Recently, an otherwise innocent post over at Shakesville evolved into a debate about buying from business that employ unsavoury practices. I couldn't say this there, but I think it needs asking:
At what point do we allow our ethics to drive our spending habits? Conversely, at what point do we allow our needs to override our ethics when it comes to spending?
The West in general, and the US in particular, is a consumer economy. We produce increasingly less of what we consume, and we allow business to produce what we consume elsewhere in places where our own business and cultural ethics (such as they are) hold less power. This leads to sweatshops, oppressive work and living conditions, and destructive agricultural and industrial practices in those places where production continues.
The Free Trade pundits would describe all this as normal: the market sends production to the least costly places in order to reduce costs, including the cost of the end product to the consumer. Yet the costs in quality of life and environmental damage are substantial - they just can't be measured on an individual business's balance sheet.
Of course everyone wants cheaper goods and services. That's a given. But what are we prepared to sacrifice to obtain lower costs? And when are we prepared to pay more to reward responsible production?
For myself, I try to buy fair-trade coffee, local produce, and other like items, and I avoid processed foods, synthetic fibers and products made in countries that allow irresponsible business practices as listed above. Of course there are limits: I use a computer, drive a car, and have a household budget to maintain. My computer was made in Singapore, my phone and much of my cookware was made in China, and my clothes are often from Bangladesh or Indonesia made from cotton produced in some unsustainable manner. But I try.
It's too late to talk about domestic versus imported product. The US has long passed that debate, sending nearly all its industrial capacity overseas, and unless the federal stimulus package includes untold billions to revitalise domestic industry it will remain that way for a long time. Our choices are now mainly where those products and services originate, and under what conditions they are provided. I do my best on my own to be cognizant of those things, and to work with such businesses as can be shown to have at least some conscience, but it isn't always possible, and it's nearly always less-than-practical.
So the question remains. Any comments are welcome.
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