The Colbert Report on Cheap Sweaters, Chinese Goats and Environmental Ruin


Thanks to the growing number of goats in China, your cashmere sweater is now cheap as hell. But thanks to your sweater, the once green frontier of China's Inner Mongolia looks increasingly like hell too.
Those goats, who have grown in number along with cashmere orders from retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco, are tearing up grass faster than ever, helping to desertify Genghis Khan's gorgeous grasslands. That means ever-deeper drought and more of the sort of dust pollution that is wracking China's north and spreading across the Pacific Ocean to the skies of North America. The government's frantic attempts to stop it aren't working.

Last year, the Chicago Tribune's Evan Osnos wrote a fantastic series of articles entitled China's Great Grab, or "how China's exploding appetite for natural resources is reshaping the world," including one on the effects of cashmere. (We covered it previously here, along with a brief solution guide.) For his work he won the Asia Society's Osborn Elliott Prize for distinguished journalism—and a spot on The Colbert Report.

Check out the interview -- and Stephen Colbert's cashmere toilet seat -- after the jump.

Osnos: " obviously this gives you a lot of pleasure. But the bigger point is... what is the real cost of a cashmere toilet seat?"

Colbert: "Actually it was 350 dollars"

Osnos: "Well it's money well spent. But the real costs are also reflected in the health costs of the people who have to be treated for absorbing the dust that comes across from China."

It's because, as he says at one point, China and the U.S. "are addicted to each other." Addiction of course comes with some pretty bad side effects.

Here's how Tim Johnson, the Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy, puts it:

Certainly if factories had to pay insurance premiums that valued these workers' health, production costs would go up. We Westerners get our low prices, and the workers in China pay with their bodies, their health and their ruined environment.

Jane Spencer wrote an excellent article in the same vein last week, detailing the hidden costs of cheap clothes sold by The Gap, Target and Abercrombie & Fitch: toxic dye dumped into a river in Guangdong.

In the more than two decades since international companies began turning to Chinese factories to churn out the cheap T-shirts, jeans and sneakers that people around the world wear daily, China's air, land and water have paid a heavy price. China has faced harsh criticism in recent months over the safety of exports ranging from tainted toothpaste to toxic toys. But environmental activists and the Chinese government are increasingly pointing to the flip side: the role multinational companies play in China's growing pollution by demanding ever-lower prices for Chinese products.... Prices on fabric and clothing imported to the U.S. have fallen 25% since 1995, partly due to the downward pricing pressure brought by discount retail chains.

The recent food and product scares that have provided ample fodder for cable TV tickers and newspaper front pages only prove that the dangers of exporting our pollution as it were are not limited to other countries. One thing we've learned the hard way in the past few years, but act like we haven't, is that trade with other countries—be it in China, Sudan, or Saudi Arabia—is going to have effects back home.

Of course, the West can't simply shoulder the blame — (China's state-run media have been recently been doling it out) — for the environmental and safety messes plaguing the country's manufacturing sector. But at the least, we in the West need to recognize that we're all connected. The world may not quite be flat, but it's hot.

There is a great tendency to complain if the cost of goods is too high. But we need to start complaining when the cost of goods to too low. It is now.

See also Greening the Almighty Yuan, Forests Destroyed in China's Race to Sell Furniture, Santa Claus is Chinese and Survey: Are You Avoiding Chinese Products?
Comedy Central and Chicago Tribune via Danwei

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