I believe most of you reading this blog are in agreement with me that buying locally made products supports and maintains a strong local economy. I also believe that price is the only reason an American would buy a made in China product over a made in USA one.
Imagine that you have a choice between two identical sweaters, one made here, one made in China. The price is the same, the quality is the same and they’re sitting next to each other on the same shelf at the store. I bet you would pick the one made in USA.
Now, let’s say the imported sweater is ten dollars cheaper. Some of you would now switch, some would not, claiming that ten dollars off of an 80 dollar sweater doesn’t matter. But what if the made in China sweater was free? Yes, completely FREE of charge! Now, which one would you pick?
Hold that thought for a second and let’s turn our heads toward developing countries, applying the same logic. What do you think happens when companies like TOMS overflow a developing market with free shoes? What do you think happens when your donated clothes arrive in a less fortunate country? Do the people there still go shopping for locally and sustainably made?
Let’s talk about TOMS a bit, just because they’re probably the most famous of all “social entrepreneurs”. You think you’re doing a great thing, buying one overpriced pair, while TOMS donates another to a child in need.
Unfortunately, the reality looks a bit different. Instead of helping, you’re actually:
- Buying a pair of shoes you don’t need i.e. wasting resources (come on, admit it).
- Making the American CEO of TOMS richer.
- Importing a pair of shoes from China. (Go ahead, check the tag. Pretty much all pairs are made in Chinese non-fair-trade-certified factories and shipped across the ocean disrupting marine life.)
- Helping destroy local shoe making businesses in developing countries.
Oops. Not so great.
Now, I don’t think TOMS was started with some evil intention to keep third world countries poor, nor do I think you wanted to help them do that, when you bought your shoes. I simply think TOMS misunderstood their own efforts and lots of people believed (or believe) in their concept.
For generations “we” have tried giving aid to poor countries in order to “help” them out of poverty. And obviously, it’s not helping. I haven’t heard any sunshine stories about how riches ever came from aid (talking about all that free stuff).
And it makes sense. No one would invest in a local rice plantation if there were bags of free imported rice available. No one would want to start a local manufacturing plant if everything people needed (and wanted) was already available for free.
The cool thing is that we can make better choices in our everyday lives to make sure we don’t contribute to the broken aid system! Here are some ideas on what you can do to make a positive impact:
- Stop randomly donating money. Make sure you know what your money is used for, and who profits the most from it. If you are unsure, you’re better off keeping your dollars away from any organization or church meddling in another country’s business. This does not include properly handled emergency aid.
- Stop over-shopping. By limiting your shopping, especially of clothes and shoes, you can avoid “donations” that contribute to the mountains of items overflowing developing countries. Quality over quantity, you know. If you need to donate, give it to a local homeless shelter or a resale shop.
- Shop second hand. Keep other people’s bad choices from ending up as donations!
- Shop fair. The only way to HELP developing countries grow strong economies is to purchase their fairly made (non-sweat-shop) products (i.e them creating jobs). I’m talking about fair trade clothing from Kenya, organic chocolate from Peru, unique jewelry made by artisans in Haiti* or something as simple as choosing the local beer and hotel chain when you travel. You know; doing it fair, shopping it small and keeping it real.
Without local manufacturing and thriving businesses, a community, no matter which country it’s in, can never rise above poverty.
If you were tempted (or secretly picked) the “free” made in China sweater instead of the 80 dollar American one in the scenario at the beginning of this post – you know this is true.
The Poverty Inc. movie inspired this post.
* To me, the optimal “fair” shopping is when you shop items made close to where you live, minimizing shipments. So if you’re in Europe, support African Fair Trade, if you’re in the States go for Central American goods etc.