A recent New York Times article about manicure technicians and the awful working conditions they deal with has made the rounds, and people are shocked at the things that happen to make their cheap manicures possible.
Around the same time, John Oliver’s segment on sweatshop labor and fast fashion went viral and reminded people that $5 t-shirts and cheap shoes come at the cost of exploitative labor somewhere further down the line.
The last month has really impressed on me a lesson that I always try to keep in mind: There’s no such thing as a cheap luxury, and when something is suspiciously cheap, it’s either sketchy quality or they cut corners on paying their workers.
One of the other stories that was big last week was a call for a boycott of Driscoll’s berries. Driscoll’s is accused of violating labor regulations. The company allegedly used suppliers that paid workers $7 per day for working 15-hour shifts, using child labor and failing to protect workers from sexual abuse and harassment. This is a story that isn’t any different from the conditions we hear about in clothing factories in Bangladesh, or electronics factories in China. Cheap consumer goods come at a price. Usually that price comes at the cost of quality, labor costs or both.
Not everyone can afford to fill their grocery cart with more expensive meat and produce or pay the premium for higher-quality clothes. That doesn’t mean we should all have to forego out-of-season fruit, or buying affordable clothes, or just give up on owning technology, but it’s important to realize that oftentimes the things that make quality of life in America so high come at the cost of exploiting someone further down the line. We shouldn’t take that quality of life for granted.
Our culture of cheap, instant gratification relies on people who more than likely won’t have the money or opportunity to enjoy the things they’re producing. And more often than not, things that avoid the chain of globalization and exploitation are noticeably better quality (although admittedly more expensive). Local, seasonal fruit almost always tastes better than fruit that got picked out of state and spent days or weeks being shipped and refrigerated. Clothes that use higher quality fabrics and ethical labor last longer and look better.
We should also be putting more pressure on politicians and companies and call for higher labor standards both home and abroad, but we can take smaller steps, too. Instead of buying that $5 shirt, save up and buy a $15 shirt that was made in the United States. It will last longer and hold up better. Instead of buying Driscoll’s berries out of season, stock up during the summer or pick them yourself so you can freeze them to thaw later and enjoy throughout the year.
At Portland State, we talk about ways to be more sustainable all the time and about small steps we can take to reduce waste, usage, our carbon footprints, etc. I think we should be having those same conversations about ethical labor. Ultimately, these ethically made goods are more sustainable. By reducing your reliance on cheap consumer goods, you can feel better about your impact on other people and on the environment.