We Are What We Buy

Like other semi-informed consumers, I had heard about the sweatshop woes of major tennis shoe companies and celebrity-owned brands. Some of my first-year college students even told me they learned in high school to avoid buying Brand X or Y because of labor concerns; but I never had the guts or occasion to connect all this to my personal economy. I was finally doing it by trying to figure out how several of my favorite branded products were actually made.

Six months of leaving unreturned messages, getting transferred back and forth between the same people, being put on hold for interminable amounts of time often followed by "accidental" disconnection, arguing with people who had little influence and even less real knowledge, pursuing false numbers, being referred to evaluations of factory conditions by "inspectors" who were employed by the companies themselves, wading through public relations fog-speak, and then consulting watchdog groups who had some data on these companies : after all this, finally some clear patterns were emerging.

With one exception, none of these companies, bearers of the brands I had come to trust, was proud, forthcoming or transparent about its labor practices outside the United States. Almost all employed young adults : usually young women : in their factories located in Mexico, the Philippines, Indonesia and China. (Most companies would not even reveal the exact locations of their factories.) From what I could dig up, these young women worked fifty to sixty hours a week, sometimes more; at most they made the minimum wage.

After six months I had only enough data to fill up one page of notebook paper; but it was the most outrageous and damning paper I had ever held in my hands. Only then did I begin to think about the double function of the logo or brand. Not only must it simultaneously conjure up a "personality" with which consumers can identity; it must also draw our attention away from how it was produced. The brand both reveals and conceals : a blindfolding embrace.

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