Plastic Bags and Good Jobs

I Am a Plastic Bag - TheBrassPotato on Flickr.comTiffany left a link in the comments awhile back to an article in Treehugger about a non-profit company in India called Conserve.  They have created a business where they hire ragpickers to collect used plastic bags from roadsides and dumping sites, wash them by hand, lay them out in sheets, and use some patented mystery process to press them into a sort of vinyl-like material.  The resulting material can then be turned into purses, bags, sandals, and other items.

She linked to the article about their utensil carrying cases, which I am definitely drooling over, but what most intrigued me was the video at the bottom of the article.  It tells the story of one of the ragpickers who collects plastic bags and then explains the whole business.  I have always been fascinated by India but unsure if I would enjoy visiting or just be overwhelmed by the density of people and the mix of wealth and poverty.  The video clips are certainly overwhelming.  Perhaps we would be more conscientious of our trash if it piled up by the side of the road but I must say, I’m happy to be spoiled by our sanitary conditions.

As I watched the video and learned about this young woman who has tripled her income with her new job collecting plastic bags (she now makes $70/month), it got me thinking about the argument that it’s okay for companies to open sweatshops in very poor areas because those people are better off with sweatshop jobs than they would be if the company weren’t there.  I could never quite stomach that argument.  On some level, sure, it’s better to be making a meager living than starving to death but on another level, shouldn’t we be trying to give everyone a good living?  Is that really naive and idealistic of me, especially when it’s so easy to pay above the “standard” wages in a really poor area?

I guess the real questions for me is “How do you define a ‘good’ living?” My gut feeling is that Conserve is really trying hard to be supportive of their employees as well as providing a useful service (cleaning up trash) and a marketable product.  I’m just not sure how to evaluate them or any other business objectively.

Hmmm, I guess this is another case for demanding that someone start a Green Consumer Reports magazine that would also include social justice data.  Anyone?  Anyone?

Or perhaps I’ll follow the lead of a good friend who is giving everyone handmade gifts for Christmas.  Not necessarily handmade by her, but handmade by somebody who is being paid reasonably for their labor.  She has many additional criteria she would like to consider for these gifts – ecofriendly, recyclable, fair trade – but has assented that sometimes you just have to take things one step at a time.

  del.icio.us this!

4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Karen said,

    November 24, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

    i love getting gifts here: http://www.etsy.com

    just a suggestion.

    interesting link. i use any plastic bags i might somehow inherit (i certainly never ask for them at the store) for cat poop. lol

  2. 2

    Jessica said,

    November 26, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

    The problem with that “at least sweatshops provide jobs” argument is that irresponsible and unfair trade practices are what put those people in the position where they need sweatshop jobs in the first place. If we had maintained some semblance of fair trade practices in modern times, people working in sweatshops would have never been so desperate that they needed a sweatshop job just to survive.
    Here’s a quote from a great OCA article that proves my point. “Thirty years ago, most developing countries produced enough food to feed themselves [CHECK]. Now, 70 percent are net food importers.”
    You can read the rest of the article here http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_15741.cfm

  3. 3

    arduous said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

    Hmm, I guess I haven’t been getting feed updates so I missed several posts of yours.

    I have mixed feelings about sweatshops too. I think, in general, the best answer, for a consumer, is to continue to protest bad sweatshop conditions, because that DOES make a difference, continue to buy fair trade, but NOT to push for buying only in America. The idea is, yes, it’s good that there are factories in the developing world providing people with jobs. Yes, it is good that this has resulted in a smaller percentage of people in the world living in extreme poverty (although hard numbers of people living in extreme poverty has increased due to population increases.) BUT, obviously we should still be pushing multi-nationals to reform their practices and be more labor friendly.

    Jessica makes a good point, but actually India is a net food exporter, not an importer. And the big problem with relying on an agricultural food economy is that, at the end of the day, cash crops don’t pay that well. Processed food pays well, but the money comes in when you turn oats into a cereal, not when you harvest the oats. So a focus on agriculture and cash crops does not make sense given our current global political economy.

    And Maggie, India is overwhelming, extremely so. But it is also well worth going, so I hope you have the chance one day!

  4. 4

    Maggie said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 9:49 am

    Karen, Etsy is very awesome. I sold some stuff there briefly but mostly I just like to drool over all their products. That’s where Will and I got our wedding rings, actually!

    Jessica, I agree with you on some levels that exploitative trade has forced people into situations where they have to take sweatshop jobs but it is rather more complicated than just considering net food imports or exports. I realized that I tend to have this vision of people in third world countries growing their own food on a household level until global trade steps in and forces them to get factory jobs and buy imports at the local store but that’s not really how it works. The local people are already buying food; it’s a question of who they’re buying from. When imported food is cheaper, they buy imported food and it can often increase their standard of living. One could argue that importing cheap global food is better for the consumers. However, it destroys the market for local farmers, who then have to leave their farms to take other jobs, often crappy ones. This upsets me greatly but as Will and I were talking, I realized that if we were talking about loggers or steelworkers losing their jobs and having to take other jobs, I would feel totally unsympathetic. I would say that they just need to suck it up and get trained for better, different jobs.
    So the question is “Why is local agriculture important?” For me, it’s the fact that I feel there is something really important about keeping food production local and making farming a viable job sector. Part of it is the agrarian culture, part is keeping local food production knowledge alive, part is the hope that it gives local people access to better whole food options. It’s something that goes well beyond economics. In an economic sense, it often makes sense for communities to take advantage of the global market and get away from subsistence farming producing cash crops.
    One could also argue that food and water should be considered basic rights and therefore not the subject of privatization and commerce, which is probably more to your point. But that’s opening up a big ol’ can of worms that I’m not sure how to deal with.
    I would be happy to discuss this all more. My initial gut feelings are very much in line with yours but I feel a lot of logic gets lost in the “Bleah, corporations are evil!” and I’m trying to find that place where the problems are clear and the solutions are tangible.

    Arduous, thanks for your insight. I agree that fair trade is the way to go and there needs to be work done developing some standards that apply to everyone about what is reasonable employment (e.g. no child labor or 12-hour workdays). And thanks for your comments about India! I think it may be a retirement trip for me. We shall see.

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