The idea of exploitation or abuse seems far-fetched to most of us living in developed countries. Yet, the reality is that it may be closer to us than we are comfortable to admit. Everyday, we benefit from the exploitation of vulnerable people across the world: our consumption of food, clothing, entertainment and more, is almost always provided to us through oppressive labor conditions. It is estimated that there are 21 million people in forced labour globally, producing $150 billion in profits for all sorts of industries every year ("Supply Chains & Forced Labor"). With such a large amount of money being poured into consumer products — 58.3% of the Canadian GDP comes from household consumption ("Household Final Consumption Expenditure, Etc. (% Of GDP)") — we should perhaps take a closer look at where the money is going.
The link between our daily consumption patterns and exploitative labour is uncomfortably unavoidable. If you’re reading this on your laptop or phone, chances are that you’re using an end product that has been made possible through the exploitation of child laborers. Cobalt is a mineral that is commonly used in making lithium batteries for electronic devices and a majority of the world’s supply originates from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Children as young as 4 years old work in some of these mines, helping to carry heavy bags of minerals to be washed in a nearby river. Their cobalt is sold to middlemen, who then sell it, along with cobalt that was mined legitimately, to companies like Microsoft, Apple and Samsung ("CBS News Finds Children Mining Cobalt For Batteries In The Congo"). The clothes you’re wearing may also be the product of oppressive labour conditions. The Rana Plaza catastrophe in 2013 catapulted the issue of poor working conditions in the fashion industry into the public consciousness. Over a thousand workers died when the eight-storey building, housing five garment factories, that they worked in collapsed. This was a wake up call for the numerous retailers who relied on these labourers with little regard for their working conditions (Westerman). The scrutiny into the exploitative conditions in clothing factories humanized the people behind the “Made in Bangladesh” labels. Despite public outrage and declarations of commitment by numerous clothing companies to improve working conditions in their supply chains, little progress has been made. According to a report by New York University Stern, 2256 out of 8000 factories in Bangladesh made commitments to improve working conditions, and out of these 2256 factories, a mere 79 passed third-party safety inspections in 2017 (Winkler). Scandals over exploitative labour crop up in the news every once in a while — Nestlé admitted that it had been using seafood harvested with slave labour in its products; third-party auditors uncovered cases of human trafficking, exploitation and forced labour among Patagonia’s fabric suppliers. Even with all this coverage, the problem remains a longstanding one, and the general public appears to be desensitized to the murky underside of their consumption.
Ending labour abuse is a tricky task. The commonality of such abuses doesn’t leave consumers with much choice: they are complicit in the exploitation of vulnerable people with every dollar that they spend, and so it becomes easy to ignore the inconvenient truth of how the products they buy are actually made. Ethical consumerism, which has become increasingly mainstream, seeks to solve labour abuse through consumer action. The logic goes that each purchase is a moral act, where consumers spend their “dollar votes” (Wicker). For example, if consumers are aware that a certain brand uses child labour in their production, they would not spend their money on those products. Conversely, consumers would prefer to buy products that have the Fair Trade accreditation for instance (Irwin). Trends have shown that consumers are increasingly conscious of their purchasing decisions: in Canada, the number of consumers who factor in ethical considerations while shopping has grown by 20 percent since 2003 ("Ethical Consumption On The Rise In Canada: StatsCan"). Companies are recognizing this demand and responding in part: Ikea has promised to only use recycled or Forest Stewardship Council certified wood by 2020 and L’Oreal has launched a new line of environmentally-conscious hair products (Hancock).
However, it would be naive to think that ethical consumerism is the surefire solution. Ethical products, while increasing in their common appeal, still remain inaccessible for the vast majority of consumers. The common perception that ethical products are more expensive is generally true: shampoo from ethical brands cost 900% more, plain T-shirts cost 150% more ("The Price Of Ethics") and free-range chickens cost more than double the regular one (Hancock). This price difference makes sense — it costs more to ensure that ethical standards are adhered to. Therefore, it is important to realize that being able to afford the less socially costly option (which happens to be more financially costly) is a privilege, and we cannot expect this of all consumers. Another criticism of ethical consumerism is that it is nothing more than virtue-signaling. Halina Szejnwald Brown, a sustainability expert who has worked with the UN, is openly critical of buying ethically produced goods: “It’s a gesture… Well-meaning signals that you care about the environment. But the action itself makes no difference (Wicker).” The reasoning behind this is that making the “right” purchase isn’t enough, and the danger of doing so is that we give ourselves too much credit for playing our part in solving the problem, and in so doing, neglect other efforts. A 2012 study contrasted the actual environmental impact of the lifestyles between conscious consumers and indifferent ones, only to find that there was marginal difference between the two (Csutora). This is a very counterintuitive finding, but the reason behind it becomes quite evident: consumers make choices that seem to be more ethical superficially, while in reality there are other factors that affect the 'ethicality' of a purchase. This has been termed the "behaviour-impact-gap", as the attitudinal change that occurs is not matched by the expected outcome. For instance, vegans who consume exotic vegan foods that need to be imported, such as hummus, are still creating a carbon footprint in the transportation of their consumption (Csutora). A more cynical view is that the pernicious culture of consumerism that manifests in the exploitation of workers has not changed: philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it best by telling us that ethical consumerism “enables you to be a consumerist without any bad conscience, because the price for the countermeasure, for fighting consumerism, is already included into the price of a commodity.”
On the producer’s side, the issue is no less complicated. It would be a gross oversimplification to paint companies as evil slave masters who only care about profits. While it is true that there is an obvious cost incentive to underpay workers, or, at the very least, to look the other way, the nature of the supply chain makes supervision and enforcement difficult (White). As long as the supply chain involves numerous parties spanning different countries, there will always be oversight. Most factory audits by brands and third-party organizations tend to focus on first-tier suppliers. However, exploitation is more rampant at the later stages of production, where subcontracting is commonplace (White). Companies are taking steps to address this: Patagonia’s strategy to reduce labour exploitation includes reducing the number of first-tier suppliers it works with from 108 to 75, and creating a new set of regulations for their suppliers and brokers (White).
One might be tempted to feel that this problem is a lost cause, that such exploitation is perhaps an inherent and tragically unavoidable component of capitalism. However, this does not mean we should fall into the trap of apathy. Consumption with a conscience, while imperfect, is still meaningful. We are responsible for educating ourselves of the consequences of our purchases, and judging how our choices sit with our conscience. Yet, we must remember that we are more than consumers, we have more than “dollar votes”. Instead of buying an ethical product to assuage our guilt, we have the ability to translate our outrage into a stronger political will for the protection of labour rights, and take action to enact real change. Wicker suggests a few different things we could do to be more ethical consumers: "Instead of buying expensive organic sheets, donate that money to organizations that are fighting to keep agricultural runoff out of our rivers; Instead of buying a $200 air purifier, donate to politicians who support policies that keep our air and water clean. (Wicker)" Tackling labour exploitation is a daunting task that requires coordination across consumers, corporations and governments. As individuals, it can be easy to believe that our actions are too small to make a difference. Therefore, the first step we can take is to change this mindset and realize that not only are we complicit in this exploitative system, but we have more agency than we think in confronting this issue.
"Supply Chains & Forced Labor". Humanity United, https://humanityunited.org/portfolios/supply-chains-forced-labor.
"Household Final Consumption Expenditure, Etc. (% Of GDP)". The World Bank: Data, 2016, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NE.CON.PETC.ZS.
"CBS News Finds Children Mining Cobalt For Batteries In The Congo". CBS News, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cobalt-children-mining-democratic-republic-congo-cbs-news-investigation/.
Westerman, Ashley. "4 Years After Rana Plaza Tragedy, What's Changed For Bangladeshi Garment Workers?". NPR.Org, 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/04/30/525858799/4-years-after-rana-plaza-tragedy-whats-changed-for-bangladeshi-garment-workers.
Winkler, Elizabeth. "One Way To Make Sure Workers Weren’T Abused While Making Your Clothes". Washington Post, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/08/24/one-way-to-make-sure-workers-werent-abused-while-making-your-clothes/?utm_term=.9271e2d477b9.
Wicker, Alden. "Conscious Consumerism Is A Lie. Here’S A Better Way To Help Save The World". Quartz, 2017, https://qz.com/920561/conscious-consumerism-is-a-lie-heres-a-better-way-to-help-save-the-world/.
Irwin, Julie. "Ethical Consumerism Isn’T Dead, It Just Needs Better Marketing". Harvard Business Review, 2015, https://hbr.org/2015/01/ethical-consumerism-isnt-dead-it-just-needs-better-marketing.
"Ethical Consumption On The Rise In Canada: Stats Can". Citynews Toronto, 2011, http://toronto.citynews.ca/2011/01/25/ethical-consumption-on-the-rise-in-canada-stats-can/.
"The Price Of Ethics". Ethical Consumer, http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/commentanalysis/consumerism/thepriceofethics.aspx.
White, Gillian. "All Your Clothes Are Made With Exploited Labor". The Atlantic, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/06/patagonia-labor-clothing-factory-exploitation/394658/.
Csutora, Maria. "The Ecological Footprint Of Green And Brown Consumers. Introducing The Behaviour-Impact-Gap (BIG) Problem". 15th European Roundtable On Sustainable Consumption And Production, 2012, http://www.erscp2012.eu/upload/doc/ERSCP_Full_Papers/CsutoraM_The_ecological_footprint_of_green_and_brown_consumers.pdf.