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Follow Your Labels

"Follow Your Labels: Your Place in the Global Consumer Chain" by Kelsey Timmerman, Christian Science Monitor, July 21, 2013; Kelsey Timmerman regularly speaks at universities, high schools, and groups across the country. Used with permission.

[Reader 1]

Your morning coffee is a miracle of globalization. Someone somewhere in the world had the faith to plant a seedling that years later would produce small cherries harvested by nimble fingers. And then the coffee bean would be transported down bumpy roads cut into active volcanoes, and across oceans. It would be processed and roasted, and ultimately it would find its way to you.

But the miracles don't end at the bottom of your cup of coffee. The blue jeans you slip into before rushing off to work were crafted from swaths of denim in a factory in a country you probably can't find on a map.

In a 1967 speech, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "[B]efore you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you've depended on more than half of the world."

His words were never truer than today. Almost 98 percent of clothes sold in the United States in 2011 were imported, reports the American Apparel and Footwear Association. And while many Americans are attempting to get closer to their food by purchasing locally, the amount of imported food has doubled since 2000, according to a 2011 US International Trade Commission report.

[Reader 2]

It's amazing, when you think about it, to eat a banana that traveled thousands of miles from a plantation in Costa Rica. But perhaps more amazing is that so many staples of the American diet—coffee, apple juice, chocolate, to name a few—come from so far away that most of us can't imagine the plants they grow on, let alone the people responsible for producing them.

Food and clothing labels become red flags, though, when a tragedy occurs like the April [2013] collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed 1,129 workers. We realize that our shirt was made in Bangladesh, and maybe we bought it at a price that was guilt-free for our budget, but when we see reports on the catastrophe, that shirt might not feel guilt-free any longer.

How can we not wonder: Should we stop buying clothes made in Bangladesh? Should we do the same for the food we eat from places that may have similar questionable labor practices?

[Reader 3]

But the global economy is not so simple. I've picked coffee on an unimaginably steep mountainside in Colombia, hauled 80 pounds of bananas on my back alongside Costa Rican workers, and walked rows of sewing machines in a Bangladeshi factory, and I've witnessed how the line between exploitation and opportunity blurs quickly.

Our needs create opportunity for factory workers and farmers abroad, which is good. But are their lives improving because of our demand?

The global economy may provide farmers with incentives. But to get a grip on the next rung of the global economic development ladder, farmers see higher wages at urban factories as the answer. And that opportunity can be short lived in a global market that rapidly shifts to find cheaper wages elsewhere, or if middlemen take their cuts and consumers demand still-lower prices.

Ai, one of 85 garment workers involved in sewing together a single pair of Levi's on a Cambodian production line, left the fields for the factories. When she was told that some Americans don't want to buy the jeans she makes because they think she should earn more than $55 per month, she quickly replied: "If people don't buy, I'm unhappy because I wouldn't have a job."

[Reader 4]

Farm-to-factory pressure

So can we just shop for our basic needs and take comfort in knowing that the people who make our stuff in faraway factories and grow our food in exotic locales have no better options?

Over the past six years I've met garment workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Honduras, and Ethiopia, and almost every one was a former farmer. Farmers are leaving the fields for the factories, hoping that a job in the city sewing Levi's or assembling iPhones will improve their lives.

Farmers aren't just pulled from the fields by opportunities in factories, they are also pushed by dwindling farming opportunities. Many get paid less despite the increased appetites of developed nations for the fruits of their labor.

[Reader 5]

Coffee is a prime example. Antony Wild, author of "Coffee: A Dark History," writes that in 1991 the value of the global coffee market was $30 billion, of which producing countries received 40 percent. In 2005, the coffee market was worth $70 billion, and producing countries received 10 percent.

Gabriel Silva, a former president of the Colombian Coffee Federation, estimates that of the $3 Americans spend on a fancy mocha latte at Starbucks, a farmer gets about 1 cent.

Workers in Costa Rica at a Dole banana plantation were paid $28 per day a decade ago, but were down to $20 per day when I visited. One evening I asked one of the veteran workers, who had seen co-workers die from snakebites and had lopped off one of his own fingers with a machete while working, if he had advice for the younger worker sitting next to him. He did: "Find a different career."

From his perspective, he saw no opportunities in the fields. Similarly, Bangladeshi seamstress Reshma Begum saw no opportunities in the city factories.

After being pulled from the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory where she was buried for 17 days, she ended a press conference with a simple statement: "I will not work in a garment factory again."

[Reader 6]

So what can you do?

Awareness of where and under what conditions your food and clothing come from starts with checking the tag of your jeans and the label on your bag of coffee beans and realizing that every grocery store is a farmers' market and every department store is filled with the work of artisans.

Americans are sacrificing a smaller portion of their budgets for food and clothing than ever before; others sacrifice much more.

For more information contact web@uua.org.

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Last updated on Friday, November 22, 2013.

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