I’m currently in the middle of a novel tentatively titled Labor Force. It’s a thriller set in a dystopian near future in which prisoners provide huge profits for private corporations. Clearly, I have to hurry and finish the book before events overtake the premise. As proof, I present you with the following:
If nothing else, the Hipster prides himself in eating, drinking and otherwise consuming artisanal goods produced in small batches – preferably locally grown, brewed or handcrafted. It’s all a very anti-establishment, anti-mass-consumerism sustainable approach. The beer is brewed down the street, the coffee comes from small-farm, fair trade exchanges, the clothing is used or handcrafted. Retailers like Whole Foods have embraced the Hipster, promising partnerships with local farmers, craftsmen and producers. My local Whole Foods, for example, carries locally caught Georgia Wild Shrimp and hand-crafted soaps from Savannah based Nourish and a large selection of other products produced, grown or caught within 50 miles or so. It’s enough to warm a Hipster’s righteous heart. But wait. What if that tilapia in the fish case came from a fish farm on prison grounds where inmates are lucky to make $1.50 per hour for tending giant fish tanks full of dinner? How would our Hipster feel? Would he shrug and think that at least the tilapia on his dinner plate isn’t being caught by literal slaves somewhere in Southeast Asia, whose masters are overfishing fragile waters? Or would he at least worry that the fish farm is undercutting other fish farms that have to pay – gasp – minimum wage? A recent bit of investigative journalism by Pacific Standard sheds light on the dark origins of some Hipster favorites, including some of that Whole Foods tilapia. In “From our Prison to Your Dinner Table,” reporter Graeme Wood shows how everything from cuddly children’s stuffed animals to wine grapes are sewed, grown, picked and otherwise tended by cheap prison labor on the vast grounds of Colorado prisons by an inmate population of around 4,000 convicts. The products may be artisanal in the sense that they are small batch and hand-crafted, but whatever other benefits the prisoners may receive from the work they perform, it’s hardly fair trade.