How can I, as a consumer, avoid supporting slave labor?
June 12, 2013 1:59 PM   Subscribe

I understand and grudgingly accept that buying products made in China often involves supporting a system that treats workers badly and pays them poorly. But I also have believed that at least the workers are employed by choice, and that they deem work conditions they've opted for in some way superior to the alternatives. Today I learned that "Made in China" can also mean "made by the slave labor of religious dissidents." How can I exist as a consumer in this global economy without perpetuating and contributing to this system? Is there any ethical way to buy Chinese imports, or do I risk endorsing inhumanity every time?

Is it safe to continue buying Apple products, for example, because we know that Foxconn -- while imperfect -- is at least semi-monitored and does seem to have willing employees? Are similar assumptions about other electronics companies also broadly true? Are there third-party NGOs or other entities that report on the human rights records of various companies?

Are there other countries where slave labor is involved in the manufacture of goods likely to be exported to the U.S.? When is "Made in [Wherever]" a warning sign?
posted by croutonsupafreak to Shopping (15 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Depending on how you think of 'slave' labour, there are products made in the US by slaves. Even if that weren't the case, the 'Made in X' label only means that the final assembly took place there.

You might be able to avoid buying products made in a particular country but you will not be able to avoid buying products that contain components made there.
posted by atrazine at 2:11 PM on June 12, 2013

Response by poster: I understand that there is no such thing as absolute moral perfection, atrazine, but I would still appreciate help navigating the nuances of acquiring imported goods.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:13 PM on June 12, 2013

Learn to make as many things as you can on your own. If you've got a day job and limited resources, it's obviously not possible to do it all yourself. The real benefit is that knowing the skills, time, and material required to produce a given item will help you get a feel for whether things are priced fairly and produced well. You can reduce your dependence on the suffering of others in your daily life.

Other options include avoiding lists of known sweatshop/slave labor manufacturers, or choosing from lists of known good manufacturers (frequently though not always unionized).
posted by asperity at 2:24 PM on June 12, 2013

There are shops and product lines that specialize in fair-trade for many products, from clothing to chocolate. Taking those places at their word (because we only have so much time, patience, and ability to pursue higher morality in life), you can google that phrase - "fair trade" - and build a list.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:10 PM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

FYI: Foxconn (Hon Hai) does a lot more than just some Apple products:

Sony PlayStation 3 / Nintendo Wii / Microsoft XBox 360
Amazon Kindle Fire
It also produces TVs for Sony, Sharp, and Toshiba; handsets for Nokia, Motorola and Huawei, and networking equipment for Cisco.
Foxconn is also a major assembler of PCs for Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Acer.
posted by Leenie at 3:17 PM on June 12, 2013

Fair trade coffee is more expensive but quite tasty.
posted by Cranberry at 3:17 PM on June 12, 2013

Best answer: I think there is no all encompassing blacklist, so yes, there is risk involved every time we buy imported goods. It's easier to create a white list of brands that produce and trade in fair ways.

Did you know that Ikea had stuff produced by inmates in the GDR in the 70s and 80s? Or that Amazon has questionable labor practices up to now, even in the US? Or that Wal-Mart and Wrangler and ASICS use child labor in this day and age? Or that most tech products are produced in sweatshops? Sometimes it seems like most brands are guilty of engaging in unfair practices.

Human rights and labor rights in Bangladesh, China and many other countries are fairly weak compared to our western standards. With today's interdependence it's not easy to find all the answers.

Workers might have chosen to work for one manufacturer, but did they choose among other options or because it was their only choice? They came voluntarily, but can they leave this 40,000 person factory anytime they want? Many things remain opaque for us.

What we can do is:
-Stay informed. Human rights watch, Institute for global labour and human rights

-Buy more second hand products.

-Buy products that are certified. UNCTAD list of labels,

-Buy products from companies that have no evil history. Boycott the worst.
That can get tricky sometimes, look up what Monsanto owns for example.

-Create awareness, support campaigns/petitions etc.
posted by travelwithcats at 3:38 PM on June 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Do you have a smartphone? Buycott turns your phone into a barcode scanner to use before you buy, which instantly deciphers the manufacturer and it's owner, and their owner, all the way up the labyrinth of subsidiary companies, and gives you a green or red flag for the product if there aren't or are any conflicts with issues you've marked as important, plus information about the conflict(s), exposes the ownership chain to you, etc.

(Furthermore, you can build your own issue filters and share them with others)
posted by anonymisc at 4:48 PM on June 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: free2work has a whole chart on clothing companies and human trafficking. it looks like they also have info on consumer electronics. oh, they have an app like buycott which i just downloaded. those apps really make this easier.
posted by wildflower at 8:36 PM on June 12, 2013

Make it yourself if you don't want someone else to do it.

"Vote with your dollar" gives someone else the ability to do what you've pledged not to do.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:53 PM on June 12, 2013

Best answer: Or you could do what's best for everyone: buy things secondhand.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:55 PM on June 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: update on buycott: i scanned a couple chocolate bars and their info is not accurate. they give a green light to cadbury which for their US chocolate still use child labor. they also said reeses was okay but that is also owned by hershey's and no good on child labor. unfortunately, this app is trying to give the impression products/companies are good when they are not because they are not considering geographical factors.

free2work seems to be much more accurate but the app is a little buggy for scanning. their browse products feature is great though.
posted by wildflower at 10:57 PM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Buycott seems only as good as the campaign that has been created for it. But you could certainly create one yourself and add specific companies to it.
posted by corb at 6:53 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, folks. I guess I'm done eating Hershey's or U.S.-made Cadbury's candies for a while. I've downloaded the Free2Work app and spent a little time on the F2W website as well.

As a consumer who is willing to live with some moral ambiguity -- including shitty work conditions, up to a point -- I still wish there were a better way to get a more nuanced assessment of this stuff.

I can't abide by the idea of enslaving religious or political dissidents, but I'm not going to boycott Amazon based on Mother Jones' reporting on Amazon's U.S. warehouse conditions -- if anything, I see bad work conditions in the U.S. as a cry for new legislation or better enforcement of existing laws. Likewise, the idea of forcing 4-year-olds or 6-year-olds to work in slave-like conditions makes me sick, but when I hear about 12-year-olds leaving work to support their families I'd rather respond by pushing for better education policy in those countries than by boycotting the manufacturers who employ them.

It seems like there's no clear-cut way to understand just how shitty a non-U.S. based manufacturer is, beyond the broad and vague rankings of these third-party fair labor groups.

If the only reason we've learned about religious enslavement in China is through a rare English-speaking prisoner's risky gamble, and if companies don't open their doors to oversight, I guess I have to accept that it's difficult to gain transparency.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:42 AM on June 13, 2013

update on buycott: i scanned a couple chocolate bars and their info is not accurate.

There is no "they", it's "you" - much like gasbuddy the users contribute and collaborate their knowledge. If you know something that others don't, that doesn't mean it's not working, it means you can submit info and be a bigger part of the solution. The app only went live for android a couple of weeks ago (and bit earlier for iOS). Wikipedia initially had noticeable gaps for a while too, but the functionality is strong and I think it is already a powerful tool and growing in power.

(Also, you might have simply selected a poor campaign.)

Much more important to me than how much detail is in some random person's campaign so far (because that's easy for you to fix), is how robustly it can cut through the subsidiaries and correctly identify ultimate ownership (because that seems like it would be harder for you to fix). I've scanned some pretty insanely obscure products, and it identified the companies involved. To me that means the important part of the system works, ie the bit I couldn't do on my own.
posted by anonymisc at 4:21 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

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