The value of a livelihood

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how we value the life of individuals, and the way this is presented in the media. In that post, I named names – I wrote of individuals about whom we can discover more: a photograph, a family, a history. We can begin to relate to such people and thus find value in their lives. It’s much more difficult, however, to value the anonymous. And yet there a thousands of faceless people who make our lives what they are. Thousands of people responsible for the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the computers we use…. the only relationship we have with these people is the through objects – we do not know their stories. Perhaps we should.

Perhaps it is our responsibility to understand what goes into producing the objects we interact with every day. How did making the t-shirt you are wearing affect the life of the people who made it? Where did the fibre come from? How was it spun? What chemicals was the person who dyed it exposed to? Where was it cut and sewn together? In a sweatshop? Did someone suffer to make it? Will they continue suffering long after you have thrown it in the bin?

The collapsed Rana Plaza building (Reuters picture from the BBC web site)

It is now just over a year since The Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed.In that tragic incident, 1129 garment workers were killed and thousands more injured. They still haven’t received proper compensation and more than half of the companies who bought from the factories have not yet even pledged any money to the compensation fund.

This building housed four clothing factories that supplied goods to 29 international brands and retailers, including (according to the BBC) JC Penney in the United States and Primark in the UK, plus Benetton (The Guardian), Matalan, Bonmarche and Monsoon (The Irish Independent), Walmart and Gap (International Business Times). So, buying more expensive clothes on the high street does not necessarily ensure that the people who make them do so under good conditions. Of course, clothing is not the only industry that does not always take care of its workers… I have written previously, for example, about the appalling conditions associated with the production of cut flowers in poorer countries and the exploitation of the workers.

What all this highlights is that the ‘cost’ of a product is so much more than the money that you hand over in a shop. And because the things we buy are cheap, we do not value them – we often throw them away before they have reached the end of their life… because businesses want us to keep buying and making profit for them. If you personally knew people who worked in terrible conditions, would you buy the goods they made and support the companies who exploited them?

So, next time you go shopping, think about the implications of your choices… do you want to be responsible for the suffering of another person? Is there a purchase you can make that would be a positive action instead?

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