August 11, 2009

Go for the Discount and Participate in the Exploitation of Human Labor

Author Ellen Ruppel Shell, after spending years researching the cost of stuff, has recently published a thrilling book entitled Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Her book examines not only the impact of cost on the direct consumer — high debt, low incomes, job losses and a whole slew of other troubles — but also the price for the people that produce the goods.

This is particularly interesting to me today as her book outlines specific examples in which the exploitation of both human labor and the environment is clear. One example given in a New York Times review, explains the surge in the shrimp market from the 1970s to today. The impact on the change in shrimp farming and our subsequent shrimp consuming has triggered loads of troubles.

The article explains:

“for a while, there were some newly affluent shrimp-farmers along the coast of Thailand as traditional operations were transformed into gigantic factories with the help of international lenders and investors. Massive onslaughts of chemicals made the factories productive, but fish — like cows, pigs and chickens — do not flourish in the long run under such extreme, artificial conditions. They get sick, and their ponds become black holes of pollution and toxic waste."

Ruppel Shell writes "what followed was ruinous debt, environmental degradation, horrifying human rights abuses and violence that left millions destitute." This isn’t just shrimp. This sort of chain link is implicated in everything we buy. The actual cost for production of many items is considerably higher than what we are charged.

Who is paying the extra cost?

I agree with Ruppel Shell here that working people pay the cost. She notes that a third of the poor have jobs in retail with a historically low wage, but that is just one side. The other is the seedy underbelly of how our goods are produced. Sweatshops, while presenting a different opportunity for the poor Chinese, Mexican and Vietnamese, give the workers no chance to demand higher pay or better working conditions because the manufacturer could easily close the factory or move their operations somewhere else.

Our goods, assembled by people working for much less than fair wages, pay the price for the $4.99 tee-shirt we are taking home from Wal-Mart. This is a sad reality of our consumption and the way we look to get things produced. We are impacting others (and in particular the poor) with every item we purchase. Not only that but we haven’t even begun to talk about the impacts of this on the environment!

So, what do we do?

I think the first thing we can and should do is to understand our individual relationship with consumption. Of course, this is if we have the privilege to do so (see my post on Paying to Be Poor).

Understanding ourselves in relation to our spending and consuming is a must. Many Americans are spending away at things that are unnecessary, driving the machine for more stuff, and turning the wheel toward more exploitation. I wonder if we all became mindful of who is paying the price for the discounts, we might just be able to turn this around.

There is a great video called The Story of Stuff which I highly recommend viewing. The blurb from their website puts it best:
“The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world.”

You also can watch Ruppel Shells' one minute YouTube video or read her interview via the Environment Report.

This post was written by Laura Scroggs who is a feminist scholar living in the mid-west. She is currently an active community volunteer and volunteer blogger with the Literacy 'n' Poverty Project. Please leave your comments or email with questions.

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