Monday, July 2, 2012

Ethical shopping

A large percentage of the goods we consume are produced by people in developing countries, working in terrible conditions, earning barely enough to survive. Some of these people are effectively slaves.

One solution popular in leftist circles is to remove yourself from the exploitative chain of supply and demand. Instead of buying clothing produced in Chinese (or other) sweatshops, buy locally produced goods, or even better, make your own.  Even important and valuable organisations like Oxfam falls prey to this fallacy. Their recommendation (at least on their Australian site): buy Australian made:
If clothing carries the Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) label it means the garment was manufactured in Australia and the manufacturer has committed to ensuring that all of the people involved in its production received, as a minimum, the legally stated wage rates and conditions — known in Australia as award wages and conditions.
Here's the rub though. If you buy locally, you're not actually helping, in fact, you might actually be doing harm. Sure, you can soothe your conscience, because you're no longer complicit in the exploitation, and buying local isn't bad in and of itself. However you are in no way actually helping those exploited people. The problem is that these people are mostly working under terrible circumstances because they need the work, they need the money. Yes the conditions are appalling, but for them, enduring these conditions is better than the alternative: no income at all. By buying ethically Australian made clothing, you are ensuring that more Australians are employed, and you might even help lift some Australians are lifted out of poverty. However, if enough people make the same decision, then people barely earning enough to survive lose their jobs. It doesn't take a genius to work out that although all poverty is terrible and soul-crushing, there's a world of difference between poverty in Australia, and poverty in the developing world.

I'm not turning into a sweatshop advocate, far from it. However, we need to recognise that issues such as this are far from black and white, and the people who advocate simply shutting down sweatshops have not thought through the consequences of their ideals. If sweatshops just close down, the workers need to find other work, often being forced into more hazardous lines of work. For example,
The Harkin Bill ... was introduced into the US Congress in 1992 with the laudable aim of prohibiting the import of products made by children under 15 ... As of September 1996, the Bill had yet to find its way onto the statute books. But the mere threat of such a measure panicked the garment industry of Bangladesh, 60 per cent of whose products — some $900 million in value — were exported to the US in 1994. Child workers, most of them girls, were summarily dismissed from the garment factories. A study sponsored by international organizations took the unusual step of tracing some of these children to see what happened to them after their dismissal. Some were found working in more hazardous situations, in unsafe workshops where they were paid less, or in prostitution.
UNICEF - The State of the World's Children, 1997
If we actually care about the people working in sweatshops, what we need to do is provide them with a real alternative. They don't need to be paid the same as Australian workers, at least not yet, not until their economies catch up to ours. What they do need is to be paid a living wage, enough to support themselves and their families. Enough that the parents can earn sufficient money that they don't need to send their children to work. Enough so they can afford to send their children to school, because access to work without education will never break the poverty cycle. They need to have safe working conditions. Most of all, we, as consumers, need to support those companies that provide such employment opportunities in the developing world.

Of course, it's easy enough to say that, it's more difficult to carry out, especially as it can be difficult to make informed decisions. Some things are pretty easy. When buying chocolate, tea or coffee, look out for the Fair Trade logo. Yes, I know the system isn't perfect, but for us ordinary consumers, it's the best information we can get. It won't necessarily cost more either. Since Cadbury started producing Dairy Milk as fair trade, I've bought it almost exclusively. For cosmetics, I've started buying from the Body Shop. It's more expensive than what I used to buy, but that's fair - before, someone else was paying the price.

Beyond a few basic items though, finding ethically produced products becomes difficult, as there is no accredited international system of recognition. Take clothing. Ethically produced clothing tends to be hard to buy in brick and mortar stores, and buying expensive clothing without trying it on is not a risk many people, myself included, are keen to take. Also, most ethically produced clothing is hippy styled. I don't take issue with that per se, it's just that I want more variety in order to suit my personal sense of style. I don't mind a bit of hippy, but I want more than that. I also want to be able to dress ethical business, ethical dressy, ethical jeans and t-shirt, and have it fit and flatter.

As for electronics, forget ethically produced, all we can hope for at this stage is least damaging. About all I've been able to find is an assessment of the use of conflict minerals, but that's far from the whole picture.

I'm not advocating purchasing some brands and boycotting others. What I'm suggesting is that next time you buy something, especially if it's something that you buy regularly like coffee, chocolate or moisturiser, think about where it came from, who is profiting from your purchase, and if you could buy a slightly different product that shares that profit more equitably. A small change in our purchasing habits could make a world of difference to people currently living in poverty, no handouts required.

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