Thursday, November 25, 2004

Sweat-free shopping

This holiday season, I decided to take a seasonal job to pay some bills and help supplement my income while launching my first book. Many Americans use seasonal employment as a means to close the gap between the incomes from their five or six/day a week gig and the growing cost of living in many parts of the U.S.

I was rehired by a large retailer that most outside the Northeast would know. Their retail store is tourist destination for folks visiting my home state during the summer and fall. Founded by a “real” Mainer, the company has changed dramatically since their founding in the early 1900’s. What has disturbed me while answering calls from catalog customers is the number of items that the company now offers that are made in countries such as Thailand, China, Madagascar, El Salvador and other countries notorious for sweatshops and the labor abuses that go along with that. While one of the perks of seasonal employment usually is the discount that goes along with having the extra income, I’m finding it difficult to find any products that I want to buy, as every item I look up appears to be made in a third world country. While I'm sure there are reasons why this is so, I'm concerned that the primary one is profit. Not only is their merchandise made elsewhere, they aren't exactly paying top-shelf wages either.

I’ve heard many rationales for why Americans shop at retailers like Wal-Mart and others who continue to ignore calls to stop importing sweatshop-made merchandize. Some people either tune the reality out, or are too narcissistic to care. In speaking to a seasonal co-worker the other night about this very issue, his response was, “I don’t worry about that.” While his lack of concern was troubling, I believe many Americans are caring people. If presented with a way to buy well-made products at comparable prices and support the workers producing their merchandise, I think most Americans will opt to do the right thing.

I’m going to challenge my readers to carefully choose where you buy those items that aren’t necessities. For instance, your Christmas gifts this year—how about refraining from purchasing any items that are not made in the U.S.—it might take some effort, but it also might be more in keeping with the true spirit of the holiday.

If you are interested in being a better consumer, you can check out the No Sweat! site that gives consumers information about ways to avoid supporting exploitation of other humans.

Additionally, there is a great retailer that I’ve been using of late. With some great blue jeans, as well as quality mock and regular t-shirts, I’ve found a U.S. company that still pays living wages to their employees. Not only are their products union-made, they are less expensive than sweatshop-made products that I’ve made comparisons to.

Here’s an opportunity to start making a real difference by being a wiser and more humane consumer. Studies show that if Americans made a commitment to buy just one union-made garment during 2005, that would be $9 billion of merchandise—that creates an amazing amount of jobs by one relatively easy act! The choice is yours—do you buy products that provide quality lives for others, or do you act in your own self-interest, knowing others are suffering as a result?

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