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Made in Cambodia

Last weekend I drove up to Bowie to buy some shirts for work. As I wandered through Sears, I found what I was looking for: some nice, classic solid colored polos, for only like $8. As I picked one up, I noticed the tag: “Made in Cambodia.”

I checked the tags of some different brands: Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia. In looking around some more, I found that just about everything in the Sears men’s section was manufactured in a Third World country – probably in a sweatshop. (I did check later and learned that Sears ranked dead last in responsible labor/human rights issues compared with other department stores.)

It’s no secret that many big retailers use sweatshop labor, and as one who saw this as injustice, I had always been theoretically “against” it. But I guess it occurred to me for the first time last weekend that I was essentially funding this injustice by buying clothes from those kinds of stores, and that I could actually do something about it.

Whatever it is that makes people with relatively easy lives less sensitive to the world’s problems, I’ve apparently got a bad case of it. Derek Webb’s words come to mind: “Poverty is so hard to see when it’s only on your TV or twenty miles across town.” Or in my case, standing in a nice, clean shopping mall in the suburbs. But poverty was there in that polo shirt tag, staring me in the face.

At that point, I was just plain angry. I don’t know what pissed me off more – the fact that Sears (and they’re not the only ones) had concocted such an fine-tuned sales pitch to tranquilize our sense of social responsibility for the sake of low prices, or the fact that I’d bought into it for so long. In any case, a light went off; I realized that everything I’d been reading recently about world crises could be transferred from thought to action right then. I knew that not buying a shirt there wasn’t going to change the world, but I was pretty mad at Sears at the moment, so I walked out empty-handed, suppressing the urge to find the manager and let him know why I wouldn’t be shopping at his store anymore.

Our youth group used to have one of those cheesy brightly-colored banners you see in middle school classrooms. It said, “What’s right isn’t always popular. What’s popular isn’t always right.” Maybe it’s because it was displayed at youth group, but I’ve always associated this phrase with adolescence, that period of life where you’ll do nearly anything to be affirmed and accepted by your peers. While most of us at some point get over the popularity obsession, opting instead for personal peace and sanity, I wonder if this proverb still has meaning for adults? Perhaps if it was tweaked to say, “What’s right isn’t always efficient. What’s efficient isn’t always right.”

A young husband of average means, money is constantly on my mind. I only make so much of it, and naturally I want to use it as efficiently as possible. This generally means Drea and I buy clothes only when needed, and we try to buy cheap. But this weekend I reached a point where I had to confront the question of what my financial convenience was worth. Was being able to buy cheap polo shirts at Sears worth the price that others have to pay? Does a convenient lifestyle justify the means required to sustain it?

So, determined to take some kind of appropriate action, I’ve been reading up the past couple days about sweatshops and/or outsourced labor, and here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Not all outsourced labor is bad. There are companies who use overseas labor, but do so responsibly and ethically, paying fair wages and providing safe working conditions.

In extremely poor areas, working in a sweatshop is actually better than other viable alternatives. From Wikipedia:

It is also often pointed out that, unlike in the industrialized world, the sweatshops are not replacing high-paying jobs. Rather, sweatshops offer an improvement over subsistence farming and other back-breaking tasks, or even prostitution, trash picking, or starvation by unemployment. This is the case since most under-developed countries have weak labor markets.

Makes sense, but it necessarily invites the question of what an ethically-minded company would do in this situation. I would think they’d have two options:

  1. Offer local workers a slightly better alternative than begging, prostitution, or starving to death. Since they have nowhere else to go, freely pay them as little as desired, or don’t pay them at all. Retain workforce by threatening even greater abuse if they try to leave or form a union. Turn a grand profit.
  2. Recognize that you could go with Option 1, but in the interest of decency, pay workers a fair, liveable wage. Provide a safe working environment even though the country’s government doesn’t require it. Depending on how many people you can employ, maybe even reduce local crime by providing a sustainable livelihood for a portion of the population. Since cost of living is so modest compared to the US, your company still reduces costs by employing foreign workers.

I’m no expert on this stuff, and maybe I’m oversimplifying the issue, but it seems to me that companies who outsource labor to poor countries basically do one of these two things, or maybe a little of each.

There’s great potential for reform. One of the most helpful resources I found was this web page at Green America that provides an overview of sweatshops – why they exist, what everyday people like us can do to fight them. I think our nation is beginning to realize how universally destructive some of our consumption habits are, and what we can do to reverse the trend. I also can’t help but sense that God wants to save us from the self-defeating systems our collective sin has trapped us in. To think of the redemptive good He can do through and in us…

So this is me officially hopping on the bandwagon; I need to kick it up a notch on buying responsibly. I’m going to start off small – no more sweatshop-made stuff – and go from there. Heck, I already voted Democrat in the election, bought us a Prius, and – damn it, I don’t care if it is $45 a carton – organic milk just tastes better. I should’ve seen this coming… 🙂

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