As we approach the end of our time in Cambodia, I realize that I will leave here with more questions that answers. I will leave questioning my place in the world and what I want my contribution to the world to be. I will also leave questioning my social responsibility as a consumer. Our recent discussion with guest speaker David Welsh, the country representative of the Solidarity Center, sparked me to think about how consumerism in North America is impacting the rest of the world. I had thought about this in a different respect prior to coming here, and my experiences in Cambodia have allowed me to question things even further.
Let me move back a few steps so it is clear where I am coming from. Towards the end of my eight year career as a fashion model, I started to feel a discomfort with the superficiality and the materialistic lifestyle that I was promoting with my work. In fact, this discomfort was one of the reasons why I chose to disengage with the industry—apart from the fact that I wanted to pursue a college education and wanted to do it while I was still young. What I could not see at the time was that it was not only a matter of the shallowness of living a life in which your entire identity is marked by what you consume, but that it is also a matter of the harm we inflict on others through our consumer practices.
I am speaking here of the act of consuming clothing and other material possessions, but also of the act of consuming culture, space, and food—any number of things that have been turned into commodities. In countries like the USA, many of us have become compulsive consumers. Our lives are marked by what we have, where we travel and what we do in our free time. This rampant consumerism is both detrimental to the environment because of the carbon footprint caused by shipping AND because it creates structures of massive labor exploitation.
As a case in point, let’s consider the garment industry in Cambodia. Even though there is a growing movement to improve the labor conditions in the factories that manufacture products for North American consumer markets (and almost every brand you can think of is here), there is little questioning of what those companies are doing here in the first place. It seems, for the most part, that we have bought into the argument that these factories provide employment to people who live in extreme poverty and it is their “choice” to work in these conditions. This is where the issue gets tricky. What kind of agency do the workers really have when they are faced with such levels of deprivation? Is this really a matter of choice?
Most of the workers in the garment sector in Cambodia are young women below the age of 25. Even though the idea of working in a factory might seem attractive because of the opportunity to move to a city and to avoid the arduous labor required in rice production, most of these women find themselves worse off. They can barely survive on the meager salary, they cannot easily protest because they would likely be fired, and they work in very poor conditions (unacceptable heat levels, unpaid overtime, unavailable access to water and breaks). On top of that, they have no educational opportunities. As David Welsh argues, they are robbed of their best years and left with nothing—no savings, no education, and no job prospects. I wonder: what is the industry doing for them or for “developing” countries in general?
The rationale behind the trade agreements signed between Cambodia and the United States is built around the idea that industrial development is promoting “growth” in developing countries. Yet, even though the garment sector represents 80% of the country’s overall exports, around 95% of them are foreign-owned and many have tax holidays for years. Even the managers are foreign. This means the industry pours no revenue into the Cambodian economy—apart from the scarce minimum wage that the workers earn. And the fact that the garment industry represents the majority of the exports makes the government dependent on and subservient to the companies who have chosen to “invest” in Cambodia. Where, then, is this “growth” that the industry is bringing to the country? I have come to the conclusion that this industry is not bringing growth but extracting labor from people who are living in extreme levels of deprivation.
I am left, once again, wondering what I am to do with this knowledge because I know there is no simple solution. I believe there are many different approaches we, as consumers, can take—from buying locally made or ethically made, to boycotting big corporations to reducing consumption. Yet, I am not advocating for any one of these in particular but rather that we spend some time thinking about what forms our actions might take. My hope, on a personal level, is to be more conscious of how my consumption impacts people with whom I have no direct contact on a daily basis and to encourage others to do the same. I want to instill a sense of social responsibility and humanity in the communities in which I live. I want to raise awareness about how we have come to understand who we are as people based on our consumption (and how the media and marketing strategies play a role in this). It is time we started pushing back.