Tuesday, December 25, 2007

On complicity and why we don't care

Yesterday in NYC, I bought a stunning party dress (retail price $120) and a pretty patterned skirt (retail price $90) from Ann Taylor Loft. If you know me, you know that I did NOT pay full retail. price. If you know the retail industry, you know that both were made in China.

I've been thinking for some time about why everything I own was made in China - except, of course, for my china. Some blame big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, but I know that the truth lies somewhere in that great messy thing we call capitalism and the white elephant of the American dream.

China (the dishes, I mean) are luxury items. You will spend $100 - $160 for a five piece place setting made in England (or Germany or Luxembourg, if you're buying certain brands). If you're like me, you might get china as a wedding gift. You might also inherit it from a dead relative. If you're an ordinary working class American, you can't afford china.

I understand why working-class Americans buy products from Target and Wal-Mart made in China. Wal-Mart's claim that they make potential luxury items affordable for less affluent is quite compelling. Equally compelling is the theory posited by economists who argue that Wal-Mart likely helps keep inflation down. For minimum- and low-wage workers, it's easy to understand why Wal-Mart may seem like a modern day Messiah.

The behaviour I question is that of the professional class. Why don't we put our money where our mouths are? Most hip urban 20-somethings I know care, or pretend to care, about slave labor and China's human rights record. They probably care to some extent about the minimum wage in America and about the person who sold me the dress. Even those of us who are adamant about the subject still buy Made In China. The irony is that these people - doctors and lawyers and nurses and teachers - could probably afford to spend a few more dollars per item to have their products made under ethical conditions in democratic countries.

It's not just Wal-Mart. Mainstream retail stores outsource their textiles to compete. Victoria's Secret lingerie is made in Sri Lanka and China. The pants from the Gap I'm wearing right now were made in the Philippines.

So why do we put up with this?

I can posit a few reasons:

Information - I really don't know what working conditions are like in Sri Lanka. If the person who made my $5 panties was paid $0.50, what really matters is purchasing power. What a fair wage is in random Third World countries is not information that most yuppies have.

Apathy - Let's face it, we all just want cheap stuff. This allows us to trade up an extra step. The working-class go to Wal-Mart to afford middle-class stuff. Similarly, the middle-class use discounts at stores like the Gap and Victoria's Secret to save money and potentially afford products that would otherwise be the provenance of the wealthy.

Lack of identification - Not everyone really agrees that Made-In-China is a bad thing. Globalization is certainly a complex and controversial topic. Why should America be insular when we can send our dollars abroad to buy things that will stimulate foreign economies and simultaneously raise the standard of living in ours?

Lack of options - I honestly don't know where I'd buy Made in the USA clothes. I certainly wouldn't buy clothes that were less stylish or attractive to make a political point. Which brings me to my closing thought - capitalism is based on the principle that people look out for their own self-interest.

Any thoughts? I'd love to hear from other 20-somethings with thoughts on why they buy Made In China.



At 8:51 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

As long as you don't lick the dress or the skirt, I'm sure you'll be fine :)


Post a Comment

<< Home