Our Obsession with Cheap Goods is Destroying the World

Janette DeFelice, MD, MA

Late-Stage Global Capitalism and the Commercial Practices of Fast Fashion and Artisanal/Small-Scale Gold Mining

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Isn’t it great that here in America we have access to an endless supply of fashionable new clothes and sparkling jewelry that almost everyone can afford? Any one of us can go to our local Walmart, or Target, or Kohls and purchase not only what is necessary for survival, but also what makes us feel good. This widespread access to ‘things’ has been termed a “democratization” of commodities. Since we live in a democracy, isn’t it a good thing?

The answer to this question is a resounding ‘NO.’ Here’s why:

People who live in societies like ours, in which there are obvious winners and obvious losers, have an obsession with all things new and sparkly, not only for their own personal gratification but also to outwardly prove their worth in a society that values such things. This obsession with ostentation is not innocuous. Rather, it causes great harm not only to people around the world, but also to the world itself.

Two commercial practices which feed this obsession are fast fashion and artisanal/small-scale gold mining. And outsourcing the work to low sociodemographic index(SDI) countries is the modus operandi. While these practices are great for bringing cheap goods to the marketplace, they leave behind environmental hazards, health issues, and poverty among the workers in underdeveloped nations.


What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion, quite simply, is the widespread availability of trendy clothing at an affordable price. Since trends change quickly and because it is so cheap, clothing has become a disposable commodity.

Hazards are seen at every step in the supply chain — from growing crops of water-intensive cotton and relying on the petroleum industry for polyester, to cloth dyes being dumped into water sources, to low wages and poor working conditions. At the back end we see almost 80 pounds per American per year of textile waste, adding up to 3.8 billion pounds a year. And if you think you’re helping by donating used clothing, think again. Donated clothing makes its way back to those less developed nations, disrupting the local textile economy, with excesses clogging up waterways and landfills in countries without the infrastructure to deal with such things.


What is artisanal/small-scale gold mining?

Artisanal/small-scale gold mining is a gold mining practice that takes place in many less developed nations. This practice supplies the world with about 20% of its gold. It also uses mercury in its process, making it the largest releaser of mercury into the environment globally. Mercury causes neurotoxic effects to both animals and humans. Do you know why you (and especially pregnant women) are supposed to limit your intake of fish? Because mercury from this practice (and from coal-fired power plants) makes its way into lakes and rivers around the globe. Yet, millions of people worldwide depend on money from artisanal gold mining to feed their families.

More information about the process can be found here.


What does global capitalism have to do with it?

The root cause of the hazards (environmental, health, economic) associated with bringing cheap fashion and gold to market is quite simply capitalism, more specifically, late-stage global capitalism.

In capitalism as a system, in order for there to be winners, there also have to be losers. In our late-stage there are three distinct classes: the ones who control a majority of the wealth (the winners), the ‘they-think-they-haves-but-they-really-don’t-haves’ who buy up the fast fashion and cheap gold, and the have-nots (the losers) who put themselves at risk to supply the other classes and make a few pennies to feed their families.

As capitalism has spread globally, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown alarmingly stark. And the physical distance separating the have-nots in less-developed countries from the they-think-they-haves-but-they-really-don’t is convenient for keeping the middle class ignorant as to the injustices created by their wealth-worshiping lifestyle. Not many people look to see where their goods come from, who made them, or how much the workers may or may not have been paid.

Further complicating the issue is growing inequality between the upper and middle classes. With many middle-class Americans losing their jobs due to outsourcing and the search for cheap labor, and/or becoming dependent on a gig economy without built-in benefits, there isn’t much money left over to outfit their children for school. More Americans are finding that they need to shop at cheaper stores that offer fast fashion at affordable prices.


What can we do?

This issue is so incredibly complex that a historical context is crucial, addressing colonization and the continuing depletion and extraction of natural resources in low SDI countries, which creates a cycle of poverty that makes seeking out low-paying, hazardous jobs to supply the non-necessities of the Western world necessary. Furthermore, these countries may seek out loans from the International Monetary Fund that are ostensibly meant to help lift them out of poverty, but instead charge interest, and also require draconian economic policy measures that result in things like the privatization and/or elimination of public services, rise in interest rates, and opening up the country’s economy to compete in the global market. These measures compound the problem, while solidifying that country’s economic dependence on supplying First World needs.

In the face of this, many potential solutions have been offered to address hazards associated with fast fashion and small-scale gold mining, from using sustainable fibers in clothing manufacturing to training health professionals to recognize symptoms of disease caused by working in these enterprises, to teaching techniques for mining gold without mercury. But my favorite pie-in-the-sky call to action is to cut off the demand among consumers, then there would be no need for the supply. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. First, it’s hard to quell the material needs and wants of people who exist in a capitalist society. Second, even if one does succeed at transforming values to encompass more focus on the importance of internal value, rather than external value, and uncompromising commitment to social justice, one would be cutting off a much-needed source of income for the workers in the low SDI countries.

Until world leaders commit to investing in the planet and its people, education is key. Educate yourself on these practices and how they affect the world. Think before you buy. Model behavior for your children that emphasizes the importance of inner qualities and caring about others, while de-emphasizing outward displays of the things they have. Lastly, always be mindful. Actions we take affect people all over the globe.

Janette DeFelice, MD, MA

Written by

Degrees in poli sci, humanities, and medicine. Mom of twins. Currently focusing on how the changing environment affects our health. Doesn’t suffer fools.

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