The meaning of a five dollar dress

March 5 outfit 1

The price of the bar­gain dress is not paid by Tilda or Ray who wears it. The real cost is borne by the work­ers in the sweat­shops that are spring­ing up in hard-pressed com­mu­ni­ties.”

In the after­math of the Bangladesh build­ing col­lapse that killed more than 1,000 gar­ment fac­tory work­ers last April, these words have a timely ring. But in fact, they are drawn from U.S. Labor Sec­re­tary Frances Perkins’ 1933 essay “The Cost of a Five-Dollar Dress.”

I couldn’t help but be struck by the many par­al­lels between now and then—including the reluc­tance of us cash-strapped shop­pers to pay more than nec­es­sary. “[I]n hard times it is per­haps ask­ing too much of the con­sumer to hope that he (or she) will refuse to pur­chase spe­cially priced’ cloth­ing as a protest against sweat­shop prod­ucts,” acknowl­edged the prag­matic Perkins (who was, inci­den­tally, the first woman to hold a U.S. cab­i­net post).

Even for con­sumers com­mit­ted to putting their dol­lars where their val­ues are, the sit­u­a­tion is far from sim­ple. “I really want to do the right thing but I don’t know how to do that on my income. I cer­tainly can’t make my own clothes for a host of rea­sons. I do buy many things at thrift shops, but does that solve the prob­lem if they were still made cheaply in the first place?” was one friend’s response to my recent essay on “The Hid­den Costs of Fast Fash­ion.”

There is also con­cern that even expen­sive clothes may have been man­u­fac­tured under bad conditions—so given that we don’t know for sure, why pay more? (For what it’s worth, here’s my take: It’s true that money is no guarantee—that a pricey item may have come from an over­seas sweat­shop. But that $15 skirt or pair of pants? You can be pretty sure of it.)

Moreover—and I hate to tell you this—factory con­di­tions are not the only poten­tial moral haz­ard here. Con­sider the fact, as I learned just this morn­ing from my law pro­fes­sor friend Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, that the tin in the zip­pers and buck­les we wear is often inex­tri­ca­bly linked to bloody armed con­flicts and human rights abuses. (For more on this issue, see Ciara’s dis­turb­ing Slate piece about how “con­flict min­er­als” are inte­gral to our cell phones—and that the com­pa­nies who make these prod­ucts are cur­rently engaged in a legal bat­tle to secure their right not to tell us.)

So what do we do?

For starters, I sug­gest we not sim­ply throw up our hands or turn away–and that we keep look­ing for infor­ma­tion and answers even as we acknowl­edge our own complicity.

In the mean­time, many of us can spend more but buy less—though some no doubt would ques­tion this. To wit, one reader of my pre­vi­ous piece was hor­ri­fied at the sug­ges­tion that eight or ten pairs of shoes are more than a teen girl strictly needs. “Eight or ten pairs of shoes is extrav­a­gant? Where did you grow up? Well-dressed women have, at a min­i­mum, a pair of work­out shoes, san­dals, boots, bad-weather boots, flats, and some dressier heels of vary­ing heights — and then they have some if not all of those in dif­fer­ent col­ors and styles, depend­ing on their lifestyle. I doubt there’s a woman above the poverty line in Amer­ica with two feet and fewer than ten pairs of shoes. The aver­age woman in the US has at least 19 pairs.”

I will also con­tinue to sound the thrift shop drum. Yes, the cloth­ing we buy there—like the $2.00 Gap t-shirt I’m now wearing—may have been man­u­fac­tured under bad con­di­tions, but the fact is, it’s already here. We are talk­ing sunk costs, both envi­ron­men­tal and human, and in buy­ing used cloth­ing, at least we keep it out of land­fills. As I see it, thrift shops are one place we can still feel good about that five dol­lar dress. Or that five dol­lar dress that’s not a dress—just ask this woman here.

Why the New York Times was right to pick on Apple

Photo: Matt Wakeman

Days after the New York Times pub­lished a dev­as­tat­ing exposé of the myr­iad human costs of our beloved iPhones and iPads—includ­ing one espe­cially grisly and graph­i­cally detailed Chi­nese fac­tory explo­sion fatality—Apple defend­ers swung into gear.

[Apple CEO Tim] Cook has every right to be miffed about the Times report. His com­pany is being sin­gled out,” Larry Dig­nan wrote in ZDNet.

The sec­ond sen­tence is accu­rate. The first, to my mind, is not. Here’s why the New York Times was right to train its sights on Apple:

1.  We are wired to respond to stories.

We do not respond to the gen­eral. We respond to specifics. That’s why news fea­tures always focus on a sin­gle salient exam­ple, one com­pelling case that draws us into the larger story. Trial lawyers know this, mar­keters know this, and yes, reporters know this. And no, it isn’t ratio­nal, but we are not ratio­nal crea­tures. This sin­gu­lar recog­ni­tion is what accounts for the ongo­ing decline of clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics, along with the con­comi­tant rise of its behav­ioral coun­ter­part.

2. “All the kids do it” is not an excuse

Yes, the Times doubt­less tar­geted Apple because “it’s the big dog on the tech block,” as Dig­nan puts it. But so what? Does that make its human rights infrac­tions any less hor­ri­fy­ing? No one is sug­gest­ing that we stop with Apple,  but it seems like a fine place to start.

3. Apple users care more.

Here, I will be shame­lessly anec­do­tal. Based on per­sonal observation—heavily informed by lines drawn when I con­sulted my Face­book net­work on the Apple vs. Win­dows pur­chase question—consumers of Apple prod­ucts (who dis­pro­por­tion­ately hail from the cre­ative econ­omy) are more prone to out­rage over human rights vio­la­tions than are invet­er­ate Win­dows users. Okay, I’ve said my piece. Let the flam­ing begin.

I have not been a big fan of the Times in recent months, with its tone-deaf fea­tures on “Manly Bags for the Week­end War­rior,” includ­ing a snappy lit­tle $2,550 Louis Vuit­ton num­ber (at a time when our nation’s real war­riors are return­ing home to record unem­ploy­ment) and why the nation’s job­less oppose extend­ing unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits (which, of course, and speak­ing from expe­ri­ence, is patently ridiculous).

In this case, how­ever, the Times made the right call. Bot­tom line: You don’t get to fla­grantly trade off human lives against profit. That’s why the noto­ri­ous Ford Pinto memo was so scandalous—and why it sparked pop­u­lar out­rage along with a (later-reduced) $125 mil­lion dam­age award. (As some read­ers will recall, the memo employed a  cost-benefit analy­sis to pre­dict that a given design change would save 180 lives but cost an extra $11 per car, with a total cost esti­mated at $137 mil­lion ver­sus a $49.5 mil­lion price tag put on the antic­i­pated deaths and injuries. Ford opted not to make the change.)

It’s true that, at the mar­gins, choices do get tougher. Because, yes, life is risky and everything—even cross­ing the street—entails a cer­tain risk. At the mar­gins, we are forced to make tough deci­sions, to pri­or­i­tize com­pet­ing con­cerns. But that’s not the case with Apple. Right now, we are nowhere near those margins.

To add your voice to the thou­sands demand­ing that Apple improve global work­ing con­di­tions, please join me in sign­ing this peti­tion.

What price an iPhone?

In The Twenty-One Bal­loons—one of my all-time favorite child­hood books—a kindly pro­fes­sor attempts to fly across the Pacific by bal­loon but instead crash lands onto the diamond-rich island of Kraka­toa. There, he dis­cov­ers a fan­tas­ti­cal com­mu­nity where, apart from the few oblig­a­tions imposed by a “Restau­rant Gov­ern­ment,” the lucky inhab­i­tants spend their days “try­ing to make life more pleas­ant for our­selves and each other.”

There was a time when this happy vision had much in com­mon with how we imag­ined The Future. With­out giv­ing it too much thought, those of us who grew up watch­ing The Jet­sons and dream­ing of mag­i­cal robots assumed that labor-saving devices would mean more free time for every­one, as we all shared in the ben­e­fits of new technologies.

But that’s not how it’s turned out. Almost with­out notic­ing, we’ve traded our egal­i­tar­ian Jetsons-era paradigm—which inci­den­tally coin­cided with a thriv­ing Amer­i­can mid­dle class—for one that requires ever-more from the world’s poor­est and most vul­ner­a­ble while pil­ing up riches for an ultra-rich and every smaller global elite.

Not con­vinced?

Take a look at the New York Times’ exhaus­tive piece on How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work. The story goes like this:  Apple has moved almost all of its man­u­fac­tur­ing over­seas because this was its “only option.” The “flex­i­bil­ity, dili­gence and indus­trial skills” that Apple requires are in far greater sup­ply over­seas than among U.S. work­ers. “The speed and flex­i­bil­ity is breath­tak­ing,” one Apple exec­u­tive told the Times.

Who can argue with “speed and flex­i­bil­ity”? Such goals sound rea­son­able enough, right?

But drill down beneath the abstrac­tions, and the facts tell a dif­fer­ent story. What does all this talk of “speed and flex­i­bil­ity” actu­ally mean in prac­tice?  The real­ity is this:

One for­mer exec­u­tive described how the com­pany relied upon a Chi­nese fac­tory to revamp iPhone man­u­fac­tur­ing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forc­ing an assem­bly line over­haul. New screens began arriv­ing at the plant near midnight.

A fore­man imme­di­ately roused 8,000 work­ers inside the company’s dor­mi­to­ries, accord­ing to the exec­u­tive. Each employee was given a bis­cuit and a cup of tea, guided to a work­sta­tion and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fit­ting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was pro­duc­ing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

Mean­while,  Apple’s prof­its con­tinue to soar to stratos­pheric lev­els, with the com­pany earn­ing more than $400,000 in profit per employee, more than Gold­man Sachs, Exxon Mobil, or Google, accord­ing to the Times. “Apple shares are up $24.3 bil­lion today. Maybe now they can afford to pay their Chi­nese work­ers more than $1 an hour,” humorist Andy Borowitz tweeted.

But what truly mystifies—and sad­dens me—isn’t the fact that inter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions (even Apple!) tend to focus on short-term profit at almost any cost (though even this assump­tion is of fairly recent vin­tage, as New York Times eco­nom­ics reporter Louis Uchitelle explained in The Dis­pos­able Amer­i­can) but rather that so many of us seem to accept this as a mat­ter of course. That so few of us are say­ing: “Are you fuck­ing kid­ding me?”

How has this come to pass? It seems to me that, in our anx­i­ety over U.S. com­pet­i­tive­ness, we’ve come to unthink­ingly con­flate two quite dif­fer­ent things:  First, the ques­tion of edu­ca­tion and skills, a legit­i­mate con­cern. Sec­ond, the ques­tion of “dili­gence and flexibility”—words that are all-too-often code for a will­ing­ness to tol­er­ate the sort of work­ing con­di­tions that decades of labor activism and leg­is­la­tion have sought to con­sign to his­tory.  (Thomas L. Friedman’s “Aver­age is Over” col­umn in yesterday’s Times illus­trates this quite nicely.)

You don’t have to look far for evi­dence that Apple’s busi­ness model is toxic.  (While I’m not sug­gest­ing that Apple is alone here, the company’s epic cool fac­tor does make it an espe­cially galling tar­get.) Just today, the Times fol­lowed up its report on Apple’s out­sourc­ing with a piece chill­ingly titled: “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad,” rife with sto­ries of fatal fac­tory explo­sions, sui­cides, rou­tinely dan­ger­ous work­ing con­di­tions, and work-related injuries. The “dor­mi­to­ries” where work­ers live? Reporters found up to 20 peo­ple stuffed into a three-room apart­ment.  An audit of Apple’s sup­pli­ers last year found at least half the work­ers at 93 facil­i­ties exceeded the 60-hours-a-week limit estab­lished in Apple’s own sup­plier code of conduct.

And the ratio­nale for this fren­zied activ­ity and human suf­fer­ing? Push­ing iPhones into the world more quickly and in larger num­bers, respond­ing to our rapa­cious cries for more Angry Birds and Siri. “What U.S. plant can find 3,000 peo­ple overnight and con­vince them to live in dorms?” Apple’s Jen­nifer Rigoni rhetor­i­cally asked the Times.

As an iPhone owner I have this to say: I would have been will­ing to wait.