You’re to Blame for Factory Deaths. Well, You and Walmart

New Yorker illustration

The New Yorker illustrates how shoe-wearers are responsible for keeping workers in bondage.

The New Yorker‘s James Surowiecki (5/20/13) has figured out who’s to blame for unsafe working conditions for garment workers: people who wear clothing.

“The problem isn’t so much evil factory owners as a system that’s great at getting Western consumers what they want but leaves developing-world workers toiling in misery,” Surowiecki writes:

Most of us have a sense that low prices in Dubuque have something to do with low wages in Dhaka, but that’s just one aspect of the pressure that we as consumers exert on global supply chains. Our insatiable demand for variety and novelty has led to ever-shorter product life cycles.

Surowiecki is saying that it’s this “pressure,” the “insatiable demand” from consumers that leads to unsafe working conditions. To explain, he brings in MIT political scientist Richard Locke, who says, “Often, the only way factories can make the variety and quantity of goods that brands want at the price points they’re willing to pay is to squeeze the workers.”

Well, wait–“that brands want”? At the prices “they’re willing to pay”? What happened to the consumers and our demands being to blame?

OK, Surowiecki is willing to concede that giant multinational corporations share some of the blame:

Just as most Western consumers seem reluctant to pay more for T-shirts, most Western companies have been reluctant to take real responsibility for what happens on their suppliers’ factory floors…. As long as consumers and companies insist on the lowest price and endless variety, there’ll always be factories that are willing to cut corners to get the business.

The thing about equating “consumers and companies” in this way, though, is that when you say that consumers “insist” on something, it’s basically a metaphor. As a consumer, you go to the store and see what they’re selling, and you either buy it or you don’t; you don’t usually get to tell the sales clerks to change the price, and you certainly don’t get to tell them how to arrange their supply chains. Whereas global apparel companies really can and do insist that factories produce goods on specific schedules at particular prices–their “demand” is not metaphorical at all.

If consumers do have the ability to insist that clothing be sold at a particular price–which in some metaphorical sense we do, through the far-fr0m-perfect mechanism of supply and demand–this insistence certainly doesn’t specify that garment workers should typically receive 1 to 3 percent of the retail price in wages, or that clothing stores be among the most profitable of retail industries. That division of revenues is the result of the non-metaphorical demands that corporations make.

Could consumer outrage over the way corporations treat workers result in changes in that treatment? Possibly–though news coverage that is framed in terms of shifting blame from “evil factory owners” to “our insatiable demand” seems calculated to dissipate outrage rather than mobilize it.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.