Follow your labels: American apple juice is a product of China

0722-CAPPLES-CHINA-JUICE-APPLE_full_380My bus from Xi’an, China, passed by the giant apple-shaped structure on the edge of the city of Luochuan. At the core of the apple is an empty convention center; next to it is the apple museum and apple hotel. All this anticipates an apple tourist boom to match the apple-production explosion here.

But the miracles don’t end at the bottom of your cup of coffee. The bluejeans you slip into before rushing off to work were crafted from swaths of denim in a factory in a country you probably can’t find on a map.

In a 1967 speech, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “[B]efore you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world.”

His words were never truer than today. Almost 98 percent of clothes sold in the United States in 2011 were imported, reports the American Apparel and Footwear Association. And while many Americans are attempting to get closer to their food by purchasing locally, the amount of imported food has doubled since 2000, according to a 2011 US International Trade Commission report.

It’s amazing, when you think about it, to eat a banana that traveled thousands of miles from a plantation in Costa Rica. But perhaps more amazing is that so many staples of the American diet – coffee, apple juice, chocolate, to name a few – come from so far away that most of us can’t imagine the plants they grow on, let alone the people responsible for producing them.

Food and clothing labels become red flags, though, when a tragedy occurs like the April collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed 1,129 workers. We realize that our shirt was made in Bangladesh, and maybe we bought it at a price that was guilt-free for our budget, but when we see reports on the catastrophe, that shirt might not feel guilt-free any longer.

How can we not wonder: Should we stop buying clothes made in Bangladesh? Should we do the same for the food we eat from places that may have similar questionable labor practices?

But the global economy is not so simple. I’ve picked coffee on an unimaginably steep mountainside in Colombia, hauled 80 pounds of bananas on my back alongside Costa Rican workers, and walked rows of sewing machines in a Bangladeshi factory, and I’ve witnessed how the line between exploitation and opportunity blurs quickly.

Our needs create opportunity for factory workers and farmers abroad, which is good. But are their lives improving because of our demand?

The global economy may provide farmers with incentives. But to get a grip on the next rung of the global economic development ladder, farmers see higher wages at urban factories as the answer. And that opportunity can be shortlived in a global market that rapidly shifts to find cheaper wages elsewhere, or if middlemen take their cuts and consumers demand still-lower prices.

Ai, one of 85 garment workers involved in sewing together a single pair of Levi’s on a Cambodian production line, left the fields for the factories. When she was told that some Americans don’t want to buy the jeans she makes because they think she should earn more than $55 per month, she quickly replied: “If people don’t buy, I’m unhappy because I wouldn’t have a job.”

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