Friday, April 4, 2014

Why Buying American Could Help Solve Our "E Problems"

What started first -- our addiction to cheap goods or the exodus of American manufacturing jobs overseas?  It’s hard to say, as each feeds the other: the more cheap goods we buy, the poorer we become and the more demand we create for cheap goods.  If left unchanged, this dynamic must inevitably trap a growing number of Americans in a low-wage economy and accelerate our environmental problems (the “E” problems). 

Most of us don’t think about the story behind each thing we buy. This is not surprising, as the story is both complex and it’s often not in the best interest of the producer to tell it to us.  A recent National Public Radio initiative, “The Planet Money T-shirt Project”, attempts to unpack one of these stories by following an order of 25,000 t-shirts from cotton farm to manufacturing to final delivery.  The project goes a long way towards explaining how our current consumer culture supports an unsustainable global economy.  

In a forthright interview, the CEO of Crystal, the Columbian company that makes the women’s Planet Money t-shirts, sums up the operating principles of modern production concisely: 

The garment worker commute in Bangladesh.

This is because the core goal of most producers in today’s economy is to make their good as cheaply as possible in order to maximize sales, shareholder value and corporate profit.  As Restrepo observed, manufacturing jobs gravitate to countries where people are willing to work for the least amount of money.  While the average annual wage of an American manufacturing worker was $23.70 per hour in 2011, it was $1.17 per hour in India, $1.60 per hour in China, $4.53 per hour in Mexico, and $7.93 in Brazil. 

I guess a sign of our success is that we’ve been saying “bon voyage” to manufacturing jobs in America for a long-time now.  In 1961 manufacturing jobs accounted for 28% of all jobs in America; by 2010 that share had fallen to 9% of all jobs.   These jobs are often credited with having built the American middle-class, paying wages that supported a stable livelihood. 

Today, we are no longer a country that makes things.  Our modern economy is largely service based, with 85% of American jobs in the service-sector (a broad term that includes everything from doctors, lawyers and hedge-fund manager to fast-food workers and janitors).  Should we be worried about that?

The answer to that question depends on where you sit on the service-sector ladder; while a small number of white-collar professions capture a growing share of income, our economy has proven best at producing low-wage jobs.  Since 2009, 40% of all new jobs created pay less than $14 per hour.  The fastest growing occupations are food worker ($9.04 per hour) and retail sales ($10.97 per hour).

In this new economy, most Americans have seen their wages stagnate and the effects have rippled throughout our economic system.  As many Americans have begun to feel the pinch, they have shifted their buying habits towards cheaper goods made overseas.

Global corporations have proven incredibly adept at feeding our growing appetite for cheap goods.  In fact, they have gotten so good at it, that we now find ourselves buying more things than we ever have before. 

The apparel industry is a great example.  Today, 97% of all apparel sold in the US is made overseas.  Not only has this resulted in the loss of 80% of US apparel manufacturing jobs since 1990, as prices have fallen we’ve consumed more and more apparel goods.  On average, each American purchased over sixty pieces of clothing in 2012.  As the prices for goods have fallen, we have bought more and more things of all kinds.  In a study looking at this trend between 1997 and 2002, this included more computers, toys, televisions, sheets, towels, shoes, and appliances. 

And so we face the vicious cycle: the global free-market moves manufacturing to where it can make things the cheapest, the US loses decent paying manufacturing jobs, more and more Americans feeling the financial pinch buy cheaper goods made overseas, further cannibalizing American manufacturing jobs and a decent wage economy.  The cheap goods economy expands.

Not only are good wage manufacturing jobs being replaced by low-wage service jobs but the cheap goods economy is leading to ever-growing resource use, pollution, and waste disposal problems.  Cotton grown for clothes requires intensive pesticides. Computer, cell-phone, and other electronic appliances production involve the intensive use of toxic metals. Jewelry and watches necessitate precious metal mining, a process that employs toxic chemicals and results in ecological damage.  The majority of toys are nearly all plastic, which once thrown away can take over four hundred years to decompose.

 Everything we make has an environmental impact.  Every time we buy something, we give our consent to that trade-off.  The more we buy, the greater that environmental impact becomes.

So what are we to do?  We live in an economy that requires us to keep consuming to keep our economy growing.  Stop
consumption completely?  Unlikely and what would most people do for a living?  Go back to a barter or agrarian economy?  Even as a bearded, back-to-the-land type, I know this is never going to be the way most people live.  What are we to do?

I have thought about these questions a lot -- time to think is one of the pleasures of long winters on a farm.  I don’t think we’ll be leaving our consumption-based economy behind for some time or it’s too far into the future to see from where we sit now.  But I do think we can change the way we consume and the things we consume, changes that can help build a new American production economy and greatly reduce the environmental damage our consumption creates.

I think we all need to pay much more attention to where and how the things we buy are made and recognize that each thing we buy is a statement of our values.  Even if most people would like to practice this type of conscious consumption (and I believe many of us do), we often lack the information necessary to make an informed choice. 

Part of the barrier to becoming a more conscious consumer is a metaphysical problem: shopping in a store or on-line we are confronted only by the object we are considering buying. We are bound by space and time and can see the object only in the present moment, seeing nothing of how it got to the shelf or what will become of it after it has lost its usefulness to us.  We too often make our choice in ignorance, yet the action of buying any particular object validates and sustains the process by which it was created and the impact it will have once disposed of. 

This is not an insolvable problem; in fact, there are many successful examples of creating an opportunity for people to make more informed decisions.  As scientific consensus has revealed the dangers of smoking cigarettes, some countries have used graphic images to warn prospective buyers to the dangers of smoking.  While all food or beverage products already have a basic nutrition label, the growing obesity epidemic tied to the over consumption of sugar recently led the Food & Drug Administration to revise the label and create the category of “Added Sugar”.  This change allows consumers to see the amount of artificial sweeteners (like high-fructose corn syrup, which has been directly tied to obesity) producers are purposefully adding to their food products. 

But the failure of these types of labels is that they assume that we care only about information that pertains to ourselves – how consuming a product may negatively effect us individually.  Of course we care about our own health and happiness; but if that is the limit of our concerns, we must inevitably fail to confront the magnitude of the economic and environmental problems we face collectively.

Who made the product we are buying and how much were they paid?  What were their working conditions?  What potentially hazardous materials were used?  What environmental impacts result from the material mining or manufacturing process?  How much energy was used in making the product and getting it to my doorstep?  What are the environmental impacts of disposal?

While accessing this amount of information might seem overwhelming, technological innovations like barcode scanning apps that allow you to use your Smartphone to access product information make it a realistic possibility.  The problem is not technology, it’s that we can’t get access to these types of information from private corporations and it has not been in their interest to provide it to us (the recent battle of labeling Genetically Modified Foods is an example).

While we work for comprehensive transparency around the things we buy, a good place to start today is buying things that are “Made in America”.  We have spent a century building up a regulatory system that is meant to protect consumers from unsafe products, reign in production processes that have negative environmental impacts and create safe and healthy working conditions.  While many of us know these systems are in need of major reforms, they are far ahead of the regulatory systems in the countries where most of the things we buy are now made.  Buying a foreign product essentially bypasses this whole system, throwing generations of work overboard.

Most importantly, we know that American-made products will pay higher wages to the people who make them.  The trade-off is clear when we buy cheap, foreign made goods: we are sacrificing the types of jobs that helped build an American middle-class in order to save a few dollars.  Breaking the vicious cycle of that cheap goods economy begins by refusing to buy cheap goods.

We know that a “Made in America” label means we’ll have to spend more money on what we are buying, leaving less for other things.  But assuming we have enough to cover our basic needs, is that so bad?  Maybe we should be focusing more on quality than quantity, buying less stuff, but making sure the things we buy support a more equitable economy and reduce our environmental impact. 

 This thinking is catching on among leading corporations, inspired both by growing environmental concerns and recognition that chronically declining American wages are eroding their customer base.  Patagonia launched a “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad campaign, directly advocating for less consumption generally and more conscious consumption of higher quality products that last longer and directly reduce environmental impacts.  Last year Wall-mart, America’s largest retailer, announced a commitment to buy $50 billion more in American made goods over the next ten years. (Some critics have correctly pointed out that Wal-mart’s plan remains firmly grounded in maintaining the status-quo of a cheap goods economy, as they’ve said their customers shouldn’t pay any more for something “Made in America”.)

But we have to start rebuilding a more sustainable economy (both socially and environmentally) somewhere.  To have an opportunity to be more conscious consumers, we must have access to the information that allows us to make an informed choice.  To be more conscious consumers, we must be willing to buy less stuff and pay more for products that help create a more sustainable economy.  To ensure all Americans can afford to participate in this economy, we must work to ensure all Americans are paid wages that allow them to meet their basic needs so they have the choice to consume consciously. 

Here’s how you can take action to start consciously consuming:

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