The Dirty Baggage that Comes with Most Cheap Products

by Jeremy on July 22, 2011

A few weeks ago I posted a response to the argument that buying American-made products is not really the best thing for our economy.  There are many people claiming that the best thing for our economy is to buy the cheapest product you can find without sacrificing quality.  While my response was much more in depth, I think I can best summarize it with the following question: Does it really matter how cheap the goods are?  With all the jobs we send away to manufacture our products, we can’t afford the products anyway.  Check out my post, “Is Buying American Made Good for Our Economy? if you would like to read more.

Beyond low prices, I think a lot of people justify buying cheap imported goods because they think manufacturers in developing countries have cleaned up their act since the sweatshop days of the 80s and 90s.  While there has definitely been some improvements, I have to break some bad news.  Many of the world’s most beloved brands are still working with facilities that exploit people and the planet.  In just the last few weeks I came across these examples:

  • Apparel contractors for major U.S. clothing brands in Haiti work closely with U.S. Embassy to block minimum wage increase.  Apparently, increasing the minimum wage of garment works in Haiti from $0.31/hr to $0.62/hr would increase the cost of a $2.00 t-shirt too much.  I guess $2.10 would put it out of everyone’s price.  And just so you know, the $10.00 t-shirt you bought at Wal-Mart only cost Wal-Mart about $2.00, that is the average price of an imported t-shirt.  Someone is making a lot of money off the hundreds of millions of t-shirts sold each year in the U.S.  At $0.31/hr I can tell you it is not the factory worker living in poverty-stricken Haiti.
  • Can’t Stop Abuse of High-Top Workers.  It was recently reported that Indonesian workers who make Converse sneakers say their supervisors throw shoes at them, slap them and call them dogs and pigs.  Nike, the owner of Converse, acknowledges that abuses have occurred among their contractors.  However, they claim there is little they can do to stop it.  Nike had over $19 billion in revenues and $1.9 billion in profits last year.  Apparently threatening to take their business elsewhere (maybe the USA, like New Balance) would not convince their contractors to clean up their act.

I do not want to be Debbie Downer, but I think it is important for people to consider the dirty baggage that comes with cheap products.  In most cases, someone (factory workers) and/or something (the environment) were exploited to enable the company to manufacture products at such a cheap price.  So what is one supposed to so?  I would recommend taking the advice from Eddie Vedder, as he so eloquently said at Lollapalooza in 2007:

“Just think of it as like a boyfriend or girlfriend who never brushes their teeth.  Don’t kiss them.  You wouldn’t kiss them.  So, don’t show BP/Amoco any kind of love until they clean up their act.”*

*This comment was said in response to BP/Amoco dumping toxic waste in to Lake Michigan.

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