Sunday, September 6, 2009

Cheap Labor

In honor of Labor Day, I read a new book called 'Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture' by Ellen Ruppel Shell. It's a good read, a little dry in places, but very interesting. The main point is that our obsession with cheap goods reaps all sorts of ill effects on culture, the world economy and the environment. Cheap initial costs hide the multitude of true costs. When consumers care about the lowest price to the exclusion of all other factors, retailers are forced to cut costs as much as possible in order to compete with one another. They cut wages for clerks, stockpersons and other employees. They force manufacturers to lower their wholesale costs, which forces manufacturers to seek cheaper and cheaper labor and supplies. This, of course, is what causes human rights violations in sweatshops and factories and environmental catastrophes. Manufacturers believe they can't afford to pay decent wages and comply with environmental regulations and still produce goods cheap enough to appeal to our insatiable desire for piles of inferior goods and therefore enrich themselves. Smaller producers are driven out of business, resulting in most of the world's goods being made by a handful of behemoth conglomerates. Let's face it: the unassailable fact is that it costs a lot more to make a table out of legally and sustainably harvested timber and fair wage labor than from an illegal clear cut in a third world country. A dress made out of clean harvest cotton by a reasonably-paid and a reasonably-treated labor force has to be more expensive than one made out of pesticide-contaminated fabric by abused and exploited sweatshop workers.

These giant corporations have the deep pockets necessary to spend lots of cash lobbying governments in order to keep environmental, consumer protection and workplace laws suppressed in their favor so their production costs are even lower, so the small number of executives at the top of the food chain can make even more money at the expense of the consumer and the workforce. Every day, companies fight efforts to require fair wages and benefits, fair labeling laws and regulations that require them to clean up their own hazardous waste and control dangerous emissions. And a lot of times, they win. Why? Because they have the money to pay the lawyers and lobbyists; money they get from you and me. There's no money in consumer and environmental protection, and therefore no one to fight them except for us.

Ruppel Shell uses a great example with milk: If a marketplace has two kinds of clearly labeled milk for sale, say pure milk for a dollar and watered down milk for fifty cents, consumers can purchase whichever they choose and both buyer and seller are happy. If the milk producers start watering down the milk and not labeling it, the sellers of pure milk will be screwed, because consumers will buy the watered down milk thinking it's pure and won't pay the additional cost for the real stuff. Sellers of real milk will sell less and less because consumers will think they're being cheated by the higher price. Pretty soon the sellers of real milk will either be forced to go along with the program and water down their milk, too, so they can compete or be driven out of business, The end result is that consumers will no longer have a choice; they can only buy crappy milk because that's all that's available. This is what has happened in every single industry on earth. Each and every television is made by one of three companies. Dozens of automobile manufacturers have been reduced to a handful, and all new cars look alike. Consumers have no real choice and goods are limitless but of low quality.

So, pretty depressing, huh? But there are things we can do. We're like the ants in The Bug's Life and we need to stand up to those dirty rat-finking grasshoppers. There's a lot more of us than them and if we band together we can mow them right over. Know the real cost of your consumer goods and be willing to pay the true price in cash up front, instead of in pain and suffering for people all over the world for years to come. Look for locally made goods and locally grown foods. Patronize your neighborhood stores instead of the big boxes. Pay attention to where things come from and ask the hard questions about how goods in America can have such a low initial cost, and where the true cost is being hidden. Shop at your local thrift store. Keep track of how your representatives vote on the important consumer and environmental issues, and let them know what you think. Go hiking on Labor Day instead of shopping the sale at the mall. Ants unite! Power to the people!

Happy Labor Day weekend!


Wendy Hawksley said...

I don't shop Walmart. That's my contribution!

jennifer said...

reduce re use recycle

Helen said...

Buy Shell Oil. Uh, I mean, uh, ride your bike to work.

ann daggett said...

i wanna know how you find time to read with two kids.... i dont sit down from the moment i get up til the moment i go to bed... no joke! whats your secret?

Helen said...

I'm pretty sure you are just watchng them too closely.