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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Ethics of $19 Shorts

A story[1] on NPR this morning caught my attention because of the ethical dilemma it presents. The story’s momentum comes from the recent collapse[2] of a garment factory in Bangladesh in which at least 85 people were killed. Related to the story is the complicated relationship between foreign governments, major American retailers, and consumers. There are underwriters, safety inspectors, and human rights groups involved, too.
            Of interest in the piece is that researchers at the University of Michigan demonstrated that people would pay slightly more for a product that they know was manufactured at a factory where “workers were treated fairly and safely.” For the stats nerd in all of us, about 33% of subjects in the UM project purchased the “ethical” but higher-priced item when the price was 5% higher than a competitor, and only about 25% of shoppers purchased the higher-priced item when the price rose to 20%-50% more than the competitor.

            While this ethical experiment is interesting in its own right, there’s something else to consider in this tangled ethical web. Let’s say that, for a moment, people began to overwhelmingly choose the more “ethical” product. They therefore are paying more (let’s say 20% more) than the “unethical” product. Let’s further assume that this overwhelming response to the plight of the underpaid, unethically treated workers overseas causes that unethical factory to close and all of those unethically treated workers to be unemployed. What have we accomplished?
            I realize that such an overwhelming response among the American consumerate is implausible, and even if there were such a sea change there is enough elasticity in the market that such a drastic change would likely not occur. However, as we continue to hunger for $19 shorts, such as the ones referenced in the NPR piece, we will continue to encourage retailers to encourage factory managers to encourage workers to be satisfied with their low wages and poor working conditions.
            The ethical dilemma is not whether we should pay more for shorts so that workers overseas can have a chance at economic human dignity. The issue is that we turn a blind eye toward the human effects our economic choices have in the real world. Let us turn these eyes toward ourselves and our own poverty of Spirit that drives us to ignore the lives and deaths of our neighbors so that we can wear $19 shorts.


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