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Celebrate President's Day By Not Going Shopping

J. Mijin Cha

Here we go again. Another holiday, another sale-explosion/shopping extravaganza. Can we stop and ask ourselves: Is buying more stuff, which we probably do not need and may very well not use, the best way to honor our Presidents?

We talked a bit about this at Christmas time and how deeply consumption is imbedded in our culture. As we pointed out then, we don’t have the resources to continue our current consumption patterns and high levels of consumption don’t necessarily translate into economic gains domestically. But, the pull of consumption is so strong and the lure of over the top sales run at holiday times exacerbates that pull.

Take, for example, the sales-extravaganza at Macys.com, which offers up to 75 percent off regular prices during President’s day. Looking at jeans, a staple of almost every wardrobe, sales piled upon sales means that you can buy a pair of jeans for less than $22. Yet, is the advertised cost the true cost of making those jeans, or is it more than $22? And, if so, who is paying for the difference in cost?

Let’s start with the cotton used to make the jeans. Cotton is highly susceptible to disease so many farmers use large volumes of fertilizers and pesticides. Cotton farming is also extremely water intensive. It takes up to 650 gallons of water to grow the cotton used for one shirt. Beyond the water requirements just to grow cotton, the high levels of fertilizer and pesticide used can result in tainted water supplies. Recent soil samples in cotton growing areas of West Africa showed 77 percent of all the land had high levels of toxic chemicals, which eventually leached into the drinking supply. Not to mention that more resources will be needed going forward as climate change will decrease cotton yields so more crops will need to be planted to make up for the decline.

Then there is the manufacturing and dying process to turn the cotton into jeans. The dying process has turned local drinking sources in Mexico toxic and blue. Jeans that are made to look “distressed” have a higher toll on the environment because the process uses extremely toxic chemicals, including potassium permanganate, which was once used to induce abortion, and hydrocyanic acid, a relative of cyanide. Manufacturing and dying jeans has turned an area of Mexico that used to grown genetically pure maize into an area that is now sterile and non-productive.

Finally, there’s the issue of wages and exploiting labor in developing countries.  A recent documentary called China Blue took an in-depth look at the conditions at a blue jeans factory in southern China. Not surprisingly, the conditions are appalling. Workers make less than $1 a day, from which rent and meals are deducted. Like other industries, the push for more volume at lower costs comes at the price of worker’s rights and wages. You may pay $50 for a pair of jeans, but the 20-25 workers that were involved in making those jeans will share compensation that is often less than $1. Workers in factories that produce jeans for Wal-Mart earn less than 40 cents per day. Children in Honduras work for 25 cents per hour to sew jeans that Wal-Mart then sells for $20.

There are changes being made in the industry and things like organic cotton growing help minimize the environmental damage. But, for something that most people have multiple pairs of, do you really need to buy that extra pair of jeans today? It may be cheap for you, but there is no doubt that someone is paying the true cost.