The Disney Store: Where is the Magic Really Made?

My friends said I was crazy. Venturing into the favorite shop of all children the week before Christmas. Mountains of adorable stuffed animals and shiny plastic figurines bombard you. Familiar tunes fill the air and burrow their incessant refrains into your temporal lobe. A large screen projects classic moments from your favorite childhood movies.  Some call it the happiest place on Earth. Or at least the happiest place in the King of Prussia Mall. You guessed it, I’m talking about my visit to The Disney Store.

Mickey Sweatshop

Sweatshop Mickey from AlterNet

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Most common countries: China, Vietnam, Honduras

Corporate info: An iconic American brand, Disney has enjoyed as much success as critisicsim it has endured. Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s I was a true Disney fan with a particular fascination with the bouncy delight that is Tigger. During that period, the only Disney drama I was aware of were rumors of sexually explicit pictures hidden in videos. I remember scrutinizing The Little Mermaid VHS cover at sleepovers for the alleged phallic tower. (Interestingly, the current DVD edition has a new design.) As the years went on, Disney has faced a slew of allegations ranging from racism, cryotherapy rumors, and backlash from the Princess line setting the feminist movement back a few decades. While it is obvious that Disney has used their corporate powers to boost marketing and stake a claim in the fabric of Americana, the biggest tragedy is the manufacturing of their merchandise.

Credit: Disney Store Press Image

Lovable characters make for charming companions, and they also lead to lots of stuff. For every Disney movie or story in existence there is a collection of all kinds of collectibles topping the wish lists of American children. My “Winnie the Pooh” obsession lead to a collection of products worthy of a small museum, just look in my Mom’s attic! But like so many children’s products, the production has been outsourced out of sight, and for many, out of mind. Disney uses tens of thousands of factories, the vast majority in China, to create their official licensed merchandise. Disney refuses to release a list of these factories, but numerous investigations have released the heartbreaking truth about many of these factories.

The Scholars and Students Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) released the results of such a study, unearthing over 2,000 labor violations in their visit. Forced child labor, illegal overtime and minimum wage violations were rampant. The organization found underage children working as long as 17 hour days with only one allowed day off per month. The workers are housed and fed on site in unsanitary conditions. The costs of these services are deducted from their pay and leave virtually nothing left to send home to their families. The work is often dangerous and exposes young workers to toxins. There are many heart-breaking details of the horrors of these facilities, you can learn more by reading SACOM’s report “Looking for Mickey Mouse’s Conscience, A Survey of Conditions of a Disney Supplier in China.”

Overall: The Disney Company is currently the world’s largest media conglomerate, according to Fortune Magazine. Among their collection of companies is ABC, the network currently running a regular “Made in America” segment as part of their World News program. Challenging readers to search out and purchase products made in USA, they are generating quite a buzz in the ever-growing “Made in America Movement.” Without having seen the show, I remained a bit skeptical of the network’s intentions with this popular series. A visit to The Disney Store confirmed my suspicious, where not a single piece of the “All American” Disney merchandise was found to have been manufactured domestically.

Credit: Disney Store Press Image. Cars Toy Made in China.

Disney brings entertainment, fun and joy to children of all ages. The popularity of their brand, stories and characters is not going to go away anytime soon. Disney has a chance to be a leader in the revival of American manufacturing. Bringing their production back home would enable them to monitor their factories, which would also be subject to US labor laws. This would result in an influx of local jobs, a decrease in environmental waste and increased safety assurances. It also means Disney would need to pay US minimum wage, a steep raise over the current wage paid in a Vietnamese factory producing Disney toys of seventeen cents an hour, or to workers making Disney licensed clothing in Burma for six cents an hour (source).

It’s easy for us to blame Disney for being a big, bad evil corporation. They exploit people to boost their already overwhelming profits. But their profits are dependent on one important variable, and that is consumer demand. We need to stop and think about what is going into the purchases we make. If we are willing to pay more for a toy, perhaps it could be locally. I think I speak for most parents when I say that I would gladly pay more for a “Cars” toy for my son if I knew it wasn’t made by exploited children using toxic materials.

How do you feel about Disney? As a parent, how do you make ethical spending choices without feeling like you are depriving your kids of something special? What Disney alternatives does your family enjoy?