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The Economics of Caring: Responsible Consumerism

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I have written about the economics of caring before. Although I only touched on it briefly, there is much more to be said on the topic. In a global marketplace dominated by a relatively small number of large players, an environment increasingly strained, and a growing divide between rich and poor, this topic is of utmost importance.

So what got me started on this topic today? Well, I read an article on Blogcritics Magazine, "Quiet Hero is Not So Quietly Changing the World, One T-Shirt At a Time," by Alyse Wax. The article is about a small clothing company, Quiet Hero, that, in Wax's words, "promotes a holistic, organic lifestyle and helping children in war-torn countries – all while making you look good."

Quiet Hero sells Shines, Shirts, and Suki — unique, artistic bottles and rings made in Murano, Italy by glass artisans; shirts, both men's and women's, made of a 70% bamboo/30% organic cotton blend, both renewable resources; and vegan lotions and cremes. And 10% of their profits go towards helping children injured in adult conflicts get reconstructive surgery. What's wrong with that? Very little. Indeed I wish to see, that is to say I dream of, a wholesale move away from apparel mass-produced, often by giant multinationals, utilizing sweatshops in impoverished countries. And I wish more companies would take both environmental stewardship and social justice issue to heart.

There is possibly only one thing wrong here, something that has little to do with the proprietors of businesses like Quiet Hero. The problem is cost. My excitement dwindled rapidly as I saw the cost of their products. I was mainly looking at the t-shirts — $58 to $68 for a t-shirt? As excited as I was, I simply cannot afford them. I can barely afford a decent wardrobe from regular retailers. The answer I'd be sure to get, were I to approach them, would be that it costs much more to produce eco-sensitive clothing, not only because of the material, but also because of how and where it is made. Plus, part of the proceeds go to a great cause. I can't argue with either of these points, except to point to the real problem, a systemic one. One that has a lot to do with our values. And I am not talking about religious values here. I'm talking about basic human values!

Our society, fat and complacent as it is, does not value these things. People don't want to think about where things come from, what production methods were used, what impact said methods have on the environment, under what conditions they were made, and what people were exploited in the process. They want things now. They don't want to get their hands dirty for them (let someone else do it). And they don't want to think. Thinking might make them feel responsible, perhaps even guilty.

Many products produced by giant multinationals in impoverished countries are cheap as a result. Take most of the products at your local Wal-Mart or other relatively cheap department or big box store. Price, it seems to me, was the original motivation for moving production to foreign countries. Most poor people, because they cannot afford anything else, buy these products. For these people I have much sympathy.

Of course not all similarly produced products are cheap. Many companies, despite their exploitative practices, sell products for outrageous prices. They have managed to use branding and fashion sense to inflate their prices. Sheeple (sheep-like people), often people with ample resources, mindless and insecure, buy these expensive products of exploitation at the huge profit of those responsible for the exploitation. For these people I have very little sympathy.

Most manufacturers of products that are locally produced and/or produced with sensitivity and awareness of environmental and social justice issues, are forced by an economy dominated by multinationals, and governments, to raise their prices, often just to survive. I understand that. This will not change until there are more environmentally and socially conscious companies in the marketplace, and/or until governments begin to legislate change, forcing change. It is difficult for anyone to compete with the multinationals, so more are slow to come. And government will not likely force change as long as it is profitable for them — supporting exploitation is profitable.

We the public, since we have all been rendered consumers, are ultimately responsible for forcing change. We are, to borrow an idea from Chomsky, the world's second superpower. We need to make choices in our consumption, choices that will starve companies that exploit the environment and people, and profit those who care about the environment and about people. The poorer masses simply cannot afford, in most cases, to make many of those choices. Of the poor I expect only small steps. Those with more disposable income have a much greater potential for making choices that force change. Of these I expect giant steps. Of those who have more, more must be expected.

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About Abram Bergen

  • Nancy

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. Unfortunately I think most people don’t want to think about it not because they’re lazy so much as because they perceive they can’t do anything about the situation, therefore thinking about it would only produce considerable stress, pain, &/or rage for them at their helplessness. Yes, if we all got together & boycotted multinationals that are irresponsible or unresponsive, we could make a difference, but trying to motivate enough people to make a difference is a herculean task that many if not most people have no conception how to get started, let alone execute to the fullest. Also, anyone who thinks that once such a movement is started, the multinationals in question/the targets aren’t going to retaliate, is very mistaken, whether it be mere character assassination or (as is reputed of a couple of cases) actual assassination – altho mostly they control enough of the MSM to just roll over & ignore protesters, or more likely, mount an extensive counter-advertising campaign as Walmart did, all the while changing not a damned thing. They don’t have to, because there are, unfortunately, enough poor who can’t afford any alternative, as well as far too many sheeple, who are indifferent or too stupid to care.