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.

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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.