Sweatshops and Socially Responsible Consumption

Nicolas Kristof has a wonderful column, “In Praise of the Maligned Sweatshop,” in today’s New York Times. Regrettably, it is behind the paywall. Luckily, Greg Mankiw has excerpted a good bit. Important nugget:

[C]ompanies like Nike, itself once a target of sweatshop critics, tend not to have highly labor-intensive factories in the very poorest countries, but rather more capital-intensive factories (in which machines do more of the work) in better-off nations like Malaysia or Indonesia. And the real losers are the world’s poorest people.

Here is a great example of the way so-called “socially responsible” consumption can be self-undermining. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with wanting justice with your Corn Flakes. Acts of consumption are causes of effects, and we have every right to worry about what those effects will be. But if the effect you’re intending goes beyond the satisfaction you get from a bowl of Corn Flakes, then you need to actually know how cause and effect are related in order to be sure that you’re not causing exactly what you’re trying to prevent, which wouldn’t be very responsible, would it?

In wealthy societies, where people are more in need of meaning than further material comfort, it is inevitable that consumers will want more than just coffee beans and sneakers. Many of us want coffee beans and sneakers the consumption of which will affirm our identity and provide a small injection of meaning into our lives. The difficulty is, consumers are just terrific at identifying good coffee qua coffee, or good shoes qua shoes, but are simply lousy at identifying good coffee or shoes qua output of a fair process of production that really helps the poor. You can’t taste bad economics in your Costa Rican shade-grown and unseen suffering doesn’t chafe when you run.

Maybe we need a new campaign for socially responsible consumption: “Look for the sweatshop label.” Or, alternatively, just try buying products that are the best value for the money. The “being cheap never felt so good” campaign?

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