Last month I was working on a simple reuse project that should have taken an afternoon and faded into life, but I can’t get it out of my mind. My son had ‘used up’ a gaming chair he got many years ago as a gift and gifted it to me for supplies. He had long since outgrown it and the chair was starting to fall apart, so I planned to pick off the better pieces like the internal stereo system to use for my office desk. The full picture set is here on Facebook.
There was a lot of good material that I’m saving for projects like the bus, and some cool speaker covers, hinges, knobs – all good salvage. The main piece was an amplifier with a glowing red LED light bar and a bass box. I’ve got it out now and hooked up to two spare BOSE speakers and it sounds fantastic. Philip Glass is the playlist du jour.
Something quite unexpected happened while I was dissecting the very last section. I found a small plastic shopping bag in a little corner of the frame, rolled into a ball. As I slowly unrolled it wondering what it was I discovered a profound surprise. Hidden inside this chair from somewhere in anonymous Asia was a rusting razor and two folded paper snowflakes made by someone, probably the person who assembled the chair.
As I unfolded the snowflakes in my hand I kept looking back at this pile of chair parts on my floor and every time I looked it looked different. I could really start to see the hand-built, assembly line, human labor aspect. Techno-wonder-gaming-chair faded away pretty fast. The blue painted speaker covers had just barely enough blue to cover them and almost none on the back. The screw heads were painted on the outside but on the inside were clearly cheap metal and you could see the wood frame, almost scrap pieces glued together. Every cost-down trick right down to the human used to assemble it – the biggest cost down of all. A person like me who made snowflakes out of folded paper like I do at Christmas.
I’m guessing this high tech gaming chair was assembled in China, at least from the country of origin searches I did on the name. Maybe the snowflakes were made for a holiday, or to pass the time. Perhaps to give to a child who doesn’t see their parent that lives in a dorm making chairs for me in a factory far from home.
There is a long debate about working conditions ‘overseas’ and even the more progressive folks reckon that factory suicides mirror rates of non-factory workers in the same country. I’ve also been asked the question, “would it be better if they didn’t have any job at all?” As if those are the only possibilities we can imagine, no job, or a crappy job.
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The bottom line is that we like to make excuses to support our quality of life, often at the expense of others.
Higher prices for things like a Gaming Chair could mean opening an assembly plant here in the US, or could mean supporting a quality of life for someone in China similar to our own.
Here are more excuses that mask our apathy:
- “Even if we paid more the corrupt governments in those countries would prevent people from making those wages.”
- “It’s better that they have this job than starving to death. If you asked them they’d keep the job.”
- “Introducing capitalism in their country will ultimately provide a higher quality of life for their children.”
- “It’s impossible for me to know how every little thing I buy was made.”
These are things we say so we don’t feel guilty filling our carts at the store. As if somehow our higher quality of life gives us the moral standing to allow the suffering of others. That the advantages we had, or created are the exclusive property to ourselves, rather than the adage, “to whom much is given, much is expected.”
The question to me is would I pay more for a brand that demonstrated fair wages and supported a reasonable quality of life for people? Careful, it might cut my lifestyle from two televisions to one.
I think it’s really a huge brand and business opportunity for someone, to create a brand for products that promote the welfare of the people making them – an extension of Fair Trade.
We have Dolphin Safe labels for tuna, why isn’t there a People Safe label for stuff? Would you pay more for a People Safe laptop? I don’t need another law to force me to do this. I need companies to brand their products Human Safe so I can choose them over a competitor. Most people won’t want to be the only person sitting at Starbucks working on a laptop without that sticker. Then you can vote with some real leverage, your dollars.
The snowflakes are hanging on the door of my Ikea desk to remind me of the humans who labor while I listen to Philip Glass on Youtube on my BOSE speakers, sipping organic coffee and blogging on my MacBook about the challenges of suburban life sitting in my garage sale office chair, made in China.
They are just a little something to remind me of the impact I have on others with the choices I make. Maybe that’s why they left it there.
“People-Safe” Seal of Approval? by Brad Rowland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.