You walk into any random coffee shop and most people are head-down surfing the net on a smart phone. You ride any bus, walk down any street, and it is no longer uncommon to see someone plugged into their own world of music. How many of us are planning to replace those outdated box TV sets to a flat-screen HD receiver this holiday season? The upgrades in our digital entertainment have upgraded our holiday wish lists, and especially during this time of year, our consumerism swells tremendously. But these advances in luxury come at a price. While it may seem that our holiday shopping only affects our purses and pocketbooks, it actually has global effects and consequences.
“There is a global linkage to all the gifts we get this holiday season,” says Dr. Kam Wing Chan, a professor in the Geography Department at the University of Washington. Professor Chan contends that “literally over 90 percent of the goods we see in stores are produced in Asia; at least 80 percent of that from China.” He says he wouldn’t be surprised if popular holiday items such as laptops, big screen televisions, and other advanced electronic technology were also made in China.
And while an item like an iPhone can cost us upwards of $700 dollars, a recent study conducted by the private research firm iSuppli estimated the cost of parts at about $175. It is unclear if this includes labor expenses, but even then, labor expenses are a small fraction of the entire production cost. According to the American Public Media program “Marketplace”, total labor costs for one iPhone amounts to $4.00, an hourly wage of about 70 cents for an individual worker. And pay rates are often the first of many issues. Factories are often cheaply built with hazardous materials, insufficiently ventilated for the humid climate, and employees are commonly forced beyond the legally allowed work hours. Proper healthcare coverage isn’t even addressed because labor is expendable; waiting outside is another anxious worker because even in these conditions, any job is better than no job.
“The labor cost is low because China has a lot of rural labor that is willing to do the work,” explains the UW professor. “These low costs are also due partly to a system in China called the ‘Household Registration System’. The rural population does not have the same rights as city residents, so when people from the countryside move to the city to work, they are not eligible for the same coverage of welfare, unemployment benefits, healthcare and so on.”
Foreign-based production works in a multi-faceted operation. A parent company first develops a product idea and then contracts the manufacturing to a secondary medium located in countries where working wages are lower and labor laws are lax. In this example, Apple contracts its work to Foxconn, a Taiwanese company that produces computer technology and has factories located mainly in Asia, specifically in China. These second-party companies are the ones actually in charge of labor practices and when this fact is combined with the country’s labor conditions, it is debatable who is more responsible for the treatment of laborers. But what can’t be debated is that our consumer demand creates this market to exist and what really needs to be understood is our spending habits affect our own lives just as much as a migrant worker from rural China.
“This kind of cheap product from China encourages excessive consumption here, and of course, increased consumption contributes to global warming because somebody has to produce them,” warns Chan. “Particularly in the case of China, with the relatively lenient implementation of environmental regulations, we are indirectly contributing to China’s production of global warming.”
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, China has surpassed the US in pollution rates and now ranks #1 in CO2 emissions. Much of that statistic is attributed to the increased factory production in response to the US consumer demand for cheap products, and with growing concern for climate change on both a global and nation scale, this makes our spending habits relevant beyond just our expendable income. So in many ways beyond monetary terms, our consumerism doesn’t come free.