It’s such a vast and complicated issue. You hear about it all over the news in one form or another practically every day: immigration reform, free trade, fair trade, the disintegration of the Middle Class, and the outsourcing of jobs. You run into it when you call customer service at a lot of the large corporations and get someone with a barely understandable accent that tells you his name is John Wayne. (I’m not kidding, this actually happened to me.) You hear about children working in sweatshops for pennies an hour and how small farmers overseas are starving because they can’t compete.
At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, it wasn’t so bad for the workers. It has always been an issue of supply and demand. Manufacturing and the production of consumer goods were skyrocketing. America’s economy up to that point had been mostly rural. You worked long hours in the fields to produce what your family would consume. If there was a little left over, you bartered or sold it in town in exchange for the things that you couldn’t make yourself.
Then came the migration to the cities. In the beginning, manufacturers were desperate for help. The working conditions were harsh, but no more so than on the farm. Young people were used to it. And there were benefits. You made pretty good money and after a few years you could afford to buy a house. It was The American Dream. Sometimes the company even built it for you. Whole towns and parts of cities were created to attract workers. After about 15 years or so when your body started wearing out from all the hard work, you could retire with your small pension and you were, well, comfortable.
All that began to change with the importation of cheaper labor from the South after the Civil War and the flood of immigration into the big cities. All of a sudden the corporations realized that they no longer needed to be so nice and could cut costs substantially with much cheaper and willing labor. Now we have everything from bicycles to Fig Newtons being made overseas and corporations building their headquarters in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying taxes.
You have probably heard of or purchased Fair Trade Coffee. There isn’t a Starbucks, small coffee shop, or supermarket that doesn’t have it. It’s trendy, and baby boomers who have realized more success than they ever dreamed of in college seemed to have embraced it. It does pay to be a little cautious however, when you see words like organic, free trade, or all natural. A local story here recently told about eggs that were laid by “free range, hormone free, naturally fed,” chickens. Turns out that the chickens were free to roam around a farm where the conditions were horrible. Disease was rampant and the “natural” food that the chickens consumed turned out to be themselves!
Now, a couple of guys that used to work for Land’s End Clothing Company and drank fair-trade coffee had an idea: “Wouldn’t it be neat if I could buy fair-trade clothes: clothes that I know weren’t produced by children working 16-hour days in sweatshops for a mere pittance?” Recently www.FairIndigo.com went live online and next month they plan to open their first store in a shopping mall in Madison, Wis.
A couple of the items that they sell, a velvet jacket and an essential black dress, have been enormous hits. Fair Indigo believes that fair-trade clothing could eventually account for 10 percent of the $150 billion U.S. retail clothing market.
What about cost? American consumers are usually on a mission to get a bargain. Will they be willing to pay more just to help out some people that are half a world away? Fair Indigo believes that they can be competitive in price, and in some cases even offer lower prices because they sell directly to the public to avoid markups, and don’t plan on spending a fortune on glossy advertising and fashion shows. Also, a lot of the factories, (that are personally checked out by Fair Indigo), are co-ops, owned by the workers, so there’s no rich board of investors to subsidize. More of the money you spend ends up in the hands of the people who make the clothing. And that’s a good thing.