OK, I know it sounds self-serving to begin talking about the price of something when we’re in the selling business. But how many times have you bought something because of the low price?
A new book by Ellen Ruppel Shell, called “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture”, examines the price, value and cost of things – all sorts of things. According to the author, a contributing editor for The Atlantic, there is no such thing as cheap, because the cost is being paid for by somebody.
She uses the shrimp industry in Thailand to demonstrate her hypothesis: traditional shrimp farming operations in Thailand were converted into gigantic factories (with the help of international investors). Among the more serious problems created by gigantic shrimp farms is the degradation and loss of natural coastal resources, where vital fish breeding and nursery habitats are being lost to the shrimp farms. Chemicals were used to produce artificial conditions which made the factories productive. (Read more about modern industrial shrimp aquaculture here.) But the shrimp couldn’t flourish in these conditions (i.e., it was not, to use that word again, sustainable) so the shrimp got sick and their ponds became “black holes of pollution and toxic waste. What followed was ruinous debt, environmental degradation, horrifying human rights abuses and violence that left millions destitute”, writes Ruppel Shell.
For many manufacturers, cost cutting is paramount, and many companies compete only on price. Robert Lawrence, the Harvard economist, told Ruppel Shell that we’re not even building better mousetraps anymore – just cheaper ones, which makes innovation almost impossible.
In textiles, that translates to continued use of that cheapest of alternatives: polyester. It’s ubiquitous in the market, and there is no great rush to try to find good alternatives. Third party certification programs, the watch dogs of the industry, are not being promoted by stakeholders, and companies are slow (or reluctant) to certify their fabrics. Please note that there are many certified FIBER products on the market, largely because fiber crops come under many food certification programs since many of the fiber crops are also food (such as cotton and flax, both of which are grown for the seed and used in food products). But the manufacturing of the fabric is largely ignored, and low cost synthetic (often toxic) chemicals are still being used.
There has been lots of press in the U.S. recently about tainted Chinese products ranging from toxic toys to pet food and drywall, but the focus is shifting to the role multinational companies play in demanding ever-lower prices for Chinese products. By demanding ever lower prices for goods, the Chinese suppliers are forced to reduce or ignore environmental safeguards in order to compete. “Prices in the U.S. are artificially low,” says Andy Xie, former chief economist for Morgan Stanley Asia, who now works independently. “You’re not paying the costs of pollution, and that is why China is an environmental catastrophe.” In 2007, the World Bank estimated that in China 760,000 people die every year from pollution – and in 2008, reports were that water pollution in China had gotten worse.
In a chilling premonition to Ruppel Shell’s book, the Wall Street Journal ran an article in August 2007 (for which it’s author, Jane Spencer, won a Pulitzer) about the heavy environmental price that China has paid for the cheap textiles being produced there. (3)
In the textile industry, treating contaminated water costs upwards of about 13 cents a metric ton, so large factories can (and apparently, do) save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by sending waste water directly to rivers – in violation of China’s water-pollution laws. Jane Spencer cited findings from an investigation into the Fuan Textile mill as an example. Fuan was caught dumping 22,000 tons of contaminated water a day (add that up: for one year that’s 5.3 million tons) into the local river, turning it dark red.
Large US companies who have Chinese textile suppliers (and that includes many household names such as Target, Liz Claiborne, Kohl’s, Calvin Klein, Wal Mart and Nike, among others) often turn a blind eye to what the Chinese are doing to be able to offer ever lower prices – so they can continue to offer the lowest cost products.
One of the easiest ways to cut costs is to slash labor costs. Although a job of any kind is a step up from the grinding rural poverty that many workers come from, these workers have no leverage to demand higher wages or more humane treatment. “We lecture our kids on social responsibility and then buy them toys assembled by destitute child workers on some far-flung foreign shore,” Ruppel Shell writes. “Somehow the Age of Cheap has raised cognitive dissonance to a societal norm.”
War on Want has an ongoing campaign for corporate accountability in the textile sector. They are trying to achieve “proper” regulation of multinational companies by exposing the true human cost of the goods sold so cheaply in stores in the UK. In their 2006 report, Fashion Victims, they present the result of interviews with workers in Bangladesh who make the clothes sold by bargain retailers in the UK such as Primark, Asda and Tesco.
Watch the video here.
In Fashion Victims, they ask, “how cheap is too cheap” and tell the story of workers who are paid a fraction of a living wage and who must work 80-100 hours per week in countries around the world where jobs are scarce. And sadly, since the 2006 Fashion Victims report, an updated report (click here) shows that conditions have actually gotten even worse.
If you want to help – before you buy any textile product, inquire about how/where it was made. The company selling the product should know the answer ! Support organizations that fight for the rights of workers, such the National Garment Workers’ Federation (NGWF) in Bangladesh and Colectiva de Mujeres Hondurenas (CODEMUH) in Honduras. Also see our post on child labor in the cotton fields, “Happy May Day”, published on May 1, 2009.
And support those companies that are having their goods certified by third parties like Oeko Tex or GOTS. It costs money to have the certification process completed, in addition to the water treatment they must put in place, or any other changes that must be made to be compliant. GOTS has many requirements in the social justice area: no forced or bonded labor, no child labor, fair wages, the ability of workers to do collective bargaining, mandated rest periods, and safe and hygenic working conditions are just some of the requirements under GOTS. Some companies which HAD been certified are choosing to save money by not paying the fees to have the certifications extended when their payments become due. And that puts us all back to square one.
 Brownlow, K. and Renzi, S. 2007. “Is Guangdong the Dark Horse in Addressing Ecological and Human Health
Threats?” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, China Environment Series 9 (2007). Available at
(3) Spencer, Jane, “China Pays Steep Price as Textile Exports Boom”, Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2007.