Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Moral Consumption

I cannot avoid buying things, although I'd like to. I wish I never had need of another pair of pants or shirt or shoes again. But, I will clearly need to buy some, if not for myself then definitely for my children. But, I hate the fact that the clothes that are most affordable are so clearly linked to a horrendous global supply chain that has all sorts of ramifications I'm not cool with. In other words, I am tired of buying products from China, as well as other countries with undemocratic regimes, corrupt governments, poor labor and environmental practices, and national goals that are clearly not in our own best interests. I have nothing against the Chinese or Chinese Americans, but I do not want to buy products made in China given everything involved in that transaction.

The big question is...then where can I buy things? What can I buy? What is okay? I don't want to buy $17 sweaters at Old Navy, since they are all made in China, but I also cannot afford to spend $300 to buy a sweater made by a small manufacturer based in the US. Where is the middle ground? Where can I find clothes that are reasonably affordable, well made, and that come from companies that I feel I can "support"? Is it okay to buy products from Canada? What about Mexico? What about Vietnam or Egypt or Indonesia? I've seen lots of different countries listed on tags in my clothes and I have no idea which ones are "okay" in some sense and which are definitely not. Where can I buy a good pair of jeans?

I think the key is to start by making a list of what matters to me in terms of what my money is supporting. Then, I can try to find out if a company fits with some or many of those items. So, not necessarily in order of importance, here is what is important to me:

1. As little environmental impact as possible in the manufacturing and transportation process. Made in the US is better than made overseas, but how can I even factor in the transportation cost once it is in the US? Maybe all brands are effectively a wash on that front, so it does not matter.

2. Support for progressive labor practices, unions, OSHA-type laws, etc. Again, buying US-only is clearly easier than buying overseas items. I believe that some American firms probably do extend similar practices to their overseas facilities, but I can't believe that it is the same as a shop in this country. If I buy some Ralph Lauren suit made who-knows-where and sold off the rack in Macy's, can it really be similar to a Hart Schaffner Marx suit made by unionized workers in a factory in Chicago? The RL will cost less, but what does it cost me as a taxpayer when I'm not supporting the people in Chicago? How does that affect my healthcare costs, my overall tax burden? And, when the suit is made on the cheap, can I really expect it to last?

3. Support for liberal governments and social justice. Admittedly, no corporation is perfect and our government is far from what I think it should be. But, there are some big differences between firms and I'd prefer to not buy products from companies that prop up totalitarian dictators, violent despots, or just relatively unfriendly leaders (unfriendly to the US, that is). Again, I can buy stuff from China, but I don't want to help power their economic engine when they use that same engine to increase a trade imbalance with us and to manipulate their currency in a way that undermines our own. I don't want to buy products from countries that have weak IP laws, allowing their own firms to steal every idea that a US firm can come up with.

4. When I do buy a product from overseas, I'd like it to be from a country where that commerce is legitimately helping the people and the country build a successful future. If I buy a shirt made in Brazil or Costa Rica, am I helping to keep a lower class worker employed in a stable manner, allowing them to send their kids to school and to build a future for themselves and their family? Am I supporting a relatively open government, a positive work environment, and good international relations? If I buy the shirt from Egypt, do I have any way of even knowing what I am supporting other than a lifelong dictator?

I just want to be able to buy goods, once in a while, and feel good about where that money is going. I want to vote with my dollars and do as little damage to the world in the process as humanly possible. Any ideas?

1 comment:

Dave said...

If I need a few t-shirts, this seems like a reasonable way to go: