While watching the most recent season of Portlandia, I came across a skit that parodies ethical buying solutions with surprisingly good economic thinking.
“Reverse Sweatshop” in season four, episode seven starts off with a couple shopping for clothes in Portland. The woman picks up a blouse, looks at the tag that reads, “Made in Macau.” Annoyed, she says, “I can’t do that anymore!”
Her husband agrees with her consumer concerns. “Those countries just make me think of sweatshops or something,” he says.
She replied, “I wish I knew where my clothes were made and who was making them.”
To solve their problem, the couple decides to hire a custom shirt designer to work in their home. The designer lets them know that it will take about a month to make a custom shirt, implying it will be expensive. “I mean we get it, we’re paying for the quality,” the woman concedes.
But just a few days into the gig, the designer realizes she can’t meet the demand of the couple who ask her to produce more shirts for their friends at a faster pace, so she brings more hands on deck. In good irony, eventually a sweatshop forms in the couple’s basement in Portland, and they find themselves perpetuating the very problem they were trying to avoid.
The end of the skit comes full circle, showing a couple shopping in Macau, China. The woman looks at a tag on a blouse that reads, “Made in Portland.” She says to her husband, “They have good labor practices. Should we buy it?” He replies, “Yes,” and the consumer knowledge problem continues. You can watch a second hand version of this clip here.
I love buying local produce at the Farmer’s Market in my neighborhood and supporting family owned shops and restaurants, but this skit from Portlandia made me realize that buying local isn’t enough to help our global neighbor.
As consumers today demand more knowledge about the products they buy, ethical buying is a serious question we have to consider from a Christian perspective without tossing good economic thinking to the curb. Atrocities like the 2013 collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh highlights dangerous working conditions many want no part in supporting as a consumer. The response for many is to buy locally as much as possible. But if ethical buying is your concern, you actually might be able to do more to help the world by focusing on supply chain transparency instead of just buying local.
When the buyer has a close relationship with the seller, they are able to share more relevant information with the consumer about quality, ethics, safety, and environmental impact. Therefore, if the consumer demands lawful business practices, the seller will be held more accountable to that. Take coffee, for example.
I spent the summer of 2011 living in Grand Rapids, Michigan for an internship and I spent a lot of my time at Madcap Coffee downtown. Like all other coffee roasters in America, Madcap doesn’t buy local beans. Hawaiian coffee is the only American-grown coffee because it is the only state in the U.S. that has the right climate to grow beans. Madcap imports their beans from other countries to roast in house. Because they can’t buy local, they focus on building relationships with the coffee growers that they buy from abroad. According to an Acton Institute blog post, “A representative from Madcap has personally visited 75 percent of the farmers who provide their raw beans.” (Stanley, Acton)
Owner and founder of Mapcap, Ryan Knapp, explains why a relationship is even better than a fair trade certification when it comes to supply chain transparency: “Fair trade, a certification doesn’t really tell the whole story […] Fair Trade isn’t the best option always for producers. […] The big piece of it is the transparency aspect and knowing exactly where our dollar is going and being able to trace that down to people that are actually growing the coffee, farming the coffee.”
Growing coffee is not our comparative advantage in the United States. If we tried to simulate an environment that made growing coffee possible in the U.S., it would be extremely expensive and probably wouldn’t taste nearly as good as coffee from Columbia or Kenya. But growing coffee is one of many of the many industries in which the U.S. does not have a comparative advantage.
Just like coffee, labor-intensive manufacturing is not our comparative advantage in the U.S. either. Our primary comparative advantage lies in services (financial, etc.), agricultural products, and high-tech manufacturing. These are the things that the U.S. does better and more efficiently than other nations, and buying these products locally is much easier.
China’s comparative advantage, on the other hand, lies in labor-intensive manufactured goods (China Global Trade). This is why so many of the clothes we wear are made in China, and not by custom shirt designers in our basement. Buying shirts from Macau doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially if good supply chain transparency exists. In fact, it can be a very good thing if it means we are providing a way for a father in China to work and take care of his wife and kids.
This humorous Portlandia skit—even with the unlikely scenario of a sweatshop forming in the basement of someone’s house in Portland—teaches us that buying local is not always better. We have to think more deeply. Maybe instead of assuming the worst about foreign manufacturers, we should work on building relationships with them and then support the companies that are abiding by lawful business practices and making clothes better than we can.
Focusing on supply chain transparency might be the most ethical way to love our global neighbor. Not only does trade between nations benefit both countries, but it is essential for a developing nation to trade as freely and as much as possible in order to rise out of poverty. So when it comes to products like coffee and manufactured goods, seek out retailers that value both transparent relationships with the manufacturing companies they buy from and what you value in ethical standards. When you purchase global products, you support growing economies and help the poorest people of that nation work and flourish, even if the shirt you buy is from Macau.
*Originally published on the IFWE blog.