While walking down the street, suddenly, something that we have been wanting since so long appears in front of us. Or sometimes we chase it down until we find it. We observe it, then question if it is worth the amount that we have to pay. Even sometimes, the price question comes above anything else, because there is a mentally assigned price tag that needs to be weighed carefully.

In all of a sudden, we get surprised, because it is actually cheap. Way below our mentally assigned price. We don’t have to sacrifice much to get it. No need to calculate credit card limits, get under the burden of installments or withdraw some more money from the ATM. When we finally get home with it, we are delighted by the good bargain and the spatiotemporal accuracy of catching this opportunity.

Sometimes we are left alone with our impulse to buy something that we don’t need at all, just because it is so cheap. We have to convince ourselves that we just might need it in the future. As we try to decide, the first price of sale winks at us from under the orange label of discount. “Wow!” we say, “so they can sell this, at this price and still make money…” As we start wandering around these thoughts, we just go to the moment that we are defeated by the cheapness. Or sometimes, it won’t even be necessary. Its cheapness is simply convincing enough.

The brain performs this and a similar set of questionings while displaying buying behavior. The priority is to question our own economic condition. At the end of the day, it is the way of self-preservation and survival to keep consuming with the same independence.

But for a few minutes, let’s take a brief break from this debate about the brain. Is cheapness really a valid reason to buy something? Or should cheapness trigger us to think about a whole other issue?

When we start to think about it, a few questions appear in our minds. To begin with, how a product is produced, how much it costs, how much the manufacturer/the brand/the seller earns, the conditions that they work under… These questions are not as easily answered as asking them… We need to dig deeper to reach this information, which is often deliberately covered up.  Let’s mine through these layers of hidden knowledge together.

Let’s start with this. Suppose that we own a clothing brand. For all these years we have produced our own products and undertaken all the responsibility from production to sale by ourselves. After a while, someone tells us that we don’t have to deal anymore with the production, and not only that but also we can have all these things done at a cost 10 times less than we could do it ourselves. As we suffer under the stress of millions of dollars we manage, suddenly, the orange label appears on an entire factory this time.  Would we get suspicious?

Naomi Klein is describing exactly these orange-labeled factories in her book No Logo. In this book which helps us understand how global brands settle in our lives and the other side of the medallion, meaning the hidden existence of the producer, she cites tons of events that make us think about the manufacturer. One of these stories begins with a Canadian brand, that moves its production line to a country with cheap labor, after having manufactured coats with local textiles and in-house manufacturers for many years. Thanks to the 10 times cheaper production cost, the production volume of the brand increases immediately. All stores of the brand are filled with customers satisfied by the cheapness and the large variety of the products.

Meanwhile, subjects of this 10-fold reduction in production, are the manufacturers living in a hot country with an undeveloped economy and cheap manpower, and they are so foreign to the products they produce that they are not even able to describe a coat. What does a coat mean in a country that never has winter? What do they produce? They loosely describe it as a long vest extending to the calves and has long arms extending to the wrists. Doesn’t matter much. They produce and try to survive.

In another anecdote, a young woman produces a computer that is so complex that most of us can’t comprehend. “How smart must she be!” Klein thinks. However, knowing how to produce does not mean that she knows how to use it. The young woman says that she has no idea about what she is producing.

The cheap product actually hides a world where the manufacturers are unfamiliar to what they produce. They are individuals who sweat all day to create an object that has no place in their own lives. They are easily replaceable. It doesn’t matter who gets replaced for as long as the production continues. They are often aware that they live in bad conditions. Most of the time, they are not “preferred” to demand their rights. Where there are two people who agree to work with half the salary of what their labor is worth, it only means cheaper and cheaper production. Well done for the brand. So the laborers who struggle with their bare existence and unemployment, who are too fragile to say ‘no’ to their unfair working conditions, silently continue their stranger lives in the factories.

What about the consumer? How familiar is s/he with this situation? Suppose you look at the label of a product you bought from brand A. You see that it was produced in a country where you know that there are relatively better conditions than one of these hot and underdeveloped economies. This may not count as satisfactory evidence to claim it innocently.

Andrew Morgen explains in the documentary True Cost, that the contamination of textiles begins with the production of cotton, the raw material of most textile products. Emerging fashion trends bring a need for cotton to be produced faster and larger batches. To meet the demand, genetically engineered seed is forcefully sold to the farmer, which comes with a pocket full of chemicals harmful to human health but necessary to breed these seeds. The farmer, who invests more than s/he owns to his land that is just as abused as a factory, gets into deeper debt with each passing day and eventually, loses his land to pay it. A great amount of cotton used today passes through the lives of those who pay these costs.

Now, immediately the brain made us feel guilty, right? Unfortunately, it is very hard to be a truly innocent person, since production and consumption became form an intractable complexity today. We may even doubt whether the money in our pocket is what we deserve. On the contrary to being guilty, we can say that we too get our share of the burden in this unfair system so that we have no choice but opt for the cheapest.  With such a mindset, this would not make us directly involved in crime, but only one of the other billions of people paying the price.

But let’s not sink into despair. Because even though the story is depressing, the people trying to create a transparent world, where we can get familiar with these foreign lives, are quite many. And we don’t have to look far away, we’ll introduce some of them!

Long story short, it would be a good start asking ourselves new questions when we encounter the next cheap product. Just getting a little suspicious and searching for the essence of the scene as Sherlock Holmes, can bring a whole new excitement to our lives as we open the doors of a more fair world. The excitement of awareness and determination.

This article is also available in Turkish. Click here to take a look.

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