The Ethical Consumer
“We all have to go shopping.
Fair Trade is just shopping with respect.”
~ Mr. Ohemeng-Tinyase, Director of Kuapa Kokoo,
Ghana (producers of Divine Chocolate)
Where does it come from? How was it made?
In bygone years these questions could be easily answered. Produce likely came from a nearby farm, and crafts from a regional maker. Buyers may have been frugal, but durability and craftsmanship were valued. Though sad to be divorced from this quaint intimacy, we would not turn back the clock if we could. Today’s population couldn’t be sustained without many of the advances of the modern age. But that cannot excuse our being party to the extreme abuse suffered daily, by so many, as a result of our race to the bottom. Like magicians skillfully using misdirection, the corporate giants of discount retail are happy to tell us the price, but loath to let us see the real costs. Beside labor abuse and environmental degradation, we incur a host of down-stream costs from our discount culture. Jobs are lost as entire industries relocate. Wages are depressed, health and safety are compromised. The toxic waste stream is compounded by endless goods that barely last as long as their warranty. We are left alienated and ignorant of where and how our things are produced. Though oddly unsatisfied we return for more of the same. There is another way.
Become a wise, educated, and discriminating consumer!
Avoiding products derived from abusive practices requires a bit of work, thought, and time. Ethically sourced products may cost more money, but you can usually be assured that you are getting higher quality. This value equation can only be made if you are well informed and can look beyond the price tag. The internet is a wonderful tool for ferreting out information about companies and any labor issues they have had. Don’t miss the opportunity to give them feedback about what you uncover! In the current economic climate many of us are feeling squeezed. One thing to consider is consuming less, trading quantity for quality. A garment that falls apart after several washings for one that will last years. A watery tomato that tastes like cardboard for one bursting with nutritious flavor. A product produced by slaves for one produced with pride.
In some instances certifying agencies have been formed to assure adherence to acceptable standards. Goodweave is an example of such an agency for the carpet and rug industry where child labor is widespread. Many environmental certifications, such as that offered for timber by the Forest Stewardship Council, go a long way toward giving some assurance that your product was not harvested illegally or under abusive conditions. For other items, like conflict-free diamonds, assurances remain unreliable.
The largest of all these certifying agencies are those that have banded together to form what has become known as the FAIR TRADE movement (not to be confused with the open market economic policies of so-called “free trade”). ‘Fair Trade’ is predicated on underlying principles of economic justice, fair labor practices, and empowering small producers in developing countries by dispensing with costly layers of middle-men and affording direct access to a wide market. Democratic and transparent operations as well as ecologically sound practices are monitored from origin to store shelf. While not a panacea for all ills, Fair Trade certification almost guarantees that slave labor was not involved anywhere in the supply chain of a product.
Best known for its role in transforming the coffee industry, in recent years Fair Trade Certified has grown to encompass more product categories. In particular, tea, sugar, flowers, chocolate and wine are recent introductions. While widespread in Europe, Fair Trade products are still growing here in the U.S. You can help grow this movement simply by asking for, and searching out these products. If you cannot get them through your local market, consider shopping online to support the ethical sourcing of frequently consumed goods. The National Green Pages can be very helpful in this quest. Global Exchange is a good source for many Fair Trade products. Equal Exchange widely distributes Fair Trade coffees, chocolates, teas and snacks. Though located in the U.K., the Ethical Superstore stocks over 730 Fair Trade products from coconut beer to underpants!
More ways to help…
Reduce, reuse, recycle. Supporting thrift shops and second hand stores helps your community, your environment, and your budget.
Next to having your own garden, your local farmer’s market is your best assurance of buying wholesome food produced without ethical compromise.
Joining a Community Supported Agriculture(CSA)group is a further step in breaking away from the model dictated by discount chains and big box stores. It is about re-establishing the bonds we all used to enjoy with those who grow our food.
Arts and Crafts cooperatives are a valuable source for goods which might otherwise be problematic. Many cooperatives are worker-owned, allowing individual artisans, extended families or even entire communities to market directly to you.
Buying organic products is a strong indicator that what you are getting has been ethically produced in addition to ecological, health, and taste benefits. Those producers who are unwilling to spray pesticides and pump chemicals on their products, are unlikely to employ slave labor. Organic cotton, chocolate, sugar and coffee simply represent too small a niche market for those who would readily exploit their workers. While it is not a guarantee of fair labor practices, it is one indicator for you to weigh in determining what level of assurance you have that you are not supporting abusive conditions.
Origin may be another useful determinant. Most chocolate will not tell you if the cocoa beans came from the Ivory Coast, but if the product is made in Central America it is likely that the beans originated there as well. Products that are made in the USA will usually be proudly labeled as such. There are some nuances with this as concerns the supply chain. In the instance of a t-shirt, where the cotton was grown, where it was made into thread, then woven into cloth, and finally where it was cut and sewn into your garment, may all be quite different places. Additionally some manufacturers have capitalized on the USA label, while having their goods produced in American territories like the Mariana Islands or American Samoa, where wages are far lower and labor laws more lax. Saipan, largest of the Northern Marianas, is a U.S. commonwealth in the Western Pacific which has long been exempted from American immigration controls, tariffs, and federal income tax–a status quo that was assiduously protected by lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Congressman Tom DeLay. There, garment magnates, selling to clothing giants like the Gap and Target, live in luxury while thousands of foreign factory workers, 90 percent of them female, work sixty-hour weeks for $3.05 an hour and spend weekends trying to trade sex for green cards. The garments they make are allowed to be labeled MADE IN AMERICA!
More reassuring may be goods that carry a union label. Whatever your opinion may be about organized labor, it is a safe bet that any product bearing a union label does not profit from forced labor, child labor, or similar abusive practices.
In a few product categories widely known to have questionable labor practices, some businesses have arisen that are specifically marketed as being free from exploitative labor. Brilliant Earth specializes inethically produced gems and precious metals. Among chocolates, Tony Chocolonely is famously marketed as striving to be 100% ‘slave-free’, and Divine Chocolates are produced by a farmer owned cooperative in Ghana that proclaims “Freedom and Justice” on their chocolate coins.
Some companies have close ties to the abolitionist community. Organizations like Nomi Network and Made by Survivors sell products made by women who have been victimized, teaching them new skills and giving them access to a global market in a bid for a better life.
These suggestions are just starting points. Ask questions. Demand answers. Share what you learn. It’s your money. It’s your world. Together we can make it better. We really can Fight Slavery Now!
To join us in action and discussion, please visit