In America, we like to think we are the best. We have the best language (English), the best system of government (democracy), the best entertainment (Hollywood), the best food (fast food), the best economic system (capitalism) and, of course, highest guns per capita in the world. These norms dictate our lifestyle and our culture, (all of which we believe we ingenuously invented.) Yet despite a struggling economy and occasional government shutdowns, our lives are not hindered by third world problems like lack of running water or electricity. The belief/mantra is that in this land of opportunity, if we work hard we can still achieve the American Dream.
The American Dream and American Reality- Past, Present and Future
Americans love capitalism. It's Darwinian -- survival of the fittest. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps to be faster, quicker, smarter and more efficient. The notion of upward mobility in a meritocracy attracts dreamers from around the world.
This was not always true however. Recent blockbusters including Django and 12 Years a Slave depict a time when hard work was expected, but pay was not. Audiences cringed as they saw Africans in chains, whipped, lynched and burned. Most would agree that slavery is a moral obscenity, having no place in the 21st century. Many would even state that if teleported back into time, they would be an abolitionist, a Harriet Tubman or Nat Turner. Fighting for freedom, like the aforementioned tenets is always (often voiced as) inherently American.
Another positive trait about Americans is that we love to help. Whether it's a natural disaster in Haiti or a school shooting in Sandy Hook, we don't turn a blind eye. We look out for our fellow man, sending flowers, food, medicine and most importantly hope. Americans care about the less fortunate. Americans are number one, but we also root for the underdog.
Yet, I would argue that we have the power to remove a stain on the tapestry of the 21st century. Americans don't have to go back in time. Right now, domestically and abroad, atrocities of exploitation, torture and senseless death plague our global community. Domestically, some large multi-national and multi-billion dollar profit generating retailers and fast food chains like Walmart and McDonalds, pay so little that some workers qualify for and receive food stamps to make ends meet. Abroad, these retailers adhere to the worst aspects of capitalism. Some of our favorite retailers including H&M, The Gap Inc., Forever 21, Joe Fresh, Kohls and Target, has been exploiting the desperation of the developing world, herding them en masse into a neo-Social Darwinism. Some supply-chains are the new chains linking workers to destitution.
This neo-caste system has a silent and invisible bottom of laborers who allow us [those] at the top [or those one step removed from the bottom] to "Save Money and Live Better." The unseen many includes Bangladeshi, Chinese, Pakistani, Vietnamese and Dominican workers, literally risking life and limb for a pittance.
In fact, upward mobility for this workforce is a penny raise and perhaps sprinklers in a factory. Domestically, the neo-caste system means sales associates barley being able to afford the merchandise they sell while CEO's bank billions in profit. This is the New Industrial [D]evolution, hovering over the developed and developing world, filled with pipedreams, screams and dashed hopes of dignity, job security and, in many cases, survival.
For many corporations, the sky is the limit and they are committed to soaring profits and happy shareholders, not higher safety standards and wages. There currently is no incentive to provide a job domestically or abroad that pays a better living wage and health insurance, hence many companies will only be pushed by public pressure. In recent months Walmart strikes have been gaining momentum, but rather than solve the problem, Walmart is running a public relations campaign called the TheRealWalmart.com, featuring smiling workers stocking shelves while raving about their health benefits and good wages. Obviously, it's up to us to continue to pushback against profiting over people and this new wave of poverty wages here and abroad drowning the dreams hard workers.
Blood, Sweat and Tears: The Invisible Threads Embedded in Our Clothes
As some of us commit time to the Black Friday Rush, fueled by equal parts materialism and adrenalin, I would like us to think about how these items got to the stores and shelves we frequent. Our survival of the fittest instincts encourage us to wake up earlier and run faster, leaving no room for critical [reflective] thinking or introspection, however our decisions to continue to patron these stores and brands could accelerate decreases in wages and safety standards here and abroad.
In a recent New York Times article about the Bangladeshi fire which killed 1200 [workers] Samantha Maher, a campaign coordinator for the British arm of the Clean Clothes Campaign, a European anti-sweatshop group noted: "Walmart is the one company that is showing an astonishing lack of responsibility, considering that so much of their product was being made at the Tazreen factory."
Thus when we purchase new clothes, shoes, televisions, couches, they are clean, look good and make you feel good, but we do we ever see or feel the blood, sweat, tears and fears of the workers assembling and packaging our presents? Their pain is invisible yet it's ubiquitous, insidious and onerous if we take the time to [open our eyes and ears and] be informed. What action will we take this Black Friday? Will we run for fleeting sales or stand for better pay benefits, treatment and working conditions?
Love Thy Neighbor -- It's The American Way
This holiday season, we have a lot to be grateful for and ample opportunities to help the less fortunate. Many Americans will support relief efforts in the Philippines and donate to many charities to help the hungry and homeless. Still too many will spend at the same stores that cause people to go hungry and homeless by their refusal to pay employees living wages. In fact that same New York Times article also featured Bob Chant, a senior vice president for corporate affairs of a Loblaw, a Canadian retailer that makes the Joe Fresh brand, who only recently agreed to help survivors and their families of the Bangladeshi factory fire) stated, "We believe we have a moral obligation to support the workers who are producing our products. Our chairman has voiced disappointment that more brands haven't stepped up." Although some of corporate America's moral compass is oriented toward profit rather than people, now is a unique opportunity for Americans to create a new combination of conscience capitalism and altruism that ensures that we remove underdogs and the underclass both here and abroad. It's the best form of retail therapy and sustainability.
Solutions for Black Friday and Beyond
- Support striking workers at WalMart, fast food chains and other companies that violate the rights of workers
- Boycott stores and companies that violate workers rights (On Black Friday and beyond)
- Research your favorite brands and stores to ensure they are sustainable and progressive regarding workers' rights. Find alternatives such as Local Coops and COSTCO which provides higher wages, great benefits and safe working conditions.
- Shop local, thrift, (it's unique and less burden on the environment)
- Support local and international platforms for workers rights including Shift Project, War on Want and Clean Clothes