The high cost of low prices

In the morning, how many of us pour coffee into a ceramic mug, dress in a nice outfit, or make an omelet with peeled garlic and chopped, bagged onions? While it seems innocuous, the origin of many of these products frequently leads directly to Reeducation Through Labor (RTL) camps in China, known as laogai. As I read the book, Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of Cheap Goods, by investigative journalist Amelia Pang, it’s clear the way I shop, or if I’ll shop, has changed forever.

The book begins with Oregon mother Julie Keith opening a box of Halloween decorations purchased at K-Mart and finding an SOS letter written by the Chinese prisoner who made them. The letter, written by Falun Gong practitioner Sun Yi stated that he and other prisoners, including fellow practitioners of the meditative spiritual practice, were being tortured, force-fed, and worked for 15-20 hours per day at one of these camps. Female prisoners fared worse; their torture included gang rape. If quotas were not made, the workday was 24 hours. Other letters were subsequently found by consumers in Australia and the U.K., as prisoners put the notes in packages going to English speaking countries, hoping someone would inform the world of their plight. That’s exactly what Ms. Keith did. Her story ran in The Oregonian in 2013.

Such a high cost for low prices, and it’s one that corporate America has had ample opportunity to correct but has consistently failed to do so.  Why pay for the true cost for a product when you can source it cheaply, foregoing the expenses of wages, benefits, and basic human dignity? Most companies choose to pad their bottom lines instead. Many Americans know this and still buy these goods anyway. Studies show that our brain’s pleasure centers are activated by cheap prices, despite knowledge of another’s suffering to produce the product. Corporate titans like Nike, H&M, American Girl, Volkswagen, and BMW are just some of those who’ve been outsourced to RTL camps. Audits do nothing to correct this since there is now an industry in China whose sole function is to fake records for items sourced from these camps for cursory, meaningless review.  

Additionally, the U.S. continues to renew China’s Most Favored Nation trade status annually despite the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which killed approximately 10,000 people, and despite gross human rights violations such as the harvesting of the organs of prisoners of conscience, those holding political or religious views that are not tolerated by the government. This much was obvious to investigators who noted that the average wait time for an organ transplant where organs are procured from consenting donors is 3.6 years as opposed to one week in China, a statistical impossibility.

What can the conscious consumer do? Start by asking questions, beginning with Do I really need this item? Often, it’s a want, not a need. Additionally, most corporations have a social responsibility office, so if you love a brand and don’t want to give it up, call them and ask the hard questions about how they audit their suppliers, how much they pay their workers, how many hours per day they work, and what their turn-around times from factory to marketplace are. Don’t be afraid to use social media if you get pat answers. Brands know their reputation is everything.

Also, consider spending your hard-earned money at fair trade and resale stores. Fair trade-sourced items require empowering the workers who make them with fair wages and safe working conditions, community investment, respectful relationship building, and sustainability.  Additionally, fair trade suppliers are certified by independent third-party auditors before they’re allowed to affix the fair-trade logo to their products. Hopefully someday, there will be a laogai-free label affixed to products, helping consumers make choices free of human suffering.  

Despite these shocking practices, there is some hope. In December 2021, President Biden signed the bipartisan Uyghur (pronounced Wee-guhr) Forced Labor Protection Act, which forbids the import of products produced in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China into the U.S. Uyghurs are ethnic minorities living in this region who are persecuted for their religious beliefs. They’re the ones who made those cute, little pandas given to medal winners at the recent Winter Olympic Games. 

Our dollars have power, and so does our refusal to spend them. Let this be our impetus for equitable, humane, conscious consumption.