Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Conscientious Consumption: The Year in Review

Three months of wrangling later, I have finally received my union-made-in-America, bright green sweatpants. The original pair arrived in October with a two inch slit in the inseam. After much back-and-forth communication between me, the internet store and the manufacturer, I now own a pristine pair of pants, just in time for holiday festivity. Seriously, these sweats are really green.

The long awaited arrival also timed well with my decreasing patience. Most people would have demanded a refund weeks ago, but my special balance of understanding and laziness made me wait. I didn’t need the thirty bucks as much as I needed a pair of sweatpants, but I could have spent less on instant gratification if I had just sucked up my resolve and bought a pair that was made in a sweatshop. I had to ask myself why I was making this purchase so difficult for myself because I have bought other sweatshop-made goods this year (recent purchases include a stopwatch and an off-brand X-acto knife). This got me thinking about my 2010 resolution to buy my clothing second-hand or sweatshop-free. Why clothing? Why not all things? Does this decision make any difference? Why bother at all?

I’ll start by backtracking to the resolution itself. It all began when I read a Harper’s article entitled "Shopping for Sweat: The Human Price of a $2 T-shirt". I won’t get into that too much, as I already blogged about it in this post. In short, I was struck by two fairly apparent ideas that I had managed to ignore for many years: 1) Sweatshops are unjust and unsustainable workplaces (meaning that no person with any means will put up with those conditions forever) and 2) People in this country used to make the things that we now get from sweatshops, and it sucks that those jobs are disappearing. The second point is just as important as the first. I feel yucky buying sweatshop clothing because of the conditions in which those items were made, but I also feel yucky knowing that I could have supported our dwindling manufacturing industry.

So, I’ve made a conscious effort to buy all things sweatshop-free. I sometimes pay a bit more for my purchases. Mostly, I spend more time shopping because I’m checking all the labels. But I’ve been surprised to discover how many things are made in the USA. I’ve been able to find notebooks, pet toys, a cooler. It seems that usually there are three Made in China options for every one Made in the USA, but that just makes choosing easier (and when it comes to the dreaded shopping task, I’m all about “easier”). As mentioned above, I have failed from time to time. The knife is a good example – it was the only choice available at the Target where I was shopping. I needed it right away. I didn’t want to invest hours researching other options online, so I bought it. That’s the essence of the exception – if I need it soon and there’s no other choice, I may buy the sweatshop–made product.

I’m less likely to make exceptions for apparel, for a few reasons. First, I rarely find myself in a situation where I need an item of clothing right quick (except with weddings – the last one I attended led to the indiscretions described in this post). I can take the time to find alternatives. Second, I tend to buy most of my clothing second-hand, and while many of those items were undoubtedly produced in sweatshops, I also appreciate the value of reusing. But I think the biggest reason that I avoid purchasing new sweatshop-made apparel is that it is so pervasive. That seems backwards, I know. It’s the toughest goal to meet because almost all clothing is made in third world sweatshops, not to mention that clothing is a basic human need. I guess that the preponderance of sweatshop-made apparel bugs me because it represents a common, shoulder-shrugging acceptance of everyday injustice, and that just makes me mad. So, I’ve sought alternatives. I know that not everyone has the time, money or other resources to pursue those alternatives, but some of you do. Please consider this when shopping.

I guess that all thoughtful people have their pet causes. An elderly friend of mine thinks that anyone who isn’t primarily concerned about nuclear disarmament is an idiot, and I certainly see his point. I’ve also been told that my particular way of approaching the problem of sweatshops is ineffective, which may be true. The few dollars I spend or don’t spend won’t make any more difference than a blog post that will be read by (maybe) ten people. My resolve doesn’t rest upon my ability to change other people. I’m just trying to do the right thing. And barring any exciting news or developments related to this topic, I think that is all I have to say about it.

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