Monday, September 22, 2003

Rights and Reason: 'Why Anti-sweatshop Campaigners Should be Pro-logo'

Steve Hilton at says branded merchandise will uplift the world. ( is managed by Interbrand, one of the world's largest branding agencies).

If you are an intelligent, thoughtful person who cares about the developing world, there are two possible opinions for you to hold about brands and sweatshops.

The first was best articulated by the Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, well known in activist circles for his work with Bono on the Jubilee 2000 Drop the Debt campaign. In the New York Times in June 1997, Sachs wrote: “my concern is not that there are too many sweatshops but that there are too few…those are precisely the jobs that were the stepping stones for Singapore and Hong Kong, and those are the jobs that have to come to Africa to get them out of back-breaking rural poverty.” In other words, sweatshops and all they represent are a positive symbol of economic development, part of the reason that lives are getting better in those countries which have welcomed Nike, Reebok, adidas and all the other alleged globalization “exploiters.”

We may feel guilty about less well-paid people in factories on the other side of the globe producing consumer products on our behalf, but the truth is that working for a multinational corporation will almost certainly provide better pay and conditions than any other type of work that’s available. It’s frequently the only way that women can escape the second-class citizen status that is their lot in many traditional rural areas, and it creates not just jobs but a lasting legacy of new skills and technological expertise that is the foundation for future prosperity, leading to better educational provision, higher standards of public health and longer life expectancy.

If you take this robust view of the benefits of globalization, you will resist the simplistic bans, boycotts and bellyaching that so disfigures much discussion of this issue. You will resist them because you know that by trying to close down sweatshops and “eliminate” child labor (the vast majority of which occurs in the rural agricultural sector, incidentally), you will probably be throwing young women -- and yes, girls -- into poverty, oppression, the sex trade or all three. . .

But if this line of argument is too rich a sauce for your liberal sensibilities, try the second sensible opinion that you might hold about brands and sweatshops. The next time someone throws the Naomi Klein book at you, respond by saying: no logo, no knowledge of what’s going on in the developing world.” Global brands make the connection on a mass scale between consumer choices “here” and economic and social realities “there.” Brands are a battering ram for positive social change. In part, positive social change is a natural process that goes hand in hand with economic development, in the same way that social conditions in the rich West have improved since the Victorian era. But in the developing world today, it’s happening more quickly than it otherwise would specifically because of corporations’ need to protect brand value by meeting consumers’ expectations.

So whichever way you look at it, brands are not the enemy of those wanting to make world a better place, but their greatest ally.
Maybe the real problem is appealing to liberal sensibilities in the first place. The anti-globalization activists want workers to earn an income with no connection to the value that they actually produce. But just who then will produce the wealth that will go to the indigents of the world? What incentive will they have to produce this wealth? And by what right will this wealth be taken from its producers in the first place?

The anti-globalization activists say it is unfair that the third world does not enjoy the material benefits of the industrialized west. Yet they forget that these benefits were produced in the first place by businessmen and women who were left free to create the very markets that now supposedly exploit the third world. The anti-globalization activists are not just attacking corporations and brands--they are attacking capitalism and the capitalist principle that one has a right to only what he earns, or what is freely bestowed upon him by others.

Yet every social system that places the interests of others before the individual’s self-interest stagnates and suffers. Hilton overstates the impact of brands in lifting the poor from their poverty and misses the debate that really impacts the value of brands in the marketplace. Commercial brands are a product of freedom and economic success--they are not its cause. After all, collectivism went though great lengths to brand itself with posters, parades, and smooth-talking spokesmen, only to fail because of its moral bankruptcy. Commercial brands only have value because of the property they represent and the selfish interests that created them is protected. It is the fundamental protection of individual rights that most of the third world finds itself wanting--a condition the anti-capitalist activists seek to make worse.

Every third-world ‘sweatshop’ employee earns what he produces and for the first time in perhaps generations is in control of his economic destiny. Defend people’s freedom to pursue their rightful ambitions and they will--even the impoverished people of the third world.

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