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?