The Hidden Costs of "Free
Trade": Caretaking as Consumers
by Randy Haselow
We live in a consumer culture. We exchange money for material goods.
And our choice about what goods we exchange our money for is determining whether and how
quickly Earth Mother is able to heal, or not.
We work hard for our money, and we feel that we are entitled to spend
it as we please. And we do. We not only accumulate a lot of junk we don't need, but even
the necessities we choose to buy often come from sources and processes which are directly
harming Mother Earth.
A little awareness goes a long way. Read the labels on purchases you're
considering. About the most common label I see these days is "Made in China."
What does "Made in China" mean?
China is a long way away. It's about as far from North America as you
can get without a space shuttle. Products made in China have to travel thousands of miles
(using a lot of fuel and releasing a lot of fumes) to make it to our stores. Here in North
America we know how to make these products. Why do we ship them from the other side of the
We work hard for our money, and despite the tremendous distances
involved, goods made in China are considerably cheaper than goods made in the USA, even
after the extra fuel, labor and import duties. How can this be?
I have never been to China. It would be an expensive and arduous
journey to make. But I have spoken with expatriate Chinese about conditions in their
country, and I have read a lot about this rising economic superpower in Asia.
Around 1 billion people live in China. Most live in some degree of
material poverty. Millions of rural Chinese are so poor they have a hard time just
feeding, clothing and sheltering their families. They cannot live off the land, so they
need to make money. They migrate to the cities, looking for jobs. When millions and
millions of people are desperate for jobs, factory owners have no incentive to pay their
workers more than an absolute minimum: just enough to keep them fed, clothed and sheltered
enough to keep working productively. If a worker is unhappy, he or she can be replaced
immediately. Chinese labor is much cheaper than North American labor. This is "good
Many of my friends refuse to buy goods made in China. They tell me
Chinese prisoners are forced to produce goods for export, and that many Chinese prisoners
are "prisoners of conscience," like the protesters in Tienamen Square. They
protested living under a one-party dictatorship, and therefore have been enslaved to make
cheap goods in prison.
I imagine slave labour is also "good for profits."
I also understand that there are almost no environmental controls in
China, and, in fact, the Chinese government has declared that the Chinese environment must
be sacrificed in the short-term for the sake of economic growth. And so the land, air, and
water are being destroyed so that some Chinese can have lots of money. Placing no value on
the preservation of resources, on caretaking the Earth, is another factor in producing
very cheap goods. I'm sure it is very "good for profits." Here in the US, many
corporations pay millions and millions of dollars to lobbyists who suggest to lawmakers
that maybe environmental controls aren't really very good for economic growth.
When you consider that the price of a product reflects the value placed
on the natural resources and labor which produced it, and on the environmental
destruction which resulted from its production, it's not surprising that Chinese goods
should be so inexpensive. An awareness of these factors is necessary if we as consumers
are to be caretakers at the same time.
Many of our cheap goods come from poor countries near and far. My
investigations have led me to conclude that these products are so cheap for reasons
similar to why Chinese goods are so cheap: cheap labor and lax environmental controls.
I used to live in the Dominican Republic, where I was a Peace Corps
volunteer. Some of my Dominican friends worked in factories in the Free Trade Zones, so
named because no import or export duties are levied there. Foreign investors build a
factory, import the raw materials from wherever is cheapest (i.e., where they are least
valued), exploit the cheap native labor and lax labor and environmental laws, and export
their goods to foreign markets. This is the Latin American manifestation of "free
trade." The US version is factories (and jobs) moving overseas, cheaper (and often
shoddier) goods in the stores, and more and more money for owners and investors. (If you
invest in companies with holdings overseas, it might be interesting to investigate just
exactly what they do to make such profits.)
My Dominican friend Albania Mendez left her home in the village at age
18 to look for work in the distant Zona Franca. The best job she could find was in a
Korean-owned factory where she painted cutesy translucent window decorations, such as
large-eyed kittens that you stick on your window with a suction cup. Some had schmaltzy
poems in English and were probably for export to North America. Albania worked 10 to
12-hour days Monday through Friday and at least 6 hours on Saturdays. She and the other
women were not allowed to leave the factory until the end of their shift. She told me
there was no ventilation and the fumes from the paints made her dizzy and sick to her
stomach. She earned the equivalent of twenty-three US dollars per week.
Our politicians and press argue that as long as people are willing to
work under such conditions, we should support them (and "free trade") by buying
goods made in poor countries under conditions we would never tolerate at home. But this is
not my vision for either my people or my Earth Mother. I believe that if resources were
distributed evenly, no one would be desperate. Do we really need billionaires?
I have made the choice not to buy goods produced in poor countries,
because I have learned that this would mean supporting the rape of the Earth and the
brutal exploitation of her people (unless I have compelling evidence otherwise). So far
this has not prevented me from obtaining anything I might need, even on a budget (and the
quality is often superior). Everything I buy is a product of either the US or Canada, or,
if an ocean must be crossed, Japan, Taiwan or Korea. Western Europe, Australia, New
Zealand and other rich countries would be acceptable as well.
But don't take my word for it. Investigate your potential purchases for
yourself. Choose to step lightly, taking only what you need.