Purchasing eco-friendly, organic, gluten free, vegan, non-GMO products in a safe working environment where the workers are paid fair and just wages is an ideal that we want to uphold but only rarely are able to achieve. As everything in life, it is all about trade-offs. We can have all the above conditions but they come at a cost. They also come with a loss of ignorance.
Unless you among the upper middle class, chances are you can’t purchase everything you use on a daily basis that was made in the best conditions and methods possible. We may purchase organic food but have to sacrifice on wearing clothes that comes from Asia under who knows what conditions. If you look at the clothes in the closet, your wallet, backpack or purse, jewelry do you really stand by how everything was made? I see myself as a socially conscious person but I had no plans to buy an electric vehicle when I was in the US and had a good job because I didn’t have $40,000 to spend on a car. My guess is most of you don’t either. Are we bad people for that? Flatly, no.
The point is not to feel guilty but the simple reality is that there is no easy path to the world we want to live in. It isn’t our fault we can’t move away from oil or that over a billion people live in extreme poverty but we certainly want to do something in these areas. None of us may like the fact that our products are from China but if we were really willing to pay more money for the same product that wasn’t from China, wouldn’t companies start making them in other places?
As someone who has seen manufacturing on multiple continents, China incredible efficiency can’t be matched or even approached right now. That will change but not anytime soon. Yet you and I shouldn’t have to wait around to start creating a better world.
African manufacturing for instance is far behind Asia. A wallet that you can get made from the best leather manufacturer in Kenya will cost you $20 yet you can get a better wallet made from China for only $5. This massive gap is exactly why you can’t get much of anything from Africa and when you do, you pay through the roof for it (my employer charges $60-$80 for a paper bead necklace).
Perhaps there could be a way where Asian efficiency can be leveraged so that the healthy margins on Asian products could be redirected towards investing in African manufacturing so that one day the same goods could be made in Africa. Perhaps you could sell a wallet made in China with the guarantee that the profit will be used to invest in African leather manufacturing. Would that product sell? Or would consumers hold out until the day (whenever that is) that the wallet can wholly be made in Africa?
TOMS for instance are made largely in China. They are trying to change this but the cost differential makes it largely prohibitive. TOMS has said that by the end of 2015 they want 1/3 of their production to be in the same countries that they give shoes. With hundreds of millions in the bank, that is all that TOMS can promise.
Call it privatized import substitution for those who remember Econ 101 but would you buy a product from China if you knew that it would create industry and opportunity for the people on this planet who need it most?