as much about the audience as about the performer. While Wolfe transfixed Tavastia, she did not transport. I felt rooted in a grove of strangers, hyperaware of details but hardened to their influence. She moved underneath her voluminous shawl, behind her hair, before the audience recalling a seiðkona working beneath the cloak, but she created a mental impression only. Perhaps a Chelsea Wolfe performance is an affair of the intellect, mystic elements presented as objects of contemplation.

Whatever it was, I was sorry to see it end. Until she makes it back to Europe, I’ll have to be satisfied with Wolfe’s growing discography. Having heard what she’s capable of live sheds new light on the recordings stylistics. Hear for yourself. Give her a spin at