Friday, 18 October 2013

The Real Cost of Cheap Products

This post is going to be a bit more serious compared to a lot of the other stuff I write about. I'd been thinking about writing something on this subject for a while after reading other bloggers posts about ethical products but mostly I was prompted by a friend on my facebook page asking about the human cost of cheap clothing. Being a sociologist by trade I do question a lot of the practices that go on and how ethical they are. As a consumer though it can be hard to address these issues because we are so concerned with our own wallets that we only think about these things when there is a media outcry and even then, we only think about it until the next media panic comes along. As a society we need to educate ourselves about what actually goes on rather than remaining in denial.

It's all in the label
The question that we must ask ourselves is how is it possible to produce products and sell them at a low price? How is it possible to produce t-shirts that only cost £2? The answer is in the label. Where was that £2 t-shirt made? I bet it wasn't in the UK or US; it most likely was made in Turkey or India. The next question we have to pose to ourselves is why aren't mass produced products made in rich western countries?

Profit and profiteering
Products are not produced in the UK for a variety of reasons all of which increase the manufacturing cost and therefore decrease profits for the company. The UK has set a high minimum wage ($9.83 for over 21s) which all employers must adhere to but in other countries this is not the case. In places like Botswana and India the minimum wage is less than $1 an hour, when you compare this to one of the highest minimum wages of $16.88 an hour for Australians you start to see why companies are drawn to outsource work to certain places and withdraw from others.

The majority of western countries also have very strict environmental and labour regulations which simply do not exist in poorer countries. The reason why there is less regulation in these countries is to attract businesses to them. Even though business practices may harm the people and the environment, some of the more corrupt states are willing to sell out their citizens in order to gain themselves good deals with investors. A company will always try to reduce their overhead costs in a bid to increase profit. Currently there is a race to the bottom with regard to overheads. Consumers are becoming less and less willing to pay a high price for goods so there is pressure for companies to make products cheaper because there is always another company who is willing to stoop lower and undercut them.

One misconception that we must get out the way is that the problem doesn't just relate to cheap products. Even more expensive products can be subject to worker exploitation. Foxconn, the manufacturer of a plethora of gadgets including iPhones and Kindles, has been exposed as 'exploiting' workers and keeping them in terrible conditions so much so that they threatened to commit mass suicide if conditions did not change. The new iPhone costs £549 while workers in the Foxconn factories are paid around £60 per week, although they are given meals and a place to live conditions are little better than a prison cell.

What can we do as consumers?
We have to educate ourselves. The information is out there for us to make informed decisions as ethical consumers. There are companies that do appear to pay their workers peanuts, but for the majority of people in poverty getting paid something is better than starving to death. Factories branded as 'sweatshops' can improve the standard of living of workers, I know I'd rather work in a sweatshop with guaranteed income than have to search through landfill sites contaminated with toxic or medical waste with no guarantee of income. Having said that though, I do feel that more can be done to improve the conditions within sweatshops and improve the standard of living for workers. Offering a hot meal, a minimum wage, regular breaks, better lighting, education programmes or living arrangements courtesy of the company would go some way to ameliorate the situation for workers.

Things will not improve overnight but we can take informed collective action. We have consumer power, there are companies who do support their workers and treat them as more than a commodity. We have to favour companies who actively work ethically, H&M and Gap have been named as ethical apparel producers so it isn't like you have to pay through the nose to be an ethical consumer. Remember that expensive does not necessarily mean no exploitation as is the case with Foxconn. Other lists of ethical companies can be found here.

Now I'm not going to pretend that I will completely overhaul my spending habits but I am going to, and have been, adjusting my habits. Where possible I will shop with ethical companies and I shall support companies that treat their workers well. I will also be supporting charities that campaign for improved working conditions like this one. Some people will criticise me for my feeble attempt at being ethically aware, but it is better than what I was doing before and I'm hoping that this post will bring a little bit of attention to this issue even if it is just in passing. If you've managed to read this all the way to the end then well done you, because I'm sure some people will just skip past this.

I'd love to hear what other people have to say about this issue, so please comment


  1. Oh yes ... The truth hurts ... But you're absolutely right!
    Thanks for this post! We have to talk about it!

    Katherine Unique

    1. I think people just stay in denial because it is easier for them. I accept that my spending practices aren't ethical and I'd like to do something about it!

  2. These kind of eye openers are really necessary for me because most of the time I don't give a second thought to anything I buy, it's a good reminder for me to double check that I'm not supporting something that appalls me!


Did you know that in the film Toy Story, Sid's hallway carpet is the same design as the hallway carpet in The Shining? That's well creepy.

Heeeeeeeeeeeeres Jonny!