Bear with me here. It’s been a long first week under a presidential administration that is quite frankly terrifying. Trump’s doing everything he said he’d do and really really fast. I’m a green card holder and folks with the exact same status as me are being denied re-entry into the country. The only difference between them and me: our country of origin.
Beyond just this unconscionable, unconstitutional executive order, many other things have come up this week: his commitment to reinstating the work on the Keystone Pipeline (a clear conflict of interest), his commitment to defeating ISIS (read: this means actual war), his commitment to building that damn wall and his commitment to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership.
All of this is to say, it’s been really hard to write about the fluff this week – to share Instagram pics, to tell you what to buy and where to shop. So instead you get this rant on the TPP and some of the conversations around this issue.
What Are the Issues?
Trump doesn’t understand global manufacturing. Most Americans don’t. I have a rudimentary understanding and it’s with that understanding I’m going to try and explain a few things.
First, we’ve come too far to remove ourselves from global trade. American (Western) consumerism has created whole economies in third world and developing countries. Removing American manufacturing from these countries is not realistic and could be catastrophic. Ultimately economic growth in third world countries leads to an increased quality of life for the persons in these countries. In theory, a rising tide raises all ships.
It’s proven that countries that are open to trade and look outward, not inward, have faster and more rewarding economic growth. Those with lower tariffs reap the rewards. None of this is to say TPP is the gold standard of financial globalization, but it’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened, and if we don’t have it, what’s the plan? Is it really better to have no deal in place?
On the flipside, trade agreements like TPP and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) have been detrimental to American manufacturing. These agreements make it easier and cheaper for manufacturing to be taken abroad and big business (and small!) have done just that.
Now Americans have to consider whether their goods are made ethically, whether there was slave labor, child labor, horrid conditions or a lack of a living wage. They could consider the environmental cost of shipping or flying products made overseas into the US. But let’s be honest. The average American is not considering any of these things. If they are, it’s a blip on their radar. Every time a factory collapses they cry about how terrible it is, but rarely, if ever does anyone do anything to change their buying habits.
Which brings me to my second point, the majority of Americans choose value over ethics. A AP/GFK poll in 2016 found that whilst almost 75% of those polled say they’d prefer to buy American, when confronted with a real life choice ($50 jeans made overseas vs $85 jeans made in the US) 67% of those polled chose the cheaper pair.
In 1962 Target was selling jeans for $9.99. In 2016 those same jeans are $35. If you account for inflation, Target jeans are 50% cheaper now than they were in the 60s. In fact, at time of posting, those $35 jeans are 25% off, so it’s considerably less than that. I also spotted a pair of denim overalls that are selling for $8.
Those Target jeans should be $80 in today’s money, but as noted above, 67% of Americans won’t pay $80 for jeans. They want the $50 jeans. The $50 jeans (or even the $20 jeans) that are made affordable thanks to trade deals with developing nations.
The problem here is, you can’t be anti-free trade and not be prepared to financially support American manufacturing. You can not “Make America Great Again” without Americans willing to spend money on American goods. Which is why there needs to be a lot more education and a lot less hyperbolic propaganda.
Personally, I feel strongly that we should continue to encourage trade and support manufacturing in developing countries whilst rewarding companies that do it well and rewarding countries that enact governmental initiatives that protect the workers and the environment. I also agree that US manufacturing should be encouraged and rewarded. However, US manufacturing is inherently more expensive, especially with the increases in wages (which I fully support) so with that there needs to be a consumer education as to WHY it’s more expensive.
My solution? Radical transparency. I’m talking about nutritional information style labeling for all goods, whether they be manufactured overseas or in the US. Informational labels to include country of origin, factory information (owned or outsourced?), hourly wage of the worker making the garment, cost of labor, cost of fabric, origin of fabric, gallons of water spent producing the item, waste products of the item, carbon footprint of the item, method of transport (if manufactured overseas).
You have to wonder if, given an informed choice of buying a pair of jeans for $50 where the worker is paid $0.55 an hour to make them or buying a pair of jeans for $85 where the worker is paid $10 an hour to make them, 67% of consumers would still buy the $50 pair.
At least with the right information, the purchase decision would be a conscious one and that’s what I’m advocating for.
Now, there are companies practicing transparency to a relatively radical (oxymoron) degree. Everlane is one of those companies leading the way in true cost transparency. A consumer knows where each factory is (they even provide virtual factory tours), they know the cost of labor, materials, hardware, duties and transport. Could they do more? Sure. I’d love to know the hourly cost of labor. I’d love to know even more about the protections their workers receive and I’d love to know more about the environmental impact of each garment.
Everlane aren’t the only company out there offering transparency with purchase. Zady practices a #knowyoursource policy, sharing every step of the their manufacturing process, from materials to fabrication. Zady also shares details as to what makes each garment sustainable. While cost and numbers pertaining to environmental impact are not addressed, sharing the intricacies of this made-in-the-USA business allows the consumer to understand the price tag.
On the environmental side of the issue, companies like Reformation and Looptworks are tracking and sharing their environmental impact. Reformation uses their #RefScale to let consumers know the carbon dioxide emissions, the water used and the waste within the lifecycle of each garment. They measure these numbers against industry standards and illustrate the difference.
For Looptworks, since they use excess materials, they’re able to share gallons of water saved as well as pounds of waste prevented.
So transparency exists in manufacturing, if you know where to find it, but wouldn’t it be amazing if there was an industry standard? A requirement across the board? I’m advocating here for radical transparency. Trump’s plan to abandon free-trade agreements will not save American manufacturing, radical transparency might.