Monday, September 27, 2010

So many toys . . .

Remember in 2007 when millions of toys were recalled because they had elevated levels of lead in their paint? I do, probably because my daughter was one-year-old at the time and putting everything in her mouth. It was at this point that I began to think more critically about the toys that I bought, however, that mindset did not last long. Kids want toys, and when you are a sleep-deprived mom, you will do just about anything to keep your children happy so they will give you a few minutes of peace. Hence, my son, obsessed with Star Wars since he was two years old (“Boba Fett” and “Pit of Carkoon” were among his first words), has over a hundred Star Wars action figures. Yes, some of these belonged to my husband before Den was born, but most were purchased specifically for him. Now that he has learned to read and moved into the age of Pokemon and video games, the Star Wars figures have been relegated to their drawer and rarely see the light of day. My daughter’s room is likewise filled with pink plastic playthings like Polly Pockets and My Little Ponies. She does still play with these things, but there is so much!

I stopped buying Annika toys. For her birthday two weeks ago, we bought her one My Little Pony. The rest of her presents were useful things like clothing. However, we did throw her a birthday party at the gym where she takes gymnastics and 17 children attended—all bringing presents. Add the presents of her aunts and uncles and grandparents and our house looked like Christmas morning (the Christmas mornings I grew up with, anyway). It was quite ridiculous, but I have to admit, she was very happy.

I, on the other hand, felt incredibly guilty. I have a major issue with abundance. I feel uncomfortable when I have too much. Be it because I grew up in a house where we did not have as much as those around us or be it because I am a socialist at heart—I don’t know. I stood in my living room looking at all those toys and I wanted to cry because there are so many children who go to sleep hungry. It makes me feel sick.

Where do these toys come from? They do not cost much in Target, but what is the human cost of production? Using only the internet to search for the answer to this question, I discovered that 80% of the United States’ toys come from China (surprised?). Most of these from the Guangdong province in the south. The Chinese system of production is all-inclusive and the labor is cheap so they are able to produce these things at a fraction of the cost of other countries. For example, to produce a toy in Europe that would cost $30 an hour, the same toy could be made in China for $1.50 an hour. For a capitalist, the choice of production location is simple. The factory workers, though, work long hours, are punished for the slightest offenses by having their wages withheld, and experience a very poor standard of living with the money they earn and what is available in their area.

A few companies have decided to continue producing toys in their home countries: Lego and Playmobil, to name two. Their decision to maintain their European factories hinge mainly on their desire to oversee quality—something it is very difficult to do in a Chinese factory. Knowing that the toys are being made under close watch and that workers are being paid fairly makes me feel a whole lot better about paying $100 for that Lego Millenium Falcon that Den has been asking for. I feel like I can justify the high price now.

I am still wondering, though, what does it mean to not buy Chinese toys? Am I standing up for the Chinese workers by saying, “I will not support your exploitation!” Or am I harming them by reducing their employers demand and thus contributing to someone losing his or her job? Regardless, my kids don’t need any more toys. I am trying to convince other parents of this, too. I am so tired of receiving throwaway trinkets in goody bags from parties and the school “Treasure Box.” By rewarding our children with material items constantly, we are indoctrinating them with consumerism. I think it is this that makes me feel ill. I, for one, have started rewarding my son with more video game time and candy—two of my favorite things. I guess now I just need to be wary of childhood obesity.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

My Project

When I embarked into the project of researching and boycotting companies that use or benefit from forced child labor (slavery), I did not consider how often we, as consumers, ignore the type of labor used in making products available to the market. It has been clear to me that our ignorance encourages more companies to continue to employ that type of labor. For example, my purchase of Nestle products (the company I researched in my last post) contributed to enslaving more children to work in the cocoa field of the Ivory Coast. So I now wonder how many children Nestle was able to enslave with the money I spent in buying their products.

My goal with this project is, first of all, to take a more active approach in searching and boycotting companies that use or benefit from forced child labor. Secondly, I would like to encourage you to consider joining me in researching the type labor employed in bringing to the market the products you consume. I believe that progress will be made in stopping and discouraging companies from using forced child labor if you just do the research. I would like to leave you with a quote,
“We discovered that the simplest daily purchases Americans make can contribute to keeping people in bondage. It turns out that all of us are responsible for perpetuating slavery by buying, wearing, eating, and using products of slave labor, from cell phones and laptops, to the fruit and vegetables on our tables, to the clothes we wear.” (Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter, The Slave Next Door. p16-17.)

We are the World... we are the Children

This week's entry is going to stray a bit from my explorations of consumerism, but I just found this story to be very inspiring, and worthy of receiving this week's "Saving the World" badge of honor (which I've just made up, but I'm sticking with).

In researching for the Human Rights exhibition I am planning, I came across the anti-hate violence organization Not in Our Town. A video featured on the site shows how, through the transformative power of art, a group of middle school students are responding to the murder by seven local high school students of an Ecuadorean immigrant. While the situation bringing about their discussion is truly reprehensible, the wisdom of these kids could be a lesson to us all.

(On a slightly separate note, but relevant to the situations studied within our class readings about human rights: I find it noteworthy that in discussions of inclusion and tolerance, and in calls for understanding and acceptance of all races, sexes, ethnicities, religions, etc., what is often excluded is acceptance/tolerance for people of different politics. Now there are some groups that just can't seem to play nicely together.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sushi: Ok. Coffee: Everywhere

So far I've been abstaining from sushi just fine. It seems much easier to stay away from establishments that serve sushi than ones that serve coffee, of course, but I've been thinking more about over-fishing in general. It doesn't make much sense to me to cut out fish altogether. But there are a few fish that are especially popular in the U.S. that have resulted in incredible demand and thus overfishing.

Two kinds of fish in particular make the list: grouper and tuna. While there are several varieties of each, tuna is usually found more often in sushi. Grouper, on the other hand, can be found on just about every menu of a restaurant that serves fish. More often than not though, it is usually not grouper. This proves its popularity. Still, I have decided to cut grouper out as well though I'll have to do some more research about better alternatives. Tuna, whether on or off a bed of rice, is now on the same list for me.

Coffee is another story. It is everywhere! It is on the way to school, in about 3 different places at school, and the smell seems to follow me everywhere! I've been staying strong though (It's okay, you can laugh).

But this has also proved to be positive in other ways. Not buying coffee out has kept some more money in my wallet and it's probably better that I'm not all jacked up from morning to night. Still, its taking some adjustment.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sweetgrass Baskets: A Gullah Tradition

Last weekend my husband and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary (yes, I am that old) by travelling to Charleston, South Carolina, for the first time in our lives. Charleston impressed me with its incredible food and pervasive focus on sustainable, local seafood and produce in its restaurants (the ones we ate at, anyway). I consider myself an informed eater and “home chef” so this was very important to me and I thought I would make it the subject of my blog entry this week. However, a much more interesting topic presented itself as I was perusing the Charleston City Market. City Market is pretty much a flea market where you can find cheap imported trinkets right next to incredible handmade works of art. And that was most obvious in the case of the sweetgrass baskets.

Sweetgrass baskets, originally woven by slaves for use in rice production, show the legacy of African influence on Southern culture. The local Gullah people hand down the art of sweetgrass weaving from generation to generation and use local materials gathered from undeveloped beaches near Charleston to create these beautiful works of art. They weave the spiral baskets in elaborate and unique patterns and the finished products are useful, beautiful, and last lifetimes. I had heard about these baskets before and was hoping to bring one home as a souvenir from our trip—an anniversary present.

Walking through the market, I was examining some baskets and was put off by the loose weave and plastic bindings. But the price was great—only $50 for a large basket. Incredible! Too good to be true? Yup. On closer inspection of the basket selection, I found one with a sticker on it: “Made in Bangladesh.” My suspicions confirmed, I walked on.

At the other end of the market, a woman sat weaving a basket behind a table full of pieces of art. Neat, tight spirals in various configurations and sizes were all around her. And she had made them herself. A basket comparable to the $50 one I had seen before was $250. A reasonable price for something that took this woman weeks to create, but not within my budget. After complimenting her handiwork and giving several pieces longing looks, I had to walk away empty-handed. But it struck me that many people would purchase the cheaper product because they could afford it and ignore or overlook the difference in quality.

So how do knock-off sweetgrass baskets infringe on human rights? Firstly, the Gullah people have created and developed this tradition over hundreds of years. The craft is an heirloom itself and different materials or methods of production are contrary to the art form. Replicating the craft in a subpar way strips traditional “sewers” of their heritage and can corrupt outside opinions of the baskets. This craft is part of the Gullah heritage and manufacturing imitations strips the people of their identity in a way. Secondly, conditions in Bangladesh, China, etc. where sweetgrass copies are being made show that inexpensive versions cost less because their creators are paid less and lower quality materials are being used to produce them. Some would see the successes of companies selling these copies show that the economic incentive is there to produce a lower quality, lower cost alternative to the real thing. Others (the sewers) see it as their local traditions being thwarted by international business practices.

This topic has made me think of how many of the things we use every day that are now manufactured in large factories staffed by underpaid workers, but used to be created by hand by someone in the local community or a member of one’s family. As local artisanship becomes obsolete, we lose part of the culture that cannot be regained. The craftspeople themselves will lose their livelihood, and perhaps their identity, as economic forces drive down prices due to outside competition. Gullah “sewers” can only weave their baskets as fast as they can and patience and love do not accomplish this task very quickly—but patience and love do contribute to the beauty of these functional works of art.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sushi and Coffee

In thinking of this title I realized how terrible sushi and coffee would be if consumed together. But I do love each separately!

As ridiculous as it may sound, these two things are virtually essential parts of my diet. So, I decided that if I was going to consume or not consume certain products on behalf of human rights agency, I should choose something that would really mean something to me. I think some kind of personal sacrifice is necessary.

But: I do not believe it would be possible or even good for my health to start graduate school and cut out coffee cold turkey. As an alternative, and as a way to make more of a statement, I've decided that I will only consume fair trade coffee. This means Starbucks is mostly out. PJ's, as far as I know is out. Jazzman's in the Social Science building is out. Thankfully, my crucial time for coffee is in the morning and it is often easier to find fair trade coffee in a grocery store or farmers market.

As for sushi, I will have to cut it out completely. I do not know of any sushi place that only serves fish that are raised or caught in the wild sustainably. A book "Four Fish" is just one work that outlines the dangers and negative effects of unsustainable fishing. How does this have anything to do with human rights?

Well, perhaps much more than you may think. The problem is the future. Every human has the right to an adequate amount of food. And if the world continues to over-fish the ocean, we will be in big trouble. This is not "save the whales" though that is a commendable cause. This is about the amount of people in the world who are hungry growing at an exponential rate in the near future.

The sushi craze in the U.S.--something I have, admittedly, participated in--has added to the overfishing of tons of different kinds of fish. Tuna and grouper are among the most popular and most over-fished.

I ate my last bite of sushi a few weeks ago and I am headed to the grocery in the morning in search of fair trade coffee. I intend on enjoying one without the other, as before, but in a much different way. I hope these actions influence further actions of my own and possibly of others. If anything, they will serve as a testament and a trial run of changing my consumer habits as a way to affect human rights...maybe even help save the world a little.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Nestlé Products Would not Taste the Same!

I always enjoyed a cup of hot Nestle cocoa in winter nights. But after discovering that Nestle has been accused of using illegal child labor to produce their chocolate, I would not enjoy a cup of Nestlé hot cocoa again. The cocoa beans used by Nestlé come from Cote d’Ivoir (the Ivory Coast) in West Africa. The International Labour Organization, part of the UN, estimates that there are 284,000 child laborers working on cocoa farms in that country. And because of the high demand for forced child labor there, other children from Mali are being sold into slavery for thirty dollars to work in the fields (see Chocolate Slaves).

It is also known that Nestlé, one of the top five buyers of cocoa from the Ivory Coast, promised to put a stop to using forced child labor in 2005, but it has not come through yet. It is obvious that the company prefers to get the benefits of cheap cocoa beans harvested by forced child labor rather than doing the right thing.

After learning of this practice, Nestlé products would not taste the same for me. Therefore, I will not buy or support a company that uses forced child labor to make its products. And Nestlé falls into that category.


Round 1 of cleansing took place last night. In my sweep of one closet, I identified 20 items to give away (in addition to several items of an old boyfriend's, and 1 mysterious shirt that has been passed around in our family for the last 3 or 4 years, that nobody will claim.... But I'm not counting those).

As I was purging, I couldn't help but think of the countless articles I have read in fashion, home, and general interest magazines that advise getting rid of the old to make room for the new. This really began to bother me as I couldn't help but notice my thoughts evolving from "let it go, M-E. If you haven't worn it for the last three years, you're not going to start wearing it now," to "I know you love this color, but this top only looks okay on you, and if you give it away then you'll have room to find something similar that looks great!" (notice the hopeful lilt at the end there. I know; some of you think I'm nuts. But some of you know exactly what I'm talking about.) Anyway, about making room for the new: why, exactly, do we need the new? What's wrong with just making room for space itself? Space to breathe, to get out from under the clutter of our possessions, from the weight of what we buy.

Perhaps the students in this program, by nature, are a little less near-sighted, but I think that in general our society tends to overlook, or flat-out forget, how consumer-driven we are. Where we put our dollars says a lot about what our values are, and what we will and will not support. We tend to forget the power that comes with that (or we misuse it). Even with an understanding of that power, however, there are still conflicts. As an example: my sister is fiercely protective of animal rights, and refuses to buy any products from companies that, at any stage in the development or manufacture of any of their products, or by any parent/subsidiary companies, tests on animals. She protests their practices by withholding all support from any ventures. I am also against animal testing, and do my best to buy products that do not test on animals. However, if a company has one line of products that tests on animals, and another that doesn't, I don't boycott the company entirely. Instead, I buy only those products made in a way I support, and won't buy the others. I choose to show that I support what they are doing right, with the hope of encouraging that to spread to the rest of their line.

While my sister and I argue over this repeatedly, I don't believe that either of us is wrong. We each have a choice in how we will use our consumer power to drive manufacturer's decisions. The point is that we are aware of that power and choose to exercise it in deliberate and thoughtful ways. If every person in every shopping decision were taking the time to do the same, imagine the change we could affect in our world. I guess I'll just have to start here.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

what's the plan, man?

I have been considering a variety of human rights issues in my shopping habits for a long time now. Due to questionable treatment of employees and pressuring of suppliers to provide goods at prices that undercut all competition (to the delight of most consumers), I have refused to set foot in a Wal-Mart store for over a year now. Friends and acquaintances of mine have also expressed how much they despise Wal-Mart, but many feel they have to shop there because they cannot afford the things they need anywhere else. This claim poses many questions, but entire web sites are dedicated to how much Wal-Mart sucks, so it would be redundant for me to go into this project only ranting about what a terrible company it is.

So what will be my personal commitment in this project? This has been a difficult thing for me to determine because I am a member of a household where two people earn income (mine may not be much, but I do contribute a little bit) and two people make purchases. I cannot dictate what comes into this house and I have to consider the wishes and needs of my family. I have also found that it is difficult to consider the ramifications of each individual purchase when children are whining that they want to go home while I ponder the need for Oreos or Cheez-its.

Unfortunately, I do not live in a bubble. My home and yard are small and could not possibly sustain my family even if I was a master gardener (oh—and in my county, it is illegal to own farm animals on the amount of land that I have). My time is also extremely limited because I am a graduate student, research assistant, wife, mother of two, room parent for the 1st grade, singer, and caregiver for my father. Moreover, I don’t know how to make toilet paper, toothpaste, American cheese, socks, SD cards, video games, Barbie dolls, etc. I am very glad that there are people who know how to make these things and do so for me. However, it is very bothersome to me that many of these items are made by people who could never afford to purchase them for themselves. My “simple pleasures” seem preposterous when I consider the poverty, repression, and destruction that might go into creating them for me.

So who makes the goods that we purchase? Where do they come from? Why are they available for so cheap? My contribution to this project will be to choose an item each week that my family uses and “cannot live without” and determine (as best I am able) its journey from raw materials to my home. Authors (i.e. Michael Pollan) have written entire books with similar themes, so this will not be an in-depth analysis, but I hope it will raise awareness about where our goods come from and how our need for things affects people around the globe.

Have and have-nots... and have too muches

For this project, each of us has spent some time deliberating on sacrifices we can make as individuals, in addition to what we can do as a group. So here's a little bit about one of the sacrifices I'm making, and why.

First, a little background. I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a shopaholic, but I am a serious bargain hunter. And a pack rat. These two things combined mean that I have a propensity towards bringing home some really great deals... that sit around in my closets or on my shelves for eons, taking up a great deal of space but not really doing much good. Recognizing this and trying to rein things in a bit, I have become more and more aware of (and subsequently repulsed by) the materialism so heavily pushed and reinforced in our society. (Really? I "must have" an all new wardrobe each and every season? I have to have the latest, most up-to-date version of every gadget? Whatever happened to using something until it was no longer useable before replacing it?) Despite my weakness for a bargain, however, I also believe in paying for quality. And I have been extremely frustrated in recent years by the lack of quality I get for my money.

From one clothing retailer in particular, and not an inexpensive one, I have been increasingly frustrated by the declining quality of their merchandise. Checking labels, I see that these clothes are being made in places like Vietnam, Pakistan, India and Israel. I am by no means saying that quality products don't come out of these countries. Nonetheless, it does make me wonder under what conditions are my clothes being made? If quality control has clearly fallen by the wayside for the sake of profit, what else may be being overlooked? Under what conditions, including worker conditions, are these items being made and shipped overseas to our consumer hungry nation?

While I intend to investigate these questions over the next several weeks, in the meantime, I have undertaken the personal challenge of eliminating a minimum of 100 articles of clothing from my wardrobe. There are far too many people, in this community and worldwide, who lack even basic items, for my closets to be overflowing with clothes I've only worn once or twice (or never, in some cases). Aside from some of the more obvious ones like Goodwill or The Salvation Army, there are some really great organizations out there that help to distribute specific types of clothing to those in need. I hope to share some information here soon. Additionally (and here's the hard part!) I will not be buying any non-essential clothing items for the remainder of the year. No matter how great the deal, if I don't need it, I won't buy it. Trust me, this was already tested over Labor Day weekend while shopping with my sister!

I'll keep you updated on my progress as I start sifting through and letting go. Support group recommendations, anyone?

(*For those wondering what I mean by non-essential, that's pretty much everything. However, my big feet tend to wear through socks pretty quickly; being without a car, I'm in need of some good walking shoes; and costume items for my dance troupe, as necessary.)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

An Introduction...

In August 2010, concerned about how human rights violations are occurring all around us in many, often surprising, ways, four graduate students set out to change the world by thinking globally while acting locally. Recognizing that human rights, including civil, political, economic, and social, are inextricably entwined with concerns regarding consumerism, sustainability, and environmental rights, we decided to challenge our perceptions by changing the way we think about buying.

By being a little more conscientious of our everyday spending habits, what can we learn and, more importantly, share with others, about materialism and choice in a free society, and how will that impact our views of the rest of the world? We'll share with you here our insights, struggles, and revelations as we each tackle the problem of how to effect change in our world by changing our lives... and earning an "A" in the process. Follow us for the next 16 weeks as we share with you, in our humble opinions, how to save the world.

Though we are still working out some of the details and some of our own personal commitments, we'll have some updates as to how we are, more comprehensively, saving the world soon!