Conscience Do Cost

By coincidence, I read the following two articles back to back on a plane last month:

Charles Fishman, “The Wal-Mart You Don’t Know.”
Michael Pollan, “An Animal’s Place.”

The first one is about how Wal-Mart almost singlehandedly  incentivized American companies to move their production abroad. Companies making products to be sold at Wal-Mart were told over and over again by their biggest customer that they had to drop their prices. If you stick-and-carrot efficiency for long enough, pretty soon you can’t justify paying a bunch of Americans 5 bucks an hour to do something a Chinese dude will do for 1.

If Wal-Mart doesn’t like the pricing on something, says Andrew Whitman, who helped service Wal-Mart for years when he worked at General Foods and Kraft, they simply say, “At that price we no longer think it’s a good value to our shopper. Therefore, we don’t think we should carry it.”

Wal-Mart has also lulled shoppers into ignoring the difference between the price of something and the cost. Its unending focus on price underscores something that Americans are only starting to realize about globalization: Ever-cheaper prices have consequences. Says Steve Dobbins, president of thread maker Carolina Mills: “We want clean air, clear water, good living conditions, the best health care in the world–yet we aren’t willing to pay for anything manufactured under those restrictions.”

In other words, we all want to live in a country where we can all have good jobs, beautiful nature and working infrastructure. But we don’t want to pay for it.

The second article doesn’t, ostensibly, have anything to do with the first. It’s about our food production system, and how it’s making us all sick. You know the drill: Factory farms bad! Micro-bio-loca-ganic farms good!

Salatin’s chickens live like chickens; his cows, like cows; pigs, pigs. As in nature, where birds tend to follow herbivores, once Salatin’s cows have finished grazing a pasture, he moves them out and tows in his “eggmobile,” a portable chicken coop that houses several hundred laying hens–roughly the natural size of a flock.

The hens fan out over the pasture, eating the short grass and picking insect larvae out of the cowpats–all the while spreading the cow manure and eliminating the farm’s parasite problem. A diet of grubs and grass makes for exceptionally tasty eggs and contented chickens, and their nitrogenous manure feeds the pasture.

A few weeks later, the chickens move out, and the sheep come in, dining on the lush new growth, as well as on the weed species (nettles, nightshade) that the cattle and chickens won’t touch.

This is self-evidently true and wonderful. If all farms in the Western world operated like this, we’d all be healthier, not to mention less morally culpable in the kind of animal cruelty that only Wal-Mart efficiency can inspire.

But, like the 8-hour day and the minimum wage, sustainability costs. Creating a food system that prohibits inhumane practices essentially creates workers’ rights for animals.  I’d be totally fine with that, but if all the factories have been shipped overseas by rising costs in the West, why won’t the same thing happen to all the farms?

To me, this is the central dilemma of the capitalism we’ve set up for ourselves. We as citizens want our chickens to be able to live like chickens, our cows to eat grass, our pigs to have bottomless slop to slip in. But as consumers, given a choice between happy chicken breast and torture-farm chicken breast, we choose the cheaper, every time.

It’s not just farms, of course. Our decision to choose cheaper, as pointed out in the Wal-Mart article, is why our countries don’t have factories for clothing or cars or IKEA anymore either. As citizens, we want access to jobs that let us buy a house and see our kids a few nights a week. As consumers, we want the cheapest option possible, even if it means a 78-hour workweek for that dude in China.

Economic theory says the middle class was created when Henry Ford started paying $5 a day. That was a huge salary in 1914, and it instantly transformed his workers into consumers. Maybe in the  last 20 years, that transformation’s finally complete. We’re so busy celebrating the victorious consumer that we forget his victory is over the worker. And that they’re the same person.

In other words, somewhere in Flint, Michigan, right now, an unemployed autoworker is trying to choose between two pieces of chicken.

3 Comments

Filed under America, Serious

3 responses to “Conscience Do Cost

  1. Hence the supposed rise of the conscience/conscious consumer, which clearly favors the middle class and higher. So ideas like organic/sustainable farming and quality goods manufacturing become a decidedly boutique endeavor, a passing fad, a marketing gimmick, and eventually business as usual.

    A third article you might have read (did you spring for the carbon offset?) could have furthered people’s unwillingness to pay for what’s right and good and just or whatever it is people think they support. Credit– the best way to really not pay for something.

  2. Nano

    I wouldn’t entirely agree that the cheapest product always wins. To use Polyface farms (the Salatin endeavor) as an example, they are doing well enough (1) to have purchased their own slaughter house to maintain the the humane treatment of their animals and (2) to have a steadily increasing number of destinations for their buying club. It is a slow process, but there is a growing movement of humane buying power in the meat industry. Whole Foods (or Whole Paycheck) is growing very well, even though they are not the cheapest grocery option out there. Conscience does seem to be increasing the amount the consumer will spend on a product, rather than the cheapest sellers winning out every time.

  3. null

    I completely agree with Nano. I only buy eggs that come from “happy hens”, even though they are a lot more expensive. And whenever I get the chance in my neighbourhood to spend my money in happy pigs and cows and clothes made by happy people, I’ll buy from them too.
    They just need to make it more accesible to everyone and to inform people a little more, and then everyone will have the chance to choose and not buy like a zombie if they don’t want to.

    Well put, Mike. 🙂

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