A couple of years ago I noticed that damn near every one of the T-shirts in my dresser was made in countries other than the one in which I live. I began noticing that many of the other products I owned, or was going to purchase, were also being manufactured abroad. This alarmed me, not for any type of nationalist sentiment, but mainly because with such strong industry in the United States, and that fact that I live in the U.S., I would have expected to find more domestically-manufactured items.
I began research into the possible causes for this phenomenon. In the course of my search I learned about the trend of outsourcing, labor laws, environmental laws, NAFTA, and every other policy and practice that encourages this sort of thing. I began to realize that the main reasons for such a shift seemed to be with lowering product cost, be it by reducing the cost of labor (paying workers less money, usually by operating in countries with poor labor regulations and enforcement) or by being able to sidestep environmental standards (by producing in countries that do not have the standards, regulations, and fines that the U.S has).
Of course, a lower cost of manufacture would generally result in an overall lower product cost, which could mean a lower selling price is possible. But I didn’t remember paying any less for my t-shirts, my guitar, my shoes, my computer. In all actuality, I remembered paying a bit more than I was comfortable with. And so it would seem, while the products were being made cheaper and cheaper, the manufacturers kept right on selling as if nothing had changed. This angered me.
Intrigued, I jumped head first into learning the details of these practices; I read stories of the North Carolina garment industry being cut in half, from a strong production center to little more than corporate headquarters for the former inhabitants; I read of manufacturers (like Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, and Volkswagen AG) who setup factories in mexico, where they are immune to EPA and U.S. labor regulations despite the U.S. being their main North American market for sale of products; I learned of many U.S. brands that now made all their products abroad. In some cases, the companies seemed in opposition to moving overseas, but sighted the lower operating costs of competition as the primary reason for their move. Some companies retained a small U.S factory, others sent everything to asia or south america. Very few remained all U.S.-made.
At the time, I was looking for a new DVD player for my home. I began searching for a suitable product, but I also looked at the country of origin. Surely, a sony (japanese) DVD player would still be made in japan, or a Rotel (UK) deck made in britain. I was shocked to find the sony made in malaysia, the rotel made in china. The only ones I could find that were produced in a country with civilized labor enforcement and regulation was a DVD player by panasonic (japan), actually still made in japan. I purchased it promptly.
My core interest in this subject snowballed. I began looking at everything I purchased, researching alternatives to the questionable, and holding off on purchasing till an alternative was found. I began compiling a mental list of the products I would be comfortable purchasing.
This all required a substantial amount of my own time, and sometimes a bit of personal sacrifice, but it all hinged on my dedication to one principle I felt I could not violate: That as a citizen of a so-called first world nation, I must use the privilege of my access to information, my access to ethical debate, the value of my money, and overall market knowledge to try and purchase things that I believe are in accordance with the way I wish the capitalist market to operate; that regardless of how may companies are doing what and where, I am responsible for the market I help to create. My dollar is a vote for a system of practices, and in a multi-national market that is ruled by corporations and substantiated by consumer consent, my dollar is my only means of exerting appreciable force towards the practices I feel comfortable with.
Regardless of consciousness on the subject, the fact is my money is going to support an idea. The idea I choose to support could be one of two things;
Selective consumption, purchasing only from those who respect the worker and environment, and help to provide a more sustainable world
Mass consumption at all costs, at the cost of the health and rights of workers, and/or at the cost of the longevity and preservation of environment.
I choose the first way, supporting the system I actually believe in. Many folks choose the second way, most times I suspect, without even knowing they have a choice.
Since making this decision I have learned of many “ethical” alternatives for the market I want to create and support with my purchases. I have also found many organizations working to help find such markets. Myself, I have started a resource website (punkrocksweatshop.org) dedicated to listing production companies specifically for the band or record label looking to produce “ethical” t-shirts. Overall, I feel much better knowing that my purchases are helping to build something, rather than to disenfranchise the workers and the environment of the very protections the citizens of the “first world” have fought so long and hard to incorporate into their everyday life.