Simplicity and Ethics (Part 3)

 

Minimalism is more than just a selfish endeavor to help make my life better.  It also helps the wider world.  Two areas where simplicity makes a big difference are ecology and human rights.  And the two simplicity principles which will guide this conversation are: 1. Buy less.  2. Pay more.

Ecology
Annie Leonard, in her now famous 20 minute video “The Story of Stuff,”1 discusses the impact the materials economy (extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal) has on our environment.  Recycling is good and she praises its virtues.  But she also points out that recycling is not enough.  Partly because some things are just non-recyclable, or at least very difficult to recycle (K-Cups for example).2 The answer to the problem?  Buy less.  Pay more (if necessary).

First, buy less.   “The Story of Stuff” discusses “perceived obsolescence.”  This means that certain things are designed so that they will be perceived as obsolete, even though they are not.  When the world around us changes so quickly it doesn’t take long before the stuff we buy easily becomes dated.  But dated doesn’t mean worthless.  Our clothes, our computers, our phones may work just fine but we often get rid of them because they don’t look like every one else’s.  This is no accident.  It was engineered that way.  In fact, it was engineered over 60 years ago.  In the 1955 Journal of Retailing Victor Lebow (mentioned in “The Story of Stuff”) wrote, “The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to … accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats, his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.”3 The point is, we often buy stuff when we don’t need to. We buy stuff to “fit in.” But is fitting in worth neglecting our moral obligation to care for God’s good creation (cf. Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15)? Of course not.  So what do we do?  The equation is simple: Less Stuff=Less Waste. Therefore, buy less.

Second, pay more (if necessary). I say “if necessary” because sometimes wasting less is cheaper. Sometimes we pay high prices for convenience, not quality. If we are willing to put in a tad more work then we can get the same effect for less money. E.g. the refillable K-Cup is actually more cost efficient than the convenient single use cups which are difficult to recycle. But sometimes, paying more is necessary. Just like perceived obsolescence, there is also planned obsolescence. Manufacturers sometimes actually make things which are intended to break/wear out easily so that you’ll be required to buy more. “But,” we think, “it’s cheap.” Is it? See, you may get a shirt for $5, but how long will it last? And do you really want it?  Cheap prices encourage us to “take a change” on buying something that we don’t really want because if we getting rid of it then we’re only out a few bucks, so no big deal.  In fact, according to Annie Leonard’s findings, we only keep 1% of the things we buy longer than six months. But lets assume that you do keep it until it wears out. How long will that be? Sometimes cheap things are cheap both economically and qualitatively.  So before long you return to buy another $5 shirt. Granted, that’s not much. But eventually it all adds up. If you buy 7 shirts at $5 each that’s $35. Not so cheap any more is it? So instead of buying 7 cheap shirts why not take the exact same amount of money and buy something durable, sustainable, and eco-friendly?4 This creates less waste (those shirts you toss out have to go somewhere) and it decreases the likelihood that you’ll get tired of the shirt. If you are going to spend $35 on a shirt you are more likely to think of it as an investment and less like to buy it on impulse. Since you can’t drop big bucks on an expensive piece of clothing every time you need one you are more likely to consider whether or not this is something that you want to wear over and over again. You are making a commitment up front not to toss it out. Who has the money to constantly replace expensive clothing? Paying more lowers the likelihood of impulse buys that end up in the trash, or worse, never worn at all.

We’ve only focused upon “stuff”, and mainly clothes.  But living simply helps the environment in other ways.  If you have less stuff you need less space and if you need less space that means you can live in a smaller house (much smaller than you think)5 and if you live in a smaller house that means you use less energy heating, cooling, and lighting it.  The gains of living simply compound, especially in regard to protecting our environment.

Economy and Human Rights
Have you ever walked into a mega-store to buy something and asked yourself, “How in the world is this so cheap?”  If you haven’t then maybe you should.  And if you have then chances are we should ask that question more often (myself included).  In the end there is only one way we get things so cheap on our end: someone must be paying for it on their end.  This creates a human rights dilemma.  So, what’s the solution?  It’s too complex an issue to offer the solution but we can at least do this: Buy less, pay more.

First, buy less.  If we buy a lot we either earn more or pay less.  Most of us are not earning more which means that in order to buy more we must pay less.  So buying a lot means getting it cheap.  But if our stuff is cheap we need to ask, “Why is it so cheap?”  Chances are the people who make our stuff are not getting paid fair wages.

Eighty percent of the workers in the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh were women between 18-20.  The common working shift was 13-14.5 hours per day.  That’s 90-100 hours a week with only 2 days off per month.  Entry level earned 12 cents an hour, second tier workers earned  22 cents an hour, and the seniors workers earned 24 cents per hour.  This plaza housed a factory responsible for making clothing for the US, Canada, and Europe.  So, how did we get such cheap things on our end?  Because they paid for it on their end.  But on this occasion, they paid not just with their cheap labor.  They paid with their lives.  On April 24, 2013 about 3,639 workers refused to go to work because of the threatening cracks which had appeared in the walls.  The owner of the plaza then hired professional thugs to beat the people in order to force them back to work.  Just 45 minutes later the building collapsed.  There were 1,137 confirmed dead and 200 remain missing to this day.6  You do not have to have a degree in economy to understand supply and demand.  If we don’t want the stuff companies don’t make the stuff.  We created the demand that created Rana Plaza.  Somewhere someone (maybe even me) is wearing a shirt that was sewn in that factory.  How would you feel if you knew of an absolute certainty that the shirt you bought today would contribute to someone’s death tomorrow?  We asked how we get things so cheap.  This is the answer.

Second, pay more.  If we have done the first  (bought less) then we retain more money.  This allows us to pay more for what we buy and ensure that those making our clothes are getting paid a fair wage for their work.  But how do we ensure that happens?  Someone may say, “Make sure it is made in the US.”  And I say, that’s a good idea.  It’s true that US companies often move business off shore so that they can pay their workers less there and sell it for less here.7  But the label “Made in the US” doesn’t solve this problem.  As Heather Franzese points out in her TED Talk, “Changing How You Think About Clothes,”8 being made in the USA only means that “substantial transformation happened here in the USA.”  But, she asks, “Where did they come before that?”  Where did the fabric and dye come from?  We have worded our definition of “Made in the USA” in such a way that it is possible to have a pair of jeans “Made in the USA” using “cotton grown with forced child labor in Uzbekistan and yarn dyed in China … The country of origin doesn’t always tell you what the conditions were like in the manufacturing.”  Franzese suggests that we ask questions where we shop.  She insists that we have a right to know where and how our clothes are being made.  She challenges us to “vote with our dollars and ask for fair and sustainable clothing.”

She also challenges us to investigate our priorities.  Is it most important to us that our clothes be made in the US or that the workers are being treated well and paid fairly regardless of where the clothes were made (including the US).  As much as I would love to see more business done in the US most of our clothes are currently made overseas.  So what do we do?  We can look for the labels (which, admittedly, often do not exist) that indicate it has complied with fair trade standards.  “Fair trade is a third party certification and membership process that assures a business is meeting strict labor, environmental, and developmental standards,” as Benjamin Conard discusses in his talk, “Fair Trade: A Just World Starts with You.”9

I have mostly focused on clothes here but much of what was said can apply to other goods: appliances, produce, coffee, chocolate etc.10 Now buying fair trade goods means paying more because it is the only way to ensure that the farmers, harvesters, manufacturers, and other workers get paid what is just. But the alternative is fueling tragedies like the Rana Plaza. So ask yourself, “Is my cheap shirt/banana/chocolate/coffee worth the enslavement/poverty/death of another person?” I think the answer is obvious.

Conclusion:
Simplicity helps because one of the characteristics of simple living is buying/having less which runs counter to “American” living.  The guiding principles of much American living are “Buy more, pay less.”  These principles are related because the only way we can buy so much is if we buy what is cheap.  But cheap ruins the environment and enslaves people across the world.  This is the “high cost” of being cheap.  And it is not worth paying.  So we invert the principles.  Instead of “Buy more, pay less” we say, “Buy less, pay more.”  This minimizes our environmental foot-print and maximizes the quality of life for those on whose backs our nation is founded.  Being human means being created in God’s image and our original vocation as his image is taking care of God’s good world through love and creativity.  This way of life encourages both.  So, buy less, pay more.  It’s human because it’s humane.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Annie Leonard, “The Story of Stuff.” Available at http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/ ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
2. K-Cup creator, John Sylvan, expresses some regret for creating the single-serve pods. You can read about it here: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/03/the-abominable-k-cup-coffee-pod-environment-problem/386501/ ; While the cups are now recyclable it is unlikely that consumers will do so because of the special device required to separate the plastic, aluminium, paper, and organic material. You can find information about this device, the Recycle A Cup© cutter, here: https://www.recycleacup.com/faqs/ ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017. Also, reusable K-Cups, which I use, are available online and through certain retailers, e.g. Bed Bath & Beyond.
3. Victor Lebow, “Price Competition in 1955”, Journal of Retailing, Spring 1955. Available at http://www.gcafh.org/edlab/Lebow.pdf ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
4. Linen, wool, and cotton are all sustainable and eco-friendly. These are exceptionally important because, as Maxine Bédat points out in her talk “The High Cost of Our Cheap Fashion”, apparel is now the second leading polluting industry. Her talk is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r8V4QWwxf0 ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
5. Among the Tiny House Movement there is not an agreed upon definition as to what constitutes a Tiny House but one blog considers Tiny Houses to be under 500 square feet. Available at http://www.tinyhousetown.net/p/about-blog.html ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
6. “Rana Plaza: A Look Back and Forward”, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. Available at: http://www.globallabourrights.org/campaigns/factory-collapse-in-bangladesh ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
7. Ted Fishman, “Why the Jobs Are Going Over There”, USA Today. Available at: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2011-05-17-Multinationals-send-jobs-overseas_n.htm ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017; Alex Lach, “5 Facts About Overseas Outsourcing”, Center for American Progress. Available at: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/news/2012/07/09/11898/5-facts-about-overseas-outsourcing/ ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
8. Heather Franzese, “Changing How You Think About Clothes.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rbUQj81dFY; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
9. Benjamin Conard, “Fair Trade: A Just World Starts with You.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xT6TQSxlDOY ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
10. Jason Garman, “Ethical Consumerism and the Power of Having a Choice/Voice.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAG-t-kXcqE ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.