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Saturday, 20 February 2016

When "Cheap" Makes me Cringe

   Most of the time I am able to convince myself that I am not a contributor to the world economy and its materialistic values.  Because I purchase almost all my clothing second-hand, I can say I am one step removed from the fashion industry and the exploitation of textile workers overseas.  Since I do not own a hand-held electronic device that is designed to become obsolete in a short period of time, I can tell myself that the way electronics are made and distributed is not my issue.  Except that in the past 30 days, I realized that I am an unwilling contributor to the world economy that wants everything cheap.
Exhibit A: Computer Modem
   The modem we had been using for our DSL internet connection stopped working last month.  Our internet provider was willing to mail us one for $75 plus $10 shipping, but we thought we would check local stores instead.  My husband found a modem for less than $30 before taxes.  What a great deal, I thought for a moment. But then I began to feel bad.  How could this bundle of electronics cost so little?   The shipping cost, the labour cost for the manufacture, the labour cost for the vendor, the labour cost for the person who unloads the shipping container and the profit margin all add up to $27 and change?  Something is wrong here.
   I thought back to when I first moved to this community and there was so much buzz about the Blackberry Company.  People were eager to work for this technology company, except those on the assembly line working 12 hour shifts actually assembling the phones.  Wherever there is greed, there is also injustice [1].

Exhibit B: Undergarments
   One of the clothing items I do not buy second hand is obvious.  When shopping for more of these last weekend, I found myself questioning their source.  Product of China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Cambodia.  When I look at the seams, stitches and elastic, I wonder how hard it is to make a pair of underwear.  With the right equipment, workers might be able to finish a pair in a few minutes.  But what kind of conditions do they work in?  Do they get breaks?  Is there a boss who keeps demanding a higher work quota?  I don't know the answers, but I remember when the garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed three years ago.  Some companies may try to distance themselves from unjust labour practices, but I cannot grasp how the price of some types of clothing is less now than it was 30 years ago. 
   If I go to the big name stores, there are no options for buying Canadian or American made undies.  I caved in this time, but next time I will do whatever it takes to buy fair trade underwear, even if they cost $17 a pair.  

I'm just one person.  I can't change the world system, but I can strive to make more ethical purchases. And I can share my angst when I am unsuccessful.

[1] The link between idolatry (greed is just one idol) and injustice is a main theme of Andy Crouch's book Playing God. 

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