Shall Joy wear what Grief has fashioned?

Have you ever heard of the economic term, the Don’t Care Gap?

What is it? Well, suppose you have two companies, Evilgreed Inc and Flightsofangels.org. They both make T-shirts, but Evilgreed makes them in Bangladesh using child labour at $2 a month. Flightsofangels also manufactures their T-shirts in Bangladesh but only employs workers over eighteen and pays them a decent living wage. Now, you’re in Kmart shopping for a T-shirt, and you notice that one brand is priced at five dollars a pop and the other at thirty-five. The Don’t Care Gap is therefore thirty dollars – in other words, the difference between producing a product to the highest ethical specifications and producing a product to the cheapest specifications. (Here’s an exact cost comparison)

Why is this called the Don’t Care Gap? Because it quantifies exactly how much those involved in the production process – company, shareholders, executives, customers and by extension the rest of us – don’t care.

The Don’t Care Gap relies for its efficacy on the Don’t Know Factor, another little known economic term. If you’re living right next door to a monster who keeps orphan children locked up for fourteen hours a day making T-shirts for nothing, and he offers to sell you a T-shirt for five dollars, you’ll probably report him to social services. But if the whole thing happens in Bangladesh, you won’t know and therefore you won’t care. Of course, somebody has to know – the person who runs the factory or pays the workers or owns the company or whatever. They are in effect generously shouldering the responsibility for the rest of us.

The same is true of the relationship between meat eaters and their meat. We like to read stories to our children about Peppa the Pig; we don’t want to know that Peppa’s cousins spend their short lives crammed in crates nose to tail and then get slowly gassed to death for our culinary pleasure. That’s why abattoirs don’t live-stream (if they did, there’d be no need for those pesky animal activists to go making a nuisance of themselves, would there?). In fact we’ll go out of our way to continue not to know; we avoid videos of slaughter houses and even make laws against people who surreptitiously take them.

There is a beautiful story by Oscar Wilde called The Young King. The night before his coronation, he has a dream about where all his rich jewels and robes and so on come from. On waking, he refuses to wear them. “Shall Joy wear what Grief has fashioned?” he says. Well, shall we?

Wouldn’t it be interesting if every product label included a Don’t Know/Don’t Care rating? If every Bangladeshi sweatshop and country abattoir was on YouTube….And wouldn’t it be interesting to see how many of us, if we knew the exact value of the suffering that went into it, would still buy the five dollar T-shirt anyway?

13 Comments

  1. Good phrases. I think they pretty much always go hand in hand. I knew about the Don’t Know Gap (or rather, the Don’t Want to Know Gap) regarding meat and dairy, but in reality it’s a combo Don’t Know, Don’t Care Gap. I bet none of us would like being on the receiving end of that phrase.

    1. No, I guess not, but I’ve sure been guilty of it. I think the key is not to beat ourselves up about it, but just to try to reduce it – the gap, I mean. Just a little.

      1. None of us is free from hypocrisy in our lives. Perfection is impossible. But if we are at least doing what we can to be less hypocritical, then we’re ahead of those who do nothing.

  2. Bless you. It’s good to be reminded of the Don’t-Care Gap now and then. I try to avoid Evilgreed Inc., but we’re all so much in hock to Evilgreed Global Inc., it’s theoretically just about impossible to avoid altogether. Most of my clothes are probably made in sweat-shops, but I wear them until even repairing them is failing. Good stuff eventually ends up kept for gardening in. But when I do have to replace something, I’ll look for ethical sources. I can read this and feel a little smug for not eating meat. I even gave up fish last year. Then I remember I still use dairy products from cows at least somewhat abused by the harvesting of their milk, repeatedly inseminated and bereft of their calves, like four-legged versions of Atwood’s handmaids. This post has pushed me to try vegan alternatives again. It’s good to celebrate our successes, not endlessly beat ourselves up about the bits we haven’t got right yet, and yet keep challenging ourselves. I hate to think of the mountain of meat my cat’s got through in the last 20 years, or the mountain of plastic pouches it comes in. Never again. Let us befriend the wild animals instead!

    1. Couldn’t agree more. I do the same – wear stuff till it falls apart, pretty much. I did become vegan this year but I still eat eggs – go figure. Free range, but still. Totally, let’s not beat ourselves up, just try to close the gap a little. I’m actually not against eating meat, as such. Around here, people do kill their own animals sometimes for home use, and it’s pretty ethical – basically one minute the cow’s enjoying a treat, the next minute it’s dead – no truck transport, no abattoir, etc. If all meat was obtained that way, it’d be incredibly expensive but not cruel, which to me is the main thing. Mind you I still wouldn’t kill a cow, if I owned one – I couldn’t bring myself to. I like all animals, really.

  3. I love this blending of moral sensitivity with clear thinking. Alas, we are so conditioned to seeing normalcy within the automatic calculation of price = value, even from childhood. To begin to notice the moral dimension of everything, every transaction, every thought, every sense perception — this is the education that is so needed now. 🙂

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