While I was looking over top selections on forever21.com, I couldn’t help but think back to unfair labor practices presented in the “Forever in trouble?” article in our reader:
“Some companies started to look for ways to reduce their expenses, they looked overseas…U.S. garment companies started to look for ways to reduce their expenses. They started to send over low-skill jobs…she was working 60 hours a week and earning about $4 dollars per hour in a factory where humans competed with rats and roaches for space.”
According to the Marxist economic theories of value, consumers often don’t see a commodity’s worth for the labour that went into producing the product, but rather we see a commodity’s worth through a system which has arbitrarily assigned that product a value. In a capitalistic society, we often compare the value of a commodity against the value of other commodities.
I find myself doing this all the time. When I go shopping at Target or Longs, I often find myself browsing up and down the aisles thinking “I could totally find this cheaper at Wal*Mart! I’m not buying X for Y dollars when I could find X at Wal*Mart for Z dollars. I could’ve had like two or three lattes for that price! ” I compare the value of X against other products (like the lattes, or X product at Wal*Mart ) but I never take the time out to think about the labour practices that went into making the product cheaper. I never take the time to think about the systems and institutions that assign X product its value.
This week, for the compact challenge, I compared the tops I saw on armaniexchange.com and the tops I saw on forever21.com. Now, the use value of an Armani top and a top from Forever 21 is the same: a top is a top, period. But the exchange value of an Armani top (the price consumers will pay for the Armani top based on their subjective perception of the Armani top’s worth) is a lot higher than a Forever 21 top. This subjective perception of the commodity’s worth is created through millions of dollars worth of campaigns designed to up the commodity’s exchange value.
We see a commodity’s exchange value not for the labour that went into producing that commodity but rather through those million dollar campaigns. So the challenge for me this week has been to shift my attention from a top’s exchange value to thinking about its labour value: I tried to stop comparing the value of the commodity to other commodities and tried to compare the price to its labor value instead. The challenge for me is compromising the green in my wallet—ok, I’m kind of broke so it’s not really thatttt green—for someone else’s livelihood. Thinking about this has made it obvious to me that consumers are caught in the middle of a paradox between saving money and the labour practices that go into making a product cheaper. I think that examining my consumption patterns through the labour value of things I buy has really made me more conscious about my purchasing decisions.
2. "Forever in trouble?" class reader.