The death toll from the recent collapse of a clothing factory in Bangladesh has topped 1000, and yesterday brought the story of another fire in a large, 11-story factory. Most workers were gone, but those still there suffocated in the stairwells trying to escape. In the wake of these disasters, there have been reports that companies are suddenly concerned about such issues. Many top brands are concerned and thinking of pulling out. A “fair-trade clothing” movement is afoot. Yet the same stories appeared just months ago after a massive fire killed over 100 people.
What’s frustrating about this is that it’s not new. It’s 200 years old, back to William Blake’s “dark, satanic mills” and the Triangle factory fire 100 years ago in New York. I grew up with it in the 1990’s, when every campus seemed to have an anti-sweatshop campaign. A few companies – notably some athletic shoe giants– made some real changes. But one still goes into the average department store (or worse, discount store) and will not find anything on fair trade. Tons of designer names, every tag with a distant land of origin… and suspicions about what conditions it might have come from. In one sense, we have a reasonably reliable fair-trade label, called “Made in the USA,” but that’s no easy find.
Why do we tolerate this? Why is there virtually no alternative? The ultimate answer here is that we want (and get) incredibly cheap clothing in great quantities. An old videotape from my youth showed a 1989 department store ad, touting store-brand jeans for $19.99. They are still on sale for $19.99. We insist on cheap, and while there are some machinery gains possible in clothing, “cheap” usually means the cheapest possible labor. According to economist Pietra Rivoli, in her illuminating and fair The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy, Americans throw away per capita 68 pounds of clothing a year. She further describes how Goodwill and Salvation Army are so overwhelmed with donations that the vast majority either become rags or get shipped abroad by the ton, to be sold in African bazaars, undermining any local economy of clothing production, because no one can produce for less than Americans do… that is, free. The whole cycle is perverse and sickening, not least because underneath the frivolity lie the ruins of the collapsed factory.
The answer to this, after all, is not at all complicated: we pay more and (presumably) make fewer trips to Old Navy or other “fast fashion” outlets (on which Michelle Gonzalez’s Shopping is outstanding, not least because she recognizing the desire for fashion in herself). There is nothing wrong with good, even stylish clothing. But let’s be willing to pay for it. The fact is, fair-trade clothing has yet to catch on because clothing is highly price-sensitive – partly because we don’t usually “need” it in the strong sense that we need food. And partly university stores and large sneaker companies can get away with promoting fair practices because they have price control over their product, and can fold in the labor premium to the price tag. Because that fair-trade clothing tag is going to be pricey. Just like fair-trade food and cruelty-free meats and sustainably-caught seafood. It is going to be more expensive. If you want cheap, you will get what you pay for.
At this point, I really think what bothers me about our economy is that there are some – the working poor, the struggling family – who really need “everyday low prices.” But there are a lot of us, a lot, for whom low prices are not necessary, but instead are “needed” so that… we can buy something else unnecessary, often for an inflated price. My favorite pet peeve of the moment here is the incredible scam of Keurig/K-cup coffee makers. Recently, the maker of the machine (and licenser of those cups – anything for a monopoly, right?) posted huge revenue gains, and an analyst wrote: “Consumption of beverages from craft beer to coffee, tea and energy drinks has risen as Americans splurge on small, affordable luxuries.” What is “affordable luxury”? Well, as the New York Times reported, it means paying the equivalent of $50 a pound for coffee. Oh, and a lot more plastic and metal waste. The article reports an industry spokesman saying young people are the suckers targets for this, because they no longer think of coffee prices by the pound, but by the cup. So at 40-50 cents per K-cup, it seems “cheap”… compared to coffee shops! And look at the convenience! And the choices! Everyone can have exactly what flavor they want! Instantly!
My point here is that if we’re willing to pay $50 a pound for coffee for a minor convenience, what possible justification can we have for not buying fair-trade coffee ($9-15 a pound, in many varieties, at my co-op) or fair-trade clothes? It seems to me we simply do not want to see these trade-offs, but they are everywhere in our economy. We cheap out in one area, so that we can spend exorbitant amounts for minor pleasure gains in convenience or quality. I used to think, “Who would pay $1000 for a TV set?” Apparently a lot of people… even when oceans of virtually free ones are available. These trade-offs seem trivial… except the underlying realities of environmental destruction, inhumane lives, and even gruesome death are not trivial at all. We desperately need basic clothing that is fairly and safely produced… and costs more.
The overall moral issue is best explained in John Paul II’s extraordinary encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens, the priority of labor over capital, of people over things:
we must first of all recall a principle that has always been taught by the Church: the principle ot the priority of labour over capital. This principle directly concerns the process of production: in this process labour is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause. This principle is an evident truth that emerges from the whole of man’s historical experience. … This truth, which is part of the abiding heritage of the Church’s teaching, must always be emphasized with reference to the question of the labour system and with regard to the whole socioeconomic system. We must emphasize and give prominence to the primacy of man in the production process, the primacy of man over things. … A labour system can be right, in the sense of being in conformity with the very essence of the issue, and in the sense of being intrinsically true and also morally legitimate, if in its very basis it overcomes the opposition between labour and capital through an effort at being shaped in accordance with the principle put forward above: the principle of the substantial and real priority of labour, of the subjectivity of human labour and its effective participation in the whole production process, independently of the nature of the services provided by the worker.
The teaching does not say capital and things are bad. But they are meant to serve people, not be served by them. When this order of priority is violated, we have sin. Insofar as people say, well, we need cheap food and clothing, our economy as a whole is evidently enslaved to these things, because we are willing to accept the treatment of animals, the land, and distant workers that are essential for cheap food and clothing. This is slavery to sin. Usually the term used here is “addicted,” but let’s face it, this isn’t a matter of chemical addiction, but of social structure and habituation. Let’s make our clothing (and food) sources of pride, not of shame. Because we don’t need any amazing new technology to do this. We don’t need to be ascetics and live in caves. We just need to orient our desires rightly, and then pay for it, by dumping some of the other scams that are sucking away our money. But as long as we want $1 burgers and $3 T-shirts, companies will find ways of providing them that will involve these horrors – these plain contradictions of plain Catholic teachings.