December 16, 2009

Mary Beth Danielson: Buy Less. Pay More. What Did She Just Say?

By Mary Beth Danielson

This Saturday, Dec 19, 8AM-2PM -- there will be a Mayaworks Sale at Wilson’s Coffee & Tea, 3306 Washington Avenue. Please come to buy some Fair Trade products created by Maya artisans. Every item you buy (from a large selection of weavings, pretty household things, beaded jewelry, purses, totes and more) is a product that will have to be replaced by a fairly paid worker in Guatemala, thereby doubling your holiday investment of care and kindness.

That’s my main point and message -- in case you’re too busy to read the rest of this.

Fair Trade strengthens her world and ours.

Everything from here on out is “Why you should sometimes buy Fair Trade stuff.” The simple answer is that if you earn a paycheck - Fair Trade helps keep your paycheck plump, too.

Consider: My cousin recently knitted a handsome pair of blue socks for me. In a chipper conversation about the gift, I asked her how much the socks would cost if she included the price of the wool plus minimum wage for her hours of work. We cracked ourselves up when we realized I now possess $42 socks.

In this humor is the cockeyed truth of our global economy. Cheap goods are cheap because someone is being paid very low wages. In fact some say the current economic brouhaha is basically a worldwide adjustment of wages. This is because (duh) workers in other countries work for lower wages than Americans do. An article I read lately suggests that for North American workers to be competitive in our modern world, most of us should consider working for about 20% less than we do. This goes for everyone – from the CEO to the guy who sweeps his office; from the heart surgeon to the short order cook in the hospital cafeteria.

Great, huh?

Yet here is how we Americans are already paving the way to lowered wages.

Do you shop for bargains? Of course you do. Who doesn’t?

Consider… Each time you buy a $10 shirt, shoes for $15, electronics at rock bottom prices – what you are saying when you put your credit card down is that $.50 - 4.00 per hour is a fine wage for adults to earn.

Keep this clear in your mind – cheap pay is one of the main factors your purchase price is low. Someone somewhere worked for pay varying between low and near-slavery.

Many of the things we buy are made by people working 60-90 hours a week for less than a dollar an hour in sweatshop conditions. Not every foreign factory operates this way, but many do. One of the ways manufacturers coerce people into these situations is to set up a factory in one unregulated country, then bring in “guest workers” from another very poor country. If the workers resist horrible conditions, their worker status is revoked and they are sent back to their own nation, often with no payment at all. It’s an ugly business, though it enables us to buy stuff for prices far below what they would cost if manufactured in the US. Like socks for a dollar.

The important thing, in the keeping of the wool over our eyes, is to gently assume people in distant places are not quite as human as we are. Maybe they don’t mind exploitation and fatigue as much as we would. They live closer to the equator so they don’t have to pay heating bills. If they don’t have a house, then they won’t need furniture. And you know, a lot of those people are just fine eating a minimal amount of the same starchy grain over and over and over again.

We are under economic duress. We respond by looking for cheaper goods, which creates a downward spiral that causes workers to earn too little to live decently. Which causes workers in the US to lose their jobs altogether. And which enables only owners and investors to get richer.

This is too simplistic, because this is a short article. But it isn’t wrong.

You know how to fight this?

Inform yourself. Look at the labels in your favorite clothes. Google working conditions in those companies. It doesn’t take long to discover too much. Join organizations that work for economic justice at home and abroad.

But you know what else you can do?

Buy less. Pay more.

Seriously. Very few of us can do this with every purchase - but as we can, make choices that value workers.

Instead of purchasing two $10 shirts, consider buy one for $30, treat it well and make it last. Buy some of the things you need for your life secondhand. Borrow, hand down, share.

Explore Fair Trade coffee, chocolate (did you know most non-Fair Trade chocolate is picked by children?), jewelry, household goods. Every time you purchase Fair Trade, you are saying that the world belongs to the people who make and serve and care.

Value your hard work by valuing the work of others.


  1. Mary Beth is always such an inspirational writter. The idea to pay more buy less seems so simple but makes so much sense!

  2. Good lesson to apply to food as well. Buy quality food that costs more and try eating less. If we ate portion sizes that were appropriate we'd save a lot of money and the higher prices get you much better quality for both the producer and consumer. Same with fair trade.

  3. I am all for buying USA made items and paying more than just the cheap stuff from China and Taiwan. It's hard to find those things tho.

  4. As usual, Mary Beth is right. Many thanks to Dustin and Pete for sharing her thoughts with us. My neighbors and I still miss Mary Beth's column which used to appear in the "Journal Times."

  5. Cheetos and bacon...MADE IN THE USA!!!

  6. Thank you Mary Beth. If most people knew how their cheap deal purchases were made, they could not in good conscience buy them.

    Fair Trade values workers and farmers, it is a choice consumers can feel good about. After you visit the Maya Works sale, try Just Trade in the Cup of Hope Cafe on 6th Street~You may find yourself spending less time in a mall or big box store looking for Christmas presents this year.

    ....also, some fair trade coops can be found in the U.S. too.

  7. Fair Trade is a thing of the past. It only rewarded merchants who did not know how to compete. It also allowed producers to overprice their products. We are now in a world=wide market. Buyer beware.

  8. 9:32 - that train is never late.

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  10. It wouldn't hurt so much to get our wages under control, as well. The two primary reasons American goods don't sell is that unions have driven the wages so high that we can't afford our own homemade products. There's no reason someone sitting on an assembly line, turning a bolt should make $32 per hour + benefits. Cut that back to $14 - $18 per hour and bring the cost of good down. The second reason is that we aren't charging tariff taxes on all the goods that come into this country (and not high enough on the ones that we do tax) and we pay outrageous tariff taxes on goods we export. Get the wages and tariffs under control and the cost of U.S. made goods will drop. Then we can compete and bring back some of the businesses that have left this country.

  11. I used to love reading Mary Beth's column in the JT -- maybe she can do one for the Post?

    - Krystyna

  12. Graham

    What are you a socialist? Tarriffs go against free market principles. I hope you don't consider yourself a conservative.

  13. That Old Irish Catholic Priest12/18/2009 5:06 PM

    Kick since I'm certainly something of a socialist...being able to follow this last comment. Of course, I'm of the type from back in the days. Not the last century but the first one. The followers of Jesus when 'christian' had real meaning. I sure miss MBeth; I read her faithfully before the JT axed her in favor of a lot of dull&dated writers from similar papers. She still makes us think and consider our responsibilities as old time followers of a certain Way.

  14. Wages and tariffs? Good idea if you have a job that wasn't exported. How about ridiculous salaries and bonuses for CEO's? Noooo, that's just a reward for good free market skills. Can't let wages and benefits get in the way of our gross money grab, there are dividends to pay! When we ship the jobs to another country, we'll just blame the unions.

    Fair trade and similar practices which pay reasonable and consistant wages stabilize economys, usually in places where trade agreements aren't fair.

  15. Mary Beth, thanks...great timing, and once again you speak with sense, logic and compassion to the problem.

    Your writing is a gift. Your core message is at the heart of many of our social and family problems!

    The REAL price of cheap food and clothing -- suffering!