Is there a moral obligation to buy the more expensive offering on the American Apparel website?
A Canadian clothing company purchased AA when it failed. Gildan is soon to launch a fresh AA website with the novel idea of offering two near-identical options: buy cheaper AA clothing derived from the savings that come from the anonymous global supply chain or buy the same items at a higher price made in the USA.
The conceit of the original AA was “Made in the USA” with the guarantee that the factory conditions for workers were good (for the sake argument we prescind this point from that of the sexual predation of the original owner). The new Canadian owners refuse to continue the original commitment but in light of the brand’s heritage will make the choice available to customers.
Faced with the same item at two price points is there a moral obligation to buy the more expensive version? No doubt the company plans to watch closely to see how this rather interesting social psychological experiment plays out. Before I offer some thoughts, there is, morally, something interesting to note. This might be said to be a democratic moral problem.
Most surely know that cheap clothing is made in poor manufacturing conditions overseas but many are likely to say they cannot afford high priced goods – which often reflect the craft and dignity of workers. In this case, however, the choice is between cheap and very cheap. A t-shirt from the original AA cost near $20 US. I assume Gildan’s price point for the US made t-shirt will be comparable.
Let’s say the website will offer one t-shirt at $12 (global) and one at $20 (USA). Are you morally required to hit the USA button? A note: many readers are from countries outside the USA, and I myself am not an American citizen. The moral challenge entailed by Gildan’s novel approach is not specific to American nationals. As will be clear in a moment, the challenge is universal.
Max Scheler certainly thinks we are required to hit the USA button. It is likely that the US made clothes stem from a business with some of the attributes of the estate. I will not detail this, but readers can go to V&R Chapter 5 on Scheler to see the point. Rather, let me use the theory of obligation crafted by Sir David Ross.
I have shown elsewhere how his theory nimbly clarifies moral claims (http://www.ethicsoffashion.com/w-d-ross-replies-bizarre-argument-morality-fast-fashion/). Ross’s account is undeniably powerful, so let’s see what it delivers in this case.
Ross argues that seven duties come to prominence when reflecting on ethical life. Ross himself is termed an intuitionist because he does not advance a theory as to why these seven come to prominence: he argues that open reflection on moral life does bring them to clarity though. I will go through each as he presents them.
- A promise is an act of an agent that binds the agent to a future act. It is a self-imposed duty. Confronted with the choice on the AA website, am I bound by a promise to buy high? I do not think so.
- A past act of mine might have hurt someone in which case, discerns Ross, I am bound to a duty of reparation. I have to make good the damage in some way. Again, I do not think this applies.
- Service received, there exists a duty of gratitude. There is a hint of intimacy in service received, but even if we prescind from the matter of work done to contract, both sets of factory workers put craft into the sewing of the t-shirt. I can see no distinctive obligation to one set rather than the other.
- Ross has a very interesting account of justice, and now we do arrive at a difference. Ross argues that we have a duty of intervention when we observe unmerited reward or happiness. Let’s assume that at the new AA profit margins are kept equal on the global and US clothing. I do think we can assume, however, that the global makers are squeezing their workers (typically young girls/women) and reaping unmerited happiness that ought to be more justly spread amongst their staffs. This ought not to be rewarded. There is an obligation to buy the more expensive shirt (I am aware of the argument that the small benefits to the young girls from their hours of work are actually huge to them in their situation. I discuss this argument at V&R Chapter 7).
- Ross discerns a duty of beneficence: each of us ought to help to improve those around us in intelligence and virtue. If there is a difference here, it is slight. It is likely that at the US sewing company a greater degree of subsidiarity is granted (i.e. self-management of one’s work flow) (for a discussion of subsidiarity see V&R Chapter 3): buying the more expensive shirt we can add to this somewhat. In a distant manner, we can mentor this subsidiarity. The point is fine, but here also, there is an obligation to buy the more expensive shirt.
- The duty to self-improvement. Each of us has an obligation to self to improve in matters of virtue, intelligence, and pleasure. Some doubt there are self-regarding duties but I do not think Ross here is engaging in “donnish folly” (Tolkien). This duty also generates an obligation to buy the more expensive shirt. Buying the expensive one makes us more gracious.
- Lastly, there is a negative duty: do no harm. Now, this might be a situation where in the big scheme of economic opportunity and development by not buying the cheap shirt one is harming the young women in Bangladesh. Maybe. It might also be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sort of situation. I am inclined to think this duty neutral in this case.
I conclude: an obligation exists on consumers to buy the more expensive shirt.