Editorial – A Hard Bargain

Viewed in the broadest strokes, the problem of the ongoing toy recalls is simple–Chinese manufacturers are making shoddy (even dangerous) goods that are being sold to unsuspecting North American consumers.

But this simplistic big-picture view of a complex issue is tied to the smaller picture; in particular, to a recent conversation I had with a friend. She was complaining about the sorry state of manufacturing jobs in her town. Twenty years ago, even ten, work was plentiful. Jobs in auto plants were especially coveted: the money was good, there was plenty of overtime, and there were bonuses for recommending new employees. Competition between assembly plants to hold onto workers–even within the same corporate umbrella–was fierce.

Now, this friend complained bitterly, work was getting harder to find. There had been layoffs by the hundreds at one of the largest employers in the area. There was resentment in her voice as she noted that all the jobs were being moved overseas. The reason (at least to her) was plain: employees in Asian countries were stealing North American jobs, and getting rich in the bargain.

As she spoke, I glanced around her home. I looked at her clothes, her television, her computer, her daughter’s Dora the Explorer running shoes. They were all made in China, and she’d bought them all at cheap prices at the nearest big-box chain store.

And therein lays the problem. We love stuff, lots of it, and we love getting it cheaply. Our houses, garages, and rented storage spaces are crammed full of it. Our landfills are bursting. We buy cheap, disposable junk that we discard the minute something new comes on the market. Last year’s cellphone outdated? Toss it in the garbage and get a new one; the price is right.

we’re gluttons for a constant flow of inexpensive goods, and corporations have obliged by finding ways to give it to us. In places like Mexico and the Pacific Rim, labour is cheap. Employees aren’t getting rich, and It’s not surprising that in newly industrialized countries there are unscrupulous manufacturers who want a bigger cut of the consumer feast–and who will substitute cheaper ingredients to up their profits. It isn’t right, but It’s a well-known fact of human nature. (Otherwise, there would never have been a need for some soul from antiquity to mutter caveat emptor.)

What we’ve forgotten in our insatiable thirst for an endless supply of stuff is that old maxim: you can have it cheap or you can have it good. The friend in question is a good example. Instead of buying two well-made, high-quality sweaters to last the season, she spends the same amount of money on a dozen cheap ones that will fall apart after a few washings. But buying dozens of sweaters indulges her need to consume–something the corporations love us to keep doing.

That doesn’t mean an isolationist, local-goods-only mentality is the answer. If a made-in-China (or Germany or India) toy is a solid, dependable product, then buy it. But quality comes at a certain cost and always has: the cost of fair wages, of benefits for employees, of safe ingredients, of the labour costs to ensure quality control.

As consumers, we’re complicit in creating the atmosphere that led to this flood of recalls. No, we didn’t slap the paint on those lead-contaminated toys. But until something went wrong, we didn’t question how we could afford so much stuff so cheaply. We didn’t care where it came from or what conditions it was made under–as long as we could buy armloads of it at the local mall and cart it home. We were so thrilled at getting an endless supply of stuff at such a bargain we never bothered to worry about the cost.