THAT WAS SO 1990s
Our technological advances have made so many things near obsolete. Land lines, fax machines and paper receipts are now considered old-school, and a preference for them exposes in which generation we belong.
Each year, more and more of us across generations are relying on technological advances not only to gain information but also to take advantage of the comfort and convenience they offer. Want company but feeling too lazy to get out of the house? Connect via Skype with a buddy without having to change out of those flannel jammies. Need a warm embrace but there is no one to squeeze nearby at the moment? Send a flurry of XOXOs via text and listen for the instantaneous dings as those virtual hugs flood your SMS queue.
It’s no wonder that online shopping is an industry that continues to grow. Prices are often lower than in stores, there is no waiting in line and no heavy load to carry. Children do it whether or not their parents know it. Meanwhile, seventy-one percent of adults in the US have pushed millions of virtual checkout buttons. US internet retail sales are projected to grow 10 percent every year to $279 billion in 2015. Online shopping saves time, money and sanity for many who prefer to skip the tactile aspect of purchasing and the personal interaction of closing a transaction.
Well before Naomi Klein’s No Logo came out in the late 90s, we were all well-versed on the subject of sweat shops and cheap labor when it comes to manufactured goods peddled to us by marketers. But I have to admit that I haven’t paid much thought to any questionable practices around online shopping. Without ever having experienced any system other than capitalism as we know it, I naively assumed the only difference between traditional shopping and online shopping was my absence in the stores. But Mother Jones‘s Mac McClelland tells us otherwise.
HIDDEN COSTS OF ONLINE SHOPPING
In her insightful piece called I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave, McClelland exposes what goes on once a consumer hits the checkout button. Verbal degradation is used as a mechanism to motivate the pickers, packers and movers to meet their productivity goals. Back-breaking pain results from mandatory 12-hour shifts as employees hustle to keep their jobs. A half-second tardiness results in termination; there are always plenty of other folks who will take the job. There is no time off on election day, a constitutional right which, unfortunately, is trumped by the pragmatic right to feed oneself through as close to a liveable wage as possible.
These are the working conditions for thousands of employees who remain hidden deep within cavernous warehouses, packaging our books, toys, cosmetics, diet products and who knows what else. Not in China, not in Bangladesh, but in the US. These women and men are squeezed between the consumers’ savings and the retailers’ ever-increasing profit margins and their voices and rights are being crushed. And these days, frankly, who doesn’t appreciate savings and a profit especially when the cost is unseen on a computer screen?
VALUES, DEALS AND BARGAINS
But the untold narrative between the moment we push that buy button and the moment our package arrives at our door speaks volumes about the growing disconnect between the values retailers espouse and the actual practices resulting from our technological advances. We cannot witness what is hidden from us. When inhumane practices persist behind pixelated screens in window-less warehouses unbeknownst to us, the cost of factory-priced deals on goods is paid not just in dollars but in the corruption of human capital.
Our ever-evolving technological advances have made so many things near obsolete. In a culture that prizes efficiency, proficiency and productivity, who would not want to delete the obsolete? And while many of us can agree that we are only too happy to see outdated practices and superfluous products disappear, let us hope that our efficient gadgets and our savvy, tech-saturated lives do not inadvertently, or worse, deliberately rule out our right to wonder, question and examine a retailer’s suspicious practices toward its employees. Competitive prices are fine, but we cannot afford to make deals that allow the pace of technology to corrupt our capacity for compassion.
Most things with no real value inevitably become obsolete. Fluff goes poof, schlock turns to poop. When all is said and done, most of the packages that arrive at our door pale in comparison to our priceless ability to identify injustice, abuse and corruption and our potential to effect substantive change. If and when we do, we come one step closer to a more humane reality for all — factory workers, warehouse personnel and bargain-hunters alike.
What is a bargain really worth?
When we demand low prices on manufactured goods, do we really only pay in cash, or are we (or is someone else) paying some other price of which we may not be aware?
What demands can we make as consumers while being mindful of humane standards?
What can we do to harness the true power of our checkbook?