07 January 2010

Does Barbara Mandrell Eat Tuna Fish?

And any man who knows a thing knows he knows not a damn damn thing at all.
--K'Naan, "Take A Minute"

A few weeks ago I began eating Easy Mac and single-serve tuna packets for lunch. I noticed that my tuna, no matter which brand I chose, was "A Product Of" exotic places like Trinidad & Tobago. That got me to thinking about one of the reasons I started this blog: we need to all raise our awareness of the sources of our products and the costs that go into them. Most companies don't spell out either of those strings of information for the consumer, but we can guess at them. Why care? Well, that takes a little exploration:

As an example, let's consider my tuna. Single-serve packets of tuna cost about a buck. How many packets of fish can a large, wild-caught tuna be split into? How much is one tuna fish worth? How many fish must a fishing captain catch to make a living, and how many people on his crew must he pay to assist him? How much is the lease on his boat, the gas that goes into the boat, the insurance on the boat?

Once the tuna is caught, it must be transported to wherever it gets packaged at a certain cost. Then the building where the tuna is processed--the energy to run it, the machinery in it, the lease or loan payments on it, and the insurance and taxes on it--adds to the product cost. The wages of the employees (and maybe even benefits) and the cost of the packaging also must be factored into the cost of production. Then the tuna gets moved again, transported perhaps to distribution centers or perhaps directly to stores with costly trucks or boats or planes requiring fuel, insurance, maintenance, and operators. Exhausted yet? Not only must StarKist or Chicken Of The Sea or Bumblebee pay for that transport and labor, but they also pay for marketing, administrative fees, costs associated with their headquarters, their legal defense teams, and their product development teams. They might be paying for lobbying to protect their rights to trade with certain nations or prevent certain taxes. Of course, they must also produce a profit for their shareholders. Then my grocery store gets my packet of tuna and tacks on its own little bit of profit. How a packet only costs a buck after all this amazes me!

I care about these things because Americans obsess over low prices, demand great benefits from their employers, and then get angry when companies move low-skill manufacturing positions overseas for cheaper labor. We cannot get everything we want. We simply can't. The costs of hiring expensive Americans must be recovered in the cost of products or services. Thomas L. Friedman argues in The World is Flat that we Americans must acknowledge our inability to provide low-cost low-skilled workers that compete with other nations and work to become superior providers of skilled workers and knowledge workers. We must collectively improve our eduction to compete on the world market.

Beyond our own well-being, what is the cost of low prices to other nations? President Obama suggested during his campaign that he would work toward taking a nation's human rights record into account when determining trade relations. It's a lovely thought, one that we need to consider seriously. I kept track of a year of articles about different incidents of China's human rights abuses; the results terrified me. We demand low prices, yet get angry when countries send shoddy products our way. We lament our own wages while ignoring the wages others must endure to feed our material addictions. We used to see commercials in the eighties with Barbara Mandrell telling us to check the labels of our clothes for "Made In The USA," but when the recession hit, I was probably not the only person to decide that maybe those cheap products from developing nations aren't so bad in a pinch. We can't let price dictate our choices forever, though. America stands in a unique position to influence the human rights of nations we trade with, if we are brave enough and dig deep enough. Inexpensive isn't bad in and of itself, but when you see what goes into the production of an item, you see how the costs of mass-produced goods must be controlled to remain competitive. Sometimes those controls might not be worth the savings.

People who say they are not interested in politics influence politics with every product they buy. People who aren't interested in business miss out on understanding the impact of every purchasing decision they make. Some companies have taken steps to proclaim their good intentions and sense of responsibility, like B-Corporations (a topic for another post), but waiting for companies to do the right thing often means waiting for the most dire circumstances before anyone acts. No, we cannot wait for companies to act first. The consumer must now be a loud, clear voice, advocating for and finding ever more creative ways to protect the rights of all mankind so that low prices reflect ingenuity and efficiency instead of shortcuts and oppression. Not knowing what's behind the cost of our stuff isn't an excuse anymore.

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