Blog #92: Rain or Shine ....? 

October 27, 2022
Monika Weber-Fahr
It’s pouring rain, like it would: After all it’s October. And I am finding myself standing at the main train station in Berlin, the Hauptbahnhof, wondering how to make it out of the building and onto my meetings looking half-way decent. Vienna had been warm and sunny when I left and somehow I had forgotten to check the weather forecast for the North. “You can get umbrellas over at the downstairs level”, says the lovely lady in the newspaper shop, pointing me to an outlet of a large drugstore chain. So I hurry along, and sure enough, attractively presented right at the entrance, there are four types of umbrellas available for us busy travelers, each in two colors. As I am weighing in my head the importance of protecting myself from pouring rain against the likely cost of purchasing an umbrella on the go, I look for the price tags and see to my surprise - and shock - that the smallest umbrella would be mine in return for what seems to be an impossibly small amount of money: Euro 3,49.

 

Foto: The umbrella prices at Berlin’s Central Train Station’s drug store seemed ridiculously low to me - until I checked and found out that umbrellas seem to have become disposable single-use products.

The umbrella story itself concludes quickly: I purchase one of the little ones and end up sound and dry at my meetings. But my feeling of shock and the question I had when buying the mini umbrella last week are still vexing me: How is it possible for an item composed of good water-resistant cloth and of metal, plus an automatic unfolding-mechanism, to be so cheap? And: If these items come so cheap, have they become disposable or single-use products for some people? How much waste is this adding to our ecological footprint on the earth? Can we avoid this? So I do what we all do these days when we have a question - I go online and discover an entirely new world: The world of umbrellas. 
A few answers right away: Historically, umbrellas have been reserved for the rich and noble, starting with the Ancient civilizations of China, Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Aztecs, seen as a symbol of dignity.  Initially used to protect against sun - remember: the word umbrella comes from umbra/shade - it was in 18th century England that umbrellas came to be used as a protective device against the elements. Today’s global umbrella market is worth about US$ 7 billion, with some 19 billion umbrellas in circulation at any given time. Many people seem to own more than one - starting with Japan that sports 3.3 umbrellas per person on average. About 1 billion umbrellas are discarded every year, just in London about 34,000 end up in the TfL’s lost&found chambers. With some 120 components mostly made from metal or plastics, this seems a terrible waste and environmentally uncaring to say the least. Plus, most of the materials the discarded umbrellas have been made of are non-recyclable and non-degradable, and will be with us for 100s or 1000s of years.

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Foto: Isn’t it crazy - the Sandwich sold to travelers at the same train station cost more than an umbrella!?

But how can umbrellas be so absurdly cheap that people won’t think twice about discarding them? If I purchase an umbrella for Euros 4 or less, I am guessing that probably 1 Euro stays with the store and 1 Euro goes for transport, leaving 2 Euros or less for production and raw materials. Already some twenty years ago, about 50% of the world’s umbrellas came from China; by now their market share has risen up to nearly 90%. Browsing through some of these stores online can be fascinating - Youanna, Hfumbrella, or Superain give you a feel for the big business that umbrella manufacturing has become, exporting from China to the entire world. A big driver for the shift has been low labor cost, given that much of the cost of production of an umbrella seems to be driven by the assembly, albeit the process is neither easy nor necessarily safe. It seems an unbreakable bad cycle: The low price of umbrellas convinces people that they can treat them carelessly; not produced to last they easily break and are too cheap to buy to invest in repairing; considered disposable, the umbrellas litter our countries; and yet because they drive an industry feeding off low labor cost, our markets are swamped by them.
Committed to caring for God’s creation, how should we then shop for umbrellas? One solution would be to purchase sustainably produced and/or recyclable umbrellas, such as the GinkoUmbrella customdesigned a few years ago, or the FareOekoBrella (but be careful: some manufacturers claim ‘produced from recycled materials’ without having clear proof or certification). Another option would be to choose umbrellas that have been designed to last - and so that they can be repaired. As it were, Austria is host to Europe’s No 1 umbrella producer, Doppler/Knirps, and many of their products are not only manufactured locally but also regularly rated top of the line, such as by Stern. And there are many other similarly medium-to-high-end producers out there. In fact, if you think about buying - and losing or breaking - five 5-Euro-umbrellas in your lifetime, you can as well invest 25 Euros in a build-to-last solution. Or, as my teenage son points out: You just don’t buy an umbrella at all - but rather get a good rain coat ;-).
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