Help me assuage my first world consumer guilt!
February 18, 2015 5:06 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a pair of earbuds that weren't made by sad children in dark factories, but I don't know 1) if such a thing exists or 2) the google search terms I should be using.

I've been doing better at buying most things from countries with a minimum wage and child labour laws. I've learned to wait and save up until I can afford something made by a company that treats their workers as human beings and pays a living wage.

However, I'm having a really hard time with electronics. My earbuds are on the fritz and I'm soon going to need a new pair. My problem is I don't even know what search terms to use when googling - is there an established vocabulary for such things? A Fair Wage item? or Responsible Industry? or Ethical Consumerism?

Bonus question: Let's just say that it's impossible to buy electronics made by happy workers. Is there a charity I can donate to that works with companies or employees to solve this standard of living disparity long term?
posted by unlapsing to Shopping (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
There's a bunch of small companies that make ear buds in the USA and Europe. I've had westone brand buds before and they were good but spendy at $150.

Just Google earphones and made in USA or made in x country that you feel comfortable buying from.
posted by fshgrl at 5:26 PM on February 18, 2015

I couldn't quickly figure out where House of Marley's earbuds are made, but they market themselves as an ethical company. Maybe you could shoot them an email and ask them where their factories are? I was happy with the $25 pair that I bought from them a while back--and I use the past tense only because I lost them.
posted by monkeymonkey at 5:45 PM on February 18, 2015

These are hand-built by a family business in New York.
posted by three_red_balloons at 6:29 PM on February 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

I really like my Thinksound ts02 earbuds. The manufacturers site claims "manufactured responsibly" but I don't know the details. Maybe contact them?
posted by doctord at 6:31 PM on February 18, 2015

You could ask around and see if you know anyone who has an extra pair.
posted by katieanne at 7:00 PM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The trouble with your strategy is that it basically amounts to moving your money out of poorer countries -- where having a job can mean life or death. What's your best case scenario? Slightly less demand for, say, the Foxconn factory in Vietnam (where some Apple earphones are made)? Even if you achieved that, can you be sure that's what Foxconn workers actually want? To be made unemployed due to reduced demand?

May I suggest your bonus question actually gets to the heart of this issue. Worry less about your individual consumer choices, and focus on making a donation to fight these issues as part of a coherent, strategic campaign led by local workers and NGOs. Many charities help to fight these campaigns; one obvious and reputable one is Oxfam, which among many other things has been leading a fight to improve conditions in the cocoa farming sector.
posted by dontjumplarry at 7:01 PM on February 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

Best answer: How I wish I had an easy answer for you! As dontjumplarry suggests, buying things that weren't made in the third world certainly isn't helping the erstwhile factory workers. Looking for happy workers isn't the right criterion either -- they were certainly less happy as subsistence farmers, believe me. Having spent some time with Bangladeshi factory workers after the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse, I can tell you that I heard the following things time and time again:
  • We deserve to get paid fairly for the work we do
  • Keep sending us orders!
Indeed, the Bangladeshi workers were well aware of American trade restrictions placed on Bangladesh after Rana Plaza and told us they wanted us to contact the US government to get rid of them! This wasn't what I was expecting. On the other hand, workers do know how much the goods they make sell for, and feel they should be getting more of it. Plus, if anything, they tend to underestimate the importance of non-wage benefits (like health insurance and safe working conditions) which are often the bigger problem than low wages in the poorest countries.

So what do you do? I really wish there was a good labeling or certification program for ethical factory goods -- where ethical in this case is less about wages and more about basic labor laws and working conditions. But there isn't, as far as I know. Certainly there are charities working on worker rights; at the same time, though, encouraging brands to keep sourcing from poor countries but with stricter conditions and better audit trails is a tough needle to thread.

As for what to buy, all I can recommend is -- and this is probably not what you were expecting -- buy from a big brand with a reputation to protect. Apple or Sony or even Lenovo can't plead ignorance when it comes to their factory conditions, and they are more vulnerable to consumer campaigns. Can you say the same about Skullcandy?

Or you can buy from small-scale manufacturers in the first world, and if that makes you sleep more easily at night, then go ahead, but don't think you're helping the global poor by doing so.
posted by goingonit at 7:23 PM on February 18, 2015 [16 favorites]

Perhaps your best bet is to just buy whichever earbuds you prefer (sound quality/price-wise) and then donate to a union for sweatshop workers: This one is pretty great.

Ultimately it comes down to a question of consumption-side or production-side pressure against sweatshops, as a single consumer you don't have much power at the consumption-end but could potentially help e.g. striking workers not running dry from money by donating to their union.
posted by nagoya at 2:40 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, take the difference between $12 Monoprice buds and $350 bespoke Grados made by hipster elves in Park Slope or whatever (I'm an emperor's new clothes guy about Grados, the most overrated and overpriced and physically uncomfortable brand in all of audiophilia to me, and always prefer Sony or Sennheiser cans) and send the $338 dollars you save to a charity that helps poor workers. Way bigger impact than buying the Fancies in the first place.
posted by spitbull at 5:41 AM on February 19, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you, all of you. This is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. I'm thinking I'll by a cheapish American made pair (now that I know they exist) and make a donation to Oxfam or the union group linked above.

Keep the ideas coming if you got 'em, this has been extremely educational to me.
posted by unlapsing at 10:18 AM on February 19, 2015

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