I live in Australia. Today, the 21st of May 2013, I am sitting in bed typing this blog entry on an iPad which I reluctantly purchased for my job (at my employer’s expense mind you!), and which is made in China. I am surrounded by furniture, clothes, books, electronics and perishables that are all made in China or Bengladesh.
No, this is not one of these I-wonder-what-life-would-be-like-without-X type of blog entry. T’is no fantasy, no mere chimeric musing, but a protest, a revolt, a mutiny!
Whenever I talk to retailers about my struggle to find items made locally, they complain that customers will not buy stuff of comparable quality but at four to five times the cost of what most large shops offer. In other words, they blame the customers for caring more about short-term savings than about the local economy, the well-being of the workers who produce these cheap items, or even the quality of what they buy.
When I discuss these things with friends, they often seem uncomfortable, as if they felt ambiguous about buying all these things from China. They usually dislike the lack of quality, but few have really spent much time thinking about the working conditions of the workers. More strikingly, I have never met anyone who has even considered the effect it is having on our society, our economy, and our future.
To illustrate the points I am trying to put across, let me share with you a week-fresh anecdote. My China/Bengladesh-made clothes were beginning to fall apart, as they do mysteriously but with religious punctuality every six months or so, and my recent reflections on the wisdom and ethicality of continuing this trend of buying disposable clothes made me stop and wonder. I sat on the issue for a few weeks, while my appearance slowly but surely descended towards the threshold at which I would feel comfortable showing myself in public.
After some research, I finally decided to bite the bullet and buy some Australian-made clothes. I had been seduced a few years earlier by hemp and bamboo products, which are comfortable, durable and functional. I found an online shop that looked very Australian, brandished the magic words “Australian-made”, and had attractive prices, and I swiftly put together my first order of hemp clothes. Shirt, jumper, trousers and socks.
Events took a strange turn, however, when, a week later, I received a call from the shop owner. After clarifying some order and payment issues, I mentioned how excited I was to buy my first clothes not made in China. His response was immediate, almost a shout:
Ohh, but they are made in China!
He then went on to explain that they only bought clothes from outlets that had ethical work practices, no sweat shops. He also gave me the line about only being able to stay in business by offering the competitive prices only China-made clothes could provide.
Although I don’t like to admit it, I actually felt assured by these explanations. After all, these were going to be good-quality items made ethically. The price was low, but not so low that I would be concerned about these points.
I wasn’t until I had hang up that I started to realise that my main gripe with China-made items isn’t the quality. It isn’t the effect all this consumerism is having on the environment. It isn’t even the working conditions of factory workers. No! The main issue is that it further deprives our communities of the power to provide for themselves the basic commodities of life, and turns them instead into isolated and promiscuous consumers.
How many people in Australia today are able to make their own clothes? How many were they 30 years ago? The sales of sewing machines should give us a hint. As can be expected, home sewing nowadays is much more about embellishments, embroidery and “bling” than about covering our nakedness. It’s a hobby, not a necessity.
You might well ask what is wrong with that? I would retort that it’s fine to forget how to sew, as long as the sewing is done for us. What guarantee do we have that this arrangement will continue forever? If something should go wrong in the gigantic castle of cards that is the global economy, who will make our clothes? Who will teach you to sew?