Guide to sweatshop-free buying - why "buy blue" is not enough
by ACSR, Mon May 08, 2006 at 05:42:02 PM EDT
This is another of my rambling screeds. It concerns a subject near and dear to our hearts: Money. The "buy blue" idea got some attention after the 2004 elections. (see http://www.buyblue.org/) The idea is buying products from companies that donate to Democrats, and boycotting companies that donate to Republicans. This sort of information is available on http://www.opensecrets.org/ and other sites. "Buy American" has been a watchword for decades, especially during the 1980s and 1990s when we saw the bottom falling out of the Rust Belt's manufacturing base because of Reaganomics and globalization. Another thing people do is buy local or maybe bioregional. This is especially popular among Greens; buy from local farmers markets and so on. There are also those who make a point of keeping their transactions in places like barter and eBay as much as possible, those who make a point of buying only "socially responsible" products such as recycled or environmentally friendly, and some individual companies people go out of their way to give business to like Citgo.
All those things are probably good, but they are not enough. Some of them are based on flawed reasoning. What I really want is to secede completely from the sweatshop economy. It's not enough for a product to be environmentally friendly if the people making it got paid 75 cents an hour. That's not even enough to eat decently on, much less send your kids to college. It's also not enough to buy from a company that makes big donations to Democrats, if that same company is selling shelf after shelf of cheap goods made in China and dumped on the U.S. market. It's not enough to buy American if companies can locate in Saipan or Guam where U.S. labor laws don't apply, pay workers $1/hour but still use the "made in USA" label. This loophole was pointed out to me when I made an earlier comment about buying American. For that matter there are American companies that are notorious union-busters, and some of them are even located in places like Ohio and California that are otherwise relatively pro-union states.
What that in mind, I present this quick'n'dirty guide to sweatshop-free shopping. Keep in mind that it is not enough to settle for the sweatshop-free market being a small niche market. My goal is to put sweatshops out of business worldwide, force companies to recognize independent union representation, and ensure that everyone gets a wage that goes beyond mere subsistence wages but is enough to give them a chance at a meaningful and enjoyable life.
First, some ground rules:
- Never, ever buy anything made in China. There are no independent labor unions in China. There is nothing made in China where the people making it are paid a livable wage. This doesn't mean abandoning the Chinese people, it means we want the Chinese people to get paid decent wages and have union representation. This won't happen if we keep propping up the Chinese Communist Party's current business model by buying their products.
- Never, ever buy anything from the big box stores. This means Wal-Mart, and also Target, Home Depot, Lowes, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Kmart, and it also includes Bed Bath & Beyond no matter how much they donated to Democrats. Except for two Borders stores there is not one single example of these stores that is unionized, and Borders has just announced they will be closing one of their two unionized stores (http://www.bordersunion.org/). The few Wal-Marts that dared to unionize were closed immediately after by the company. Stop giving these companies your business until after we successfully unionize every last one of them. There is another reason to stop giving them your business, they carry shelf after shelf of products made in China. Yes, you will find some made in USA and even union-made products at these stores. It may seem like a good idea to buy those products at the big box stores to encourage those stores to carry more of them, but after checking into what has happened when unionized American manufacturers got their products into Wal-mart it wasn't a good thing at all. Look up the story of Huffy Bicycles sometime. In order to meet their obligations to Wal-Mart, Huffy was literally forced to close their unionized plants and move manufacturing to a non-union plant in the south, and then to close that one and move overseas. There is a third reason not to buy from big box stores and that is they outcompete local mom & pop businesses.
- "Buy American" isn't really the issue anymore. I don't like globalization, I don't think it was a good thing, and I don't think it was inevitable. I do think we need to bring back the U.S. manufacturing base. But the economy is so globalized now that the logical next step is unionizing the third world. China may have to wait for regime change but other countries have burgeoning independent labor movements, some of them about at the stage the U.S. labor movement was in the 1910s or 1930s. South Korea, for example. I'm just starting to read up on this but we need to support these movements and we need to do so around the world. One company worth making an extra effort to buy from is Just Garments in El Salvador: http://www.justgarments.net/ - they are having financial difficulties right now and need all the business they can get (or even donations: http://www.justgarments.net/support/supp
- Buying American is preferred if the product is union-made. Check the labels or see the resources below.
- Do buy from western Europe. This is another example of why buying American isn't enough. American-made products may be 10-15% union made, western European products are more like 70% likely to be union made. Especially with things like outdoor gear, almost all of the stuff at stores like REI is made in China - or you can go online and buy gear made in Italy, Austria, or Norway. I know which I am going to do.
- Ask your local stores to carry more union-made products. No, not the big box stores. The only reason we ever want to go near a Wal-Mart is to pass out union literature to the employees. What I mean is the locally owned stores. Here are two surprising sources where you might be more likely to find union-made products than your typical mall clothing outlet: Surplus stores, and Western (as in cowboy) clothing stores. Diamond Cut jeans are union-made. So are some Carhartt but be sure and check the label. Any Carhartt that is U.S. made is union-made and about half their products are U.S. made. Red Wing shoes and boots are union-made.
- Do buy online from online retailers specializing in union-made, sweatshop-free goods. Here's a partial list:
http://www.justiceclothing.com/ - clothing
http://www.nosweatapparel.com/ - clothing
http://www.unionhouse.com/ - clothing
http://www.unionjeancompany.com/ - clothing
http://www.unions-america.com/ - dialup internet
http://www.powells.com/ - the only unionized online bookseller (ditch Amazon.com now and buy only from Powells)
This should give you a start.
- Do buy from food co-ops and farmers markets. These are usually not union but in this case they are usually founded on the idea of fair prices and fair trade. More about co-ops here http://www.coopdirectory.org/
- Do your homework. Here are more good websites:
Sweatshop Watch: http://www.sweatshopwatch.org/
UNITE HERE union made directory (easier to navigate than the AFL-CIO Do Buy site): http://www.unitehere.org/buyunion/
10. If you can't find what you need union-made, then fall back on some other guidelines. American-made is better than third-world-made, local is better than not local, environmentally friendly is better than not, companies donating to Democrats are better than companies donating to Republicans. But my point of this post: These shouldn't be your first guidelines, and none of these alone should suffice as a guideline.
Hope this was helpful. Back to lurk mode...