Sunday, October 15, 2006

Ethical Consumerism

Prepare for me to wax dramatic. I'm feeling very passionate about this issue. I've long been a supporter of fair trade coffee, chocolate, and sugar. I check the labor practices of the companies I buy the kids clothes from. Somehow I've remained blind to the big picture.

We recently watched "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price". If you haven't seen this movie, I highly reccomend that you do. I don't think it's a perfect movie, and in fact I think some of it was a stretch. The film makers also have a website, but there is some inaccuracy there for sure, as they list Jefferson, WI as a "victory" having stopped Wal-marth and unfortunately, the nearby town is actually throttling full-steam into Walmartdom. However, there is some good information in the movie. There was much in this movie that was disheartening and depressing, but it was one relatively small portion of the movie that hit me the hardest, and that was the manufacturing labor.

The film makers visited a company in China that manufactures products for Wal-mart, and showed the squalid conditions that the workers are forced to live in. (They are charged rent whether they "choose" to live there or not.) The food is so bad that workers rent kitchens to prepare their own food. The workers work long hours in terrible conditions, and make cents an hour. You really need to watch the movie to see the conditions. I will admit that I sobbed through the last portion about the labor practices. The film makers interviewed a former Wal-Mart employee whose job was to evaluate the labor practices. He didn't realize that his real job was to lie about the factories, and he got fired for telling the truth. This wonderful man said that the first day that he visited a Wal-Mart factory, he went back to his hotel room and wept. I would too. We are paying $15.99 for a toy that cost Wal-Mart .37 cents to make. This is slavery people. Slavery. Slaves got room and board too, right? That's about all these people are getting. Thousands and thousands of people, working for pennies, sweating, slaving.

What bothered be the most was the almost instantaneous realization that it's not just Wal-Mart. If I walk into Target and buy that toy, I'm no better off. What about clothes? What about towels? What about everything that my dollars go to? You'd think that a little research would go a long way, but I'll tell you that I haven't found it all that easy. While I've found great websites for Europe and Canada that help consumers figure out who and where to buy, I couldn't find much that was simple for American consumers. I googled and googled, and I did find links to, and various fair trade organizations. I wanted to find something that helped me find the best everyday companies though. Long ago I found a site that did this, so I hacked back into an old chat board and found my posting. The site is As far as I can tell, they do a great job of creating a ratings system that is based on the values you choose, be it environment, labor, gay rights, etc. It is not comprehensive and often gives ratings for stores rather than brands, but it's a good start.

One thing I discovered is not to trust the website of the company. Of course they paint a very rosy picture. I checked out Mattels corporate responsibility practices and standards, and they all look great. Unfortunately they don't hold to their own standards. I found various reports of them paying factory workers 40% less than the legal minimum wage for where the factory was located. So really do your research. I researched for hours, literally, until I was convinced that Hanna Andersson was the company we would buy the kids clothes from, guilt free.

We have a responsibility as members of the human race to educate ourselves about where our products are coming from. Before you spend another dollar, make sure you're not paying for a rich executive to get fatter while someone sweats and starves. It's dramatic yes, but sadly it's also the harsh reality of America. We're living our lives on the backs of poor workers. It needs to stop.

Other Resources:
Recent Chicago Tribune Article
Fair Indigo
Global Exchange
Fair Trade Federation
Sweat Free Shopping


~Lori said...

Wow. Great post, Mia. Thanks for the link to Idealswork - I'm going to definitely spend some time there.

Mia said...

Thanks, Lori. Idealswork is a good starting point for sure. I'm continuing to try to dig deeper and will continue to post as I find some good companies. I know they're out there!

Maddy Avena said...

I love you, Mia.
That's our personal evolution

Beo said...

It is easy for me to forget the third leg of sustainability is Sociologicly Just in my quest for LEED certifications and wind turbines.
Thanks for ethically refocusing our famliy.

Good news is that many Fair Trade options appear to be either organic, small/local, or in most cases: both, so Green and Not Mean are mutually supporting.

It is easy to blame Wal-Mart. The biggest thing I took away from the movie is that Wal-Mart is just the symptom. We-as Americans-are the problem.

Be the Change.

Lydia said...

i know this is from an old post, but i just wanted to let you know that my friend was one of the co-producers of the film and she will be so pleased to know how it affected you.