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Globalization and Consumerism

2008 November 20
by Julie Clawson

I mentioned in my last post that I am uncomfortable with the anti-globalization streams of social justice. These streams are so prevalent that many assume that unless one is ultra-pro-free-market capitalism, then one is by default anti-globalization. I personally think both extremes are flawed and fail to promote a compassionate worldview (not like most economists care about that anyway…). So to give a really short rationale for a really complex issue…

The anti-globalization argument generally points to the horrors in our global economy – sweatshops, slavery, environmental destruction – and proposes that if we just didn’t have a global economy then they would just all go away. Under the guise of “stop shopping” or “buy local” or “make something,” the mantra becomes – “boycott China, buy American.” Now I’m all for buying local and supporting small businesses. There are distinct benefits to doing so – like reducing fuel usage in shipping. But all too often these tendencies reveal a self-centered stance that places American interests before the interests of others.

I don’t see the solution to problems in the global economy as just doing away with the global economy. Like it or not we live in a global economy and that can never be undone. Organizations like the world Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund have pushed industry onto developing countries around the world. These countries can’t go back to their pre-industrial days nor do they have the option of organic development. They have been exploited through colonialism, pushed into industrial systems not of their making, and forced to abandon ancient practices. There is no going back. So to naively promote the idea of abandoning global industry in favor of only buying American is to wish a death sentence onto these countries. Abandoning them in the midst of a chaos of our making would destroy them. (apologizing and atoning for our sins is another issue entirely). In the business world national borders are losing significance quickly. To be so pro-America that our jobs and our economy matters more than every other person on this globe is inexcusable selfishness.

When faced with difficult issues, greedy businesses, and exploited people the solution is never to abandon the victims so that they get hurt more. All too often though this is the path that’s taken. A major company gets found out for using sweatshops so they respond by shutting the sweatshop down. Or someone hears about sweatshops, thinks such problems can never be solved and refuses to participate in the economic system altogether. Both approaches deny the reality of globalization and ignore the needs of the people. The point isn’t to take jobs away from people, but to improve the jobs they have. There are options besides exploiting/oppressing people and getting rid of their job. It may take some creativity and sacrifice (on our part), but reform is possible.

So I am really sick of the “let’s subvert the global economy” when that just means pretending it doesn’t exist and screwing the poor even further. As Christians we are called to love others and to care for the poor. We can’t settle for the popular options of letting them remain in hardship or causing them more hardship. Globalization exists and we have to deal with it. Preferably in ways that honor God and not just ourselves.

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22 Responses leave one →
  1. November 20, 2008

    But are the needs of the poorest being met by the labor practices in the countries where they work? I hear what you’re saying but my heart (and faith) can’t really handle buying plastic widgets made by so much exploitation – I get sick thinking about the toxic fumes giving kids in China cancer… for what? So my kid can have another Barbie? Or so I can have a newer kitty litter box? So I can have a cooler cell phone – people are fighting wars over coltan mining? There is something deeply unethical about that.

    Sorry – I’ll try not to ramble in your comment box – it’s kind of a tender spot for me :)

  2. November 20, 2008

    oh i totally agree. Its all part of a bigger picture. We do need to curtail consumerism and greed, stop buying junk, and focus on needs not wants. We also should create demand for ethically made goods and buy such things when needed.

    My frustration in this post was more about when “helping others” becomes more about helping ourselves at their expense. If we buy less cheap crap we can afford to pay a fair price for what we need – the point is to promote better jobs not do away with jobs or accept the injust status quo.

  3. November 20, 2008

    I’m not sure though that refusing to buy something that you don’t know (or know but don’t like) where it came from = self centeredness. Is it greedier to buy a mug for a couple of dollars from Target or a mug for 20 dollars from a local potter? I admit that I do get a lot more pleasure from knowing that I’ve helped a local artist stay afloat – so was it a greedy act to buy local? Are you asking me to prefer supporting the factory laborer (not to mention target employees) who will see some fraction of my purchase price?

    Or maybe I’m missing your point. To me the “Buy Nothing” and “Shop Local” campaigns ask me to be more mindful of my purchases, which is part of my faith, and yes, which on some level primarily benefits me. But when I buy nothing, I have to admit that I’m more likely to have the cash later to send to Heifer Project – the more I have in my pocket, the freer I give.

  4. November 20, 2008

    I think in many ways the “buy local” type approach is an attempt to fight colonialism by pretending it hasn’t happened. Absolutely, embracing a social justice mindset needs to include a drastic shift in purchasing, but the redemption of exploitative employment certainly isn’t in unemployment but in ethical and just employment. And while buying local can have some fantastic impacts as you’ve described, only buying local can ultimately just leave manufacturing workers out to dry.

  5. November 20, 2008

    turtledoves – no what I’m trying to say (fairly incoherently today) is that it’s complicated.

    I do think its greedy to buy cheap stuff knowingly made in sweatshops – you place your desire for a good deal above the wellbeing of others. Refusing to buy anything from China because it took jobs/money away from America (and thereby costing those chinese people jobs) though is greedy too.

    Its all about motivation. Sacrificing your own money to support an alternate system that helps the poor and the oppressed seems like the best route imho – be that by donating to causes or by buying fair trade/small business. it is a way of remaining in the system but seeking to improve the system. of course buying locally/fair trade can be greedy as well if you are participating in such consumption for your own pleasure (not that pleasure=greed, just that it holds that possibility) although generally this sort of greed helps and doesn’t harm others in the process.

  6. Jeremiah Daniels permalink
    November 20, 2008

    Julie,

    I think you hit the nail right on the head. I live in the third world. The irony of the anti-globalization argument is that local businesses (in my experience) pay far less than the “sweatshops” first world people talk about.

    Where I live, the legal minimum wage is roughly $4 – $6 per day. Local businesses normally defeat that pay by bribes or just plain crafty thinking. International businesses on the other hand pay $2 – $6 PER HOUR depending on the level of skill.

    The “heroes” in this situation are the international businesses and not the local ones.

  7. November 20, 2008

    Jeremiah – I think you misunderstand me.

    yes the international businesses sometimes pay more than local stuff. but when it is international organizations that forced those businesses on the country, causing inflation and making it impossible for local businesses to keep up – I would hardly call them heroes. and when said businesses take advantage of that and exploit people under the guise of “its better than their other options” (when they destroyed those other options), it isn’t right no matter what angle you look at it.

    the local economy is destroyed, tainted if you will, so the big businesses can’t leave without causing further harm. but they can always improve and start stop taking advantage of a crisis of their own making.

  8. Jeremiah Daniels permalink
    November 20, 2008

    Actually, local laws prevent full ownership of businesses by international companies. Basically, local companies own these international affiliates. This is almost universally true.

    While I would not argue that international companies have Christian principles at work motivating them to invest in their host companies I would emphasize that these same companies do not “force” themselves on smaller countries.

    Worker mistreatment is 3rd world countries resides also on the leading elite of those countries. f they disallowed foreign companies entirely they’d still abuse their own people.

    Having lived in a 3rd world country and seen basically every level of economic niche from dirt poor to fantastically rich, I can tell you that its just not as simple as saying companies “force themselves” on anybody here.

    As to local competition, my particular country does not allow foreign ownership of retails businesses (as it is in MOST 3rd world countries). As such there is zero (0) foreign competition. Everything is local owned. So, why do the wages still get cut so low?

  9. November 20, 2008

    Jeremiah –
    I was referring to the mandates by organizations like the World Trade Organization and the world Bank and the IMF that require the development of certain industries in various countries. It is of course all “local” allowing a select few people to become very wealthy (with trickle-down wishing assumed). I’m not saying that it is an either/or. in this globalized world everything is very connected. International business globalized the world. and yes that was often done at the expense of (forced upon) the average citizens who were not privy to the deals and loans associated with it. Similarly international rules and companies set the price of food which is what really rules the world. Local people everywhere are constrained by costs fixed for them halfway around the globe. What happens internationally always affects the local in a globalized world. A whole new world has been created.

    Competing in this world where the bottom line is all that matters of course leads to exploitation. When it is assumed that they can get away with it, the average person (or company) will cheat their workers or maximize their profit by paying people the lowest they possibly can for work. They want to survive whatever way they can – and when there are no laws to protect the worker (or those laws are not enforced) the local and international businesses are quick to take advantage of them.

    I’m not trying to say one is better than the other – just that I would not be so quick to hail international business as the hero. Its more messy than that.

  10. November 21, 2008

    Hmmm … I remember the “Buy American, not Chinese” from my grandparents day.

    I can’t speak for anyone but myself and I try really hard not question the motives of others, because motives are always so complicated, even when they appear simple.

    On this, though, I try to remember the saying I saw last spring, “The cost of a thing is how much life must be exchanged for it.” So I’ve determined that I don’t want to buy crap at cheap prices that enslaves someone no matter where it was originally made. The problem is that I only have control over the end of the process. I don’t have any control over the beginning of the process. I don’t have control over China’s industrial policy, but I do have control over where I spend my money.

    China really wants us Americans to buy their stuff. We are the largest market in the world. If enough of us stopped buying their crap for whatever reason, they would sit up and listen. That’s basic fundamental capitalism. If enough of us put pressure on our Trade officials, etc. something will change. But that’s all we have control over … is what happens here.

    Continuing to buy it is condoning slavery. And I won’t be part of that. I’ll find other ways to use my shopping dollars … at 10,000 Villages or buy wholesale at websites in Nepal or FairTrade or something. But I’ll be damned if I’ll shop at the big box stores just to be global.

  11. November 21, 2008

    so maybe I should delete this post since everyone is thinking I’m saying the opposite of what I intended to say. the dangers of hurried blogging on mommy brain…

  12. November 21, 2008

    Sonia, have you read A Year Without “Made in China”: One Family’s True Life Adventure in the Global Economy

    Apparently it’s not that easy.

    One family found it very difficult to intentionally NOT buy goods from China – example – virtually all children’s sneakers/shoes are made in China…! They found this to be true in other areas as well, areas that shocked me.

    Good read if you haven’t read it.

  13. November 21, 2008

    I do think I get you (this has turned into a pretty intersting discussion, yes?) there is a dangerous undertone of xenophobia than can get exploited in all of this. But I think in this case that it comes as a fairly simple reaction to a lifestyle in which our “needs” have become so hard to meet by interacting with folks we know.

    I think there’s a kind of innate biological part of us that is suspicious of food that comes from unknown sources – it’s a self protection mechanism. Culturally our consumption practices have grown up in situations where we know and trust the middlemen, the farmers, bakers, merchants, etc we interact with.

    Advertising tries to create a false sense of the known and trustworthy merchant – we can relax with Ronald McDonald or the jolly Green Giant or Nike footwear, they become a stand in for the local shopkeeper.

    And what’s going on, I think, is a small trend in reaction to this – when our trust is betrayed by lead in Barbies (Barbie, didn’t we know you??) or Nike exploiting it’s workers, the facade begins to crumble. And people awaken to the discomfort of feeling a real lack of control in not knowing in a personal way, the people who have made what they buy.

    I agree that an ugly strain in all of this is to frame it in an anti-foreign labor fashion. Using people’s discomfort or even fear to try to promote a rah-rah American-made ideal is grotesque. Reminds me of the Big 3 auto companies trying to keep you buying American – when Toyota has plants in the US and GM has plants in Mexico.

    Ultimately though we can’t forget that our money is power. Who we choose to give it to matters.

  14. November 21, 2008

    Don’t delete! You’ve got us all thinking.

  15. Karl permalink
    November 21, 2008

    To me, “buying local” and “buying American” are two distinct concepts. They seem to be getting conflated here.

  16. Jeremiah Daniels permalink
    November 21, 2008

    Julies,

    Thanks. I think everybody has knee jerk reactions on this issue (including me).

    As being someone actually living in and dealing with a third world economy, I agree that its not at all easy to figure out what is going on.

    I should note that I did include the word hero in quotation marks for the very reason you are giving. They aren’t intending to be anybody’s hero — they just want to make money. I should have rather stated it that way than use quotations marks.

    On the other hand, I do see instances where globalization does result in good things.

    In a fallen world you can always point out where things did not go as they could or should have.

    I wonder sometimes though if a first world person has any sufficient perspective to judge dealings with third world nations without having had to deal with those third world people.

    Having lived in both worlds, I find that carefully (and fairly) managed foreign investment and business could be a real relief to locals. On the other hand, when combined with the real motive (greed) on both local and international sides, there are occasions where the poor guy at the bottom of the ladder doesn’t feel much better.

    I suppose I could go on and on about this from both sides but I shall shut up!

  17. November 22, 2008

    Hmmm … perhaps it might be framed in the context that there are other alternatives rather than the either/or that you presented, Julie.

    I need to apologize too for posting when not properly caffeinated and letting my own rant get the best of me.

    It is possible to support small (even women owned cooperatives) that are in other countries with our shopping dollars and prevent xenophobic tendencies. There are great websites for this such as Ten Thousand Villages, Amani Ya Juu, or Global Goods Partners (where you can shop by producer as well as product). There are dozens of places on the web now … simply refusing to support the industrial complex (here or there) does not necessarily mean that one is xenophobic or even only wants to support white Americans. It may just mean they haven’t figured anything else out yet.

  18. November 22, 2008

    karl – i agree that buy local and buy american should be two separate things, but more and more often when I hear them expressed they are not.

    jeremiah – thanks. like I said I am not anti-globalization. it just needs to be done well and ethically.

    sonja – you’re right. and I was responding in knee jerk style to some of the extreme i encounter these days. these extremes exist and I think the complexities need to be made known alongside them. but its hard to use their language and not just be assumed to be just like them

  19. November 24, 2008

    Globalisation is more than just economic, it is cultural as well. And there are tendencies that counter it, like the “clash of civilizations”, in a world where we have communication without community.

    A lot of the antipathy to economic globalisation is related to the power of multinational companies, which in some cases have a budget greater than some smaller countries.

  20. neil permalink
    December 20, 2010

    I am a Filipino. Globalization has killed many small scale businesses in my country and left them jobless and hungry. Knowing the effects of Globalization in the Third World Countries can give us a complete of this phenomenon.

  21. eric permalink
    January 8, 2013

    did you think consumerism will decline due to any reason?

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