You’re hiking along a rocky trail when suddenly the gravel underfoot gives way. You slide down the side of the trail, not much, but enough to twist your ankle. You haven’t seen anyone else on the trail, you can’t get a signal on your cell phone, and there’s no way you can make it back without a lot of pain and possibly injuring yourself further. What do you do?
Easy: Start talking aloud about sweatshops and ethical purchasing in America. Within moments one or more people will show up to make these points:
1) The people we’re paying in China to make our geegaws are doing better than they otherwise would, so it’s okay.
2) Nearly everything I buy has some troublesome provenance, so my only options are to either starve to death naked in a mud pit or just not worry about it.
Both of these arguments do make a point…up to a point. But they both propose that there is only a binary choice available: you either somehow ensure that everything you own is ethically sourced or do without or you just don’t worry about it because it’s so overwhelming.
Which it is, I totally get that. And it’s overwhelming on purpose: there are people who want to make sure it’s not easy to find out whether or not the folks who made your stuff were paid and treated fairly (as opposed to being paid and treated some marginal amount better than standing in a field for 16 hours picking crops by hand for pennies a day.) Many companies use some kind of labor accountancy agency so they can just pay them, tell them to make sure everything’s on the up-and-up, and then have plausible deniability when it turns out the agency was just pocketing the cash and playing video games all day. I know so many people who would like to be able to do something, but with so much intentional obfuscation and disinformation, it’s hard.
Plus, it’s often costly. There’s an obvious reason these workers are exploited; it makes goods cheaper. And when you’re in a recession, when you have no job or you now being paid less because “austerity”, when all the jobs in the area become filled with “temp” workers, you can’t afford to not shop at Wal-Mart or pay the extra three bucks a pound for the “fair trade” coffee. In this sense, the corporations have made it a zero-sum game: it’s either you or this other guy, because my paycheck and stock options sure as hell aren’t on the table.
And there are times when there is simply no solution. Computers and smart phones these days aren’t luxuries anymore, and if you think they are, better hope you never have to look for a job. The simple truth is, if you are buying one of these items — or pretty much anything that requires electricity — there is no ethical alternative. Someone got jacked to make it.
It’s not surprising, then, that we have to come up with coping mechanisms to help us deal with this. We have to tell ourselves that it just can’t be done, that anything we could do would only be a drop in the bucket, that it’s not that bad anyway. The nation breathed a sigh of relief when details of Mike Daisey’s infamous report on conditions at the Foxconn plant were revealed to be fabricated, as though the whole thing were completely bogus and Foxconn employees only have to assemble iPhones and laptops when they’re tired of eating bon-bons and petting no less than the most adorable of kittens. We tell ourselves that as bad as these workers may have it, they’re still doing better than their neighbors who don’t work in the factory, and it’s the best opportunity available to them, as though the struggles we’ve made for American workers are ours alone, only fit for the particular biology of American human beings. Nobody handed us a 40-hour work-week, so why should they be getting one (especially since we’ve happily surrendered it back anyway because, you know, “austerity”.) So they’re doing okay, not to worry.
But it’s not an all-or-nothing problem. It would be great if we had the ability, time, and money to research every single purchase decision and try and be as fair and ethical as we could in all things, but there’s reality to cope with, as well as human nature. Still, when the opportunity arises, why not take it? Even if it’s a drop in the bucket, enough of them will fill the damn thing.
For example, six years ago I was looking to get some new shoes, but I know that clothing and shoes are often troublesome items. So I did a little research and found a place selling shoes that were pretty identical to the ones I was replacing, only ethically sourced and reasonably priced. Why wouldn’t I buy from this place? I did, got the shoes, and was happy with them. Recently they started to show a lot of wear, so I wanted to get another pair. That particular place is no longer an option for shoes, but a simple Google search for “sweatshop free sneakers” brought me to The Autonomie Project, which sells Ethletic sneakers. Exactly what I’m looking for (though not in brown). $54 a pair, which is comparable to Chuck Taylors (made by Converse, owned by Nike, outsourced to factories with poor working conditions) at Zappos. I bought a pair and, if I like them, I’ll probably buy another.
(Aside: Ethical purchasing doesn’t stop at sweatshop labor, either. Recently the owner of the fast food chain Chick-fil-A answered accusations of being anti-gay and putting millions of profits into anti-gay lobbying with “guilty as charged”. This ignited a storm of controversy as though this fact had not previously been well known and documented. Folks on the Left called for boycotts while folks on the Right were appalled that, in a Capitalistic society, people would use their buying power to protest actions of a company that they disagreed with. (For the right — which regularly calls for boycotts against gay-friendly companies — “free speech” only applies to them and also includes freedom from responsibility for that speech.) Now, for me personally, this is a no-brainer: there aren’t any Chick-fil-A stores in my half of this godless Socialist state, so I don’t even have to worry about it. But there are people who are really troubled about this because here’s the thing: their chicken sandwiches are so tasty! What can be done, short of eating a chicken sandwich somewhere else? (But…but…so tasty!) What I propose is, if you simply must have a Chick-fil-A sandwich, do so, but first take a photo of it and email that photo to a gay friend or relative, or just GLAAD if you don’t have one handy, saying, “I am sorry, but I like this chicken sandwich more than I like you.” Just let them know that their right to be treated as equal human beings had to be (temporarily, for sure) put aside so you could enjoy a delicious sandwich.)
I’m seriously not trying to toot my own horn here. There’s still plenty of blood on my hands. As would be pointed out if I had comments still turned on, I am typing this on a computer that was for certain assembled under substandard conditions. I have bought Legos that were made in China, probably not by folks paid in Krugerrands. Nearly every boardgame on my shelf was probably printed in China, because nearly every boardgame is printed in China. I don’t shop at Wal-Mart, but I do shop at Target, which isn’t remotely above blame, and it’s not like I don’t also have shoes that aren’t ethically-made sneakers. (And I also realize that I only have that company’s word that this stuff is ethically-made in the first place.)
So the message here isn’t at all “yay me”. It’s a message about that “What can I do? Anything I do will be a mere gesture, a futile and pointless raging against the machine!” That’s true to a large extent. It’s unlikely that anything I do will make a truly noticeable difference. But we’re not trying to jump a chasm here, where any distance traveled that is less than the entire distance is useless. If incremental steps are all we have, we take them. At the very least, just for a moment, you did something. Maybe it will help add up to change, maybe it won’t, but the point is not to do it solely to achieve a goal, it’s to do it because you can and because it’s the right thing to do.
Because here’s the thing: it’s also not all about warm fuzzies. It’s about the very real fact that we’re about to have to settle in with this level of unemployment as the “new normal”. The biggest cost to a big company is wages for its employees, and since no CEOs seem interested in giving up their 8-or-9-figure salaries, it’s up to the workers to give up theirs (see, because “austerity”). If we allow companies to simply take their labor to the lowest bidder and feel good about it as long as there’s some poor bastard in the area doing worse, then we are agreeing that labor is worth nothing, that workers are unimportant, and that this system is right and proper. It’s not, and in fact it can’t be: for Capitalism to work, there has to be a market. What good is it to produce an iPhone for slightly cheaper if you can only sell one to yourself? We cannot both agree that it’s perfectly okay to pay someone a few bucks a day to assemble electronics and then complain that there are no jobs. We, the workers, don’t have $21 trillion stashed offshore in case things go south, so we have to look out for ourselves, which means looking out for each other. If you think feudalism is a fantastic economic system to return to then fine, continue on. If we concede that labor has no worth, either in China or in America, we hand over our lives to people who have repeatedly shown they couldn’t care less about them.