Luxury and the Consumption of Labor

Aug 09 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She blogs every day at Sociological Images.

I came across this fascinating poster advertising tea at The Coffee Bean in Irvine. The ad features tea leaves balled up into small tea “pearls” and spilled into a person’s palm (text and analysis below):


Three minutes to fragrant perfection.

It takes a full day to hand-roll 17 ounces of our Jasmine Dragon Pearl Green Tea. But in just three minutes you can watch these aromatic pearls unfurl gracefully into one of the world’s most soothing and delicious teas.

This ad suggests that others’ toil should enhance one’s experience of pleasure. The fact that it takes a significant amount of human labor to “hand-roll” tea leaves into balls — an action that is in no way asserted to change the taste of the tea — is supposed to make the tea more appealing and not less. We are supposed to enjoy not just the visual, but the fact that others worked hard to produce it for us. A whole day of their labor for just three minutes of curly goodness.

This is a rather stunning value pervading U.S. culture. Luxury may be defined not only as pleasure, or as the consumption of the scarce, but as the “unfurling” of others’ hard work. What could be more luxurious than the casual-and-fleeting enjoyment of the hard-and-long labor of others?

7 responses so far

  • Ed says:

    Absolutely bang on... a bit like conspicuous consumption except in their own heads I guess.

  • DJMH says:

    'a whole day of their labor for just 3 minutes of curly goodness'

    Well, only if you drink 17 oz of dry tea at a go! A 4 oz bag usually lasts us weeks @ 2 cups per day.

    Still, point taken.

  • becca says:

    Well... if I was at an Extremely Fancy Restaurant where an owner-chef who cleared six figures a year worked 6 minutes for my tea (my nearest tea box says it's 1.5 oz for 20 tea bags; so assuming each cup actually takes 0.075oz, and assuming they mean "a full day" is 8 hours, 17oz/8h -> 2.14 minutes to make a cup's worth of tea, and we'll figure 3 minutes to steep it) that he charged me $8 for, I'd say it's pretty reasonable (if said chef makes $120k/year, and works 40h/week for 50 weeks, he needs to charge $6 to cover labor, assuming he can't do any work while the tea steeps, and I assume overhead and the tea itself costs something, so I'd say $8 for the tea. I've actually seen $8 for freakin Tazo tea in certain restaurants, which I rather resent).
    But yeah. Somehow I doubt those are the labor conditions involved. *sigh*

    What I'm trying to say is that I have zero problem with 'the consumption of labor' being equated to luxury. I mean first, what else IS luxury, ever, really? Rare goods? Why would "the consumption of scare natural resources" be a more moral basis for prizing things in a day and age where the planet has as many issues as it does?

    In addition, it occurs to me...Japanese tea ceremonies are undoubtably even less efficient if one is asking the question 'is this a necessary use of human capital', but I don't know that the Japanese tea ceremonies that occur today are a hugely destructive exploitation of labor (I mean, I know the geisha history, which is a little hard to analyze, though it seems clear enough that economic coercion entered into things... but I don't know who preforms those ceremonies nowadays, to the degree anyone does. I tried to take the tea ceremony class at university but it was always full).

    And secondly, I mean, at the point you've decided to buy cereal in boxes, you're already paying for the labor more than the raw cost of the food. All convenience food, from restaurants to ready-pick-up meals in the supermarket, are mostly selling labor.

  • VikingMoose says:

    "This is a rather stunning value pervading U.S. culture"

    meh. you see that in adverts from other countries, too. Luxury goods or perceived luxury goods are commonly presented that way.

  • Vicki says:

    Luxury goods seem to need either that or something else that makes them rare: for example, truffles or caviar, where the rarity is based more on environmental conditions.

  • Carlos B says:

    It's all relative. It really does depend on social and environmental states more than anything else.

  • Impoverished Children says:

    Most likely it is children in impoverished countries who are rolling those tea leaves by hand and making Jasmine Dragon Pearl Tea.

    Is there anyone held accountable for where these tea leaves come from and how this tea is produced?

    I have seen it under several brands.

    I personally will not touch the stuff. I need to know more about its origins first. Smells like Blood Diamonds to me.