Consumer culture encourages us to buy ever more stuff at lower and lower prices, but who really pays the price for cheap stuff? Sarah van Gelder explores the cost of consumerism and the meaning of real happiness in Sustainable Happiness (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015), a collection of essays and personal stories that redefine the common cultural definition of happiness with a message of renewal through building thriving communities and a vibrant, natural world. The following excerpt is from chapter 3, “Who Pays the Price for Cheap Stuff?”
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I’m a critic of consumerism, but I’m neither for nor against stuff.
I confess that my T-shirt drawer is so full it’s hard to close. (That’s partly because I’m often given a Tee as a souvenir when I speak at a conference or event.) But of all the T-shirts I have accumulated over the years, there are only a few that I honestly care about. My favorite (no eye-rolling, please) is a green number from the Grateful Dead’s 1982 New Year’s Eve concert. To me this shirt, worn for more than 30 years by multiple members of my extended family, is both useful and beautiful, not only because I attended the concert but because a dear friend gave it to me, knowing how much I would treasure it. The label even says “Made in the USA,” which makes me smile because so few things are made in this country anymore, as brands increasingly opt for low-paid workers in poor countries.
Our stuff should not be artifacts of indulgence and disposability, like toys that are forgotten 15 minutes after the wrapping comes off, but things that are both practical and meaningful. British philosopher William Morris said it best: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
The life cycle of a simple cotton T-shirt—worldwide, 4 billion are made, sold, and discarded each year—knits together a chain of seemingly intractable problems, from the elusive definition of sustainable agriculture to the greed and classism of fashion marketing.
The story of a T-shirt gives us insight into the complexity of our relationship with even the simplest stuff. It also demonstrates why consumer activism—boycotting or avoiding products that don’t meet our personal standards for sustainability and fairness—will never be enough to bring about real and lasting change. Like a vast Venn diagram covering the entire planet, the environmental and social impacts of cheap T-shirts overlap and intersect on many layers, making it impossible to fix one without addressing the others.
Who Sews Those Tees?
And that takes me back to a day in 1990, in the slums of Port-au-Prince. I was in Haiti to meet with women who worked in sweatshops making T-shirts and other clothing for the Walt Disney Company. The women were nervous about speaking freely. We crowded into a tiny room inside a small cinderblock house. In sweltering heat, we had to keep the windows shuttered for fear that someone might see us talking. These women worked six days a week, eight hours a day, sewing clothes that they could never save enough to buy. Those lucky enough to be paid minimum wage earned about $15 a week. The women described the grueling pressure at work, routine sexual harassment, and other unsafe and demeaning conditions.
They knew that Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, made millions. A few years after my visit, a National Labor Committee documentary, Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti, revealed that in 1996 Eisner made $8.7 million in salary plus $181 million in stock options—a staggering $101,000 an hour. The Haitian workers were paid one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. retail price of each garment they sewed.
The women wanted fair pay for a day’s work—which in their dire straits meant $5 a day. They wanted to be safe, to be able to drink water when hot, and to be free from sexual harassment. They wanted to come home early enough to see their children before bedtime and to have enough food to feed them a solid meal when they woke. Their suffering, and the suffering of other garment workers worldwide, was a major reason the end product could be sold on the shelves of big-box retailers for a few dollars.
I asked them why they stayed in the teeming city, living in slums that had little electricity and no running water or sanitation, and working in such obviously unhealthy environments instead of returning to the countryside where they had grown up. They said the countryside simply couldn’t sustain them anymore. Their families had given up farming, unable to compete against the rice imported from the U.S. and sold for less than half the price of the more labor-intensive, more nutritious native rice. It was all part of a plan, someone whispered, by the World Bank and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to drive Haitians off their land and into the city to sew clothes for rich Americans. The destruction of farming as a livelihood was necessary to push people to the city, so people would be desperate enough to work all day in hellish sweatshops.
The Cost of Modern Consumer Culture
The next day I called on USAID. My jaw dropped as the man from the agency openly agreed with what at first had sounded like an exaggerated conspiracy theory. He said it wasn’t efficient for Haitians to work on family farms to produce food that could be grown more cheaply elsewhere. Instead they should accept their place in the global economy—which, in his eyes, meant sewing clothes for us in the United States. But surely, I said, efficiency was not the only criterion. A farmer’s connection to the land, healthy and dignified work, a parent’s ability to spend time with his or her kids after school, a community staying intact generation after generation—didn’t all these things have value?
“Well,” he said, “if a Haitian really wants to farm, there is room for a handful of them to grow things like organic mangoes for the high-end export market.” That’s right: USAID’s plan for the people of Haiti was not self-determination, but as a market for our surplus rice and a supplier of cheap seamstresses, with an occasional organic mango for sale at our gourmet grocery stores.
By 2008 Haiti was importing 80 percent of its rice. This left the world’s poorest country at the mercy of the global rice market. Rising fuel costs, global drought, and the diversion of water to more lucrative crops—like the thirsty cotton that went into the Disney clothing—withered worldwide rice production. Global rice prices tripled over a few months, leaving thousands of Haitians unable to afford their staple food. The New York Times carried stories of Haitians forced to resort to eating mud pies made with sugar and oil.
The Meaning of Citizenship
The problems of the T-shirt supply chain are just a smattering of the ills that not only result from the take-make-waste economy but make it possible. That’s why striving to make responsible choices at the individual consumer level, while good, is just not enough. Change on the scale required by the severity of today’s planetary and social crises requires a broader vision and a plan for addressing the root causes of the problem.
To do that we must stop thinking of ourselves primarily as consumers and start thinking and acting like citizens. That’s because the most important decisions about stuff are not those made in the supermarket or department store aisles. They are the decisions made in the halls of government and business about what materials to use and what standards to uphold.
Consumerism, even when it tries to embrace “sustainable” products, is a set of values that teaches us to define ourselves, communicate our identity, and seek meaning through acquisition of stuff rather than through our values and activities and our community. Today we’re so steeped in consumer culture that we head to the mall even when our houses and garages are full. We suffer angst over the adequacy of our belongings and amass crushing credit card debt to, as the author Dave Ramsey says, buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.
Citizenship, on the other hand, is about what Eric Liu, in The Gardens of Democracy, calls “how you show up in the world.” It’s taking seriously our responsibility to work for broad, deep change that doesn’t tinker around the margins of the system but achieves (forgive the activist-speak) a paradigm shift. Even “ethical consumerism” is generally limited to choosing the most responsible item on the menu, which often leaves us choosing between the lesser of two evils. Citizenship means working to change what’s on the menu, and stuff that trashes the planet or harms people just doesn’t belong. Citizenship means stepping beyond the comfort zones of everyday life and working with other committed citizens to make big, lasting change.
Reprinted with permission from Sustainable Happiness: Live Simply, Live Well, Make a Difference, edited by Sarah van Gelder and the staff of Yes! Magazine and published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015.