Wrestling with ethical purchasing choices
September 12, 2016 7:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to develop a purchasing guideline that has the least harmful impact on workers, and need some help thinking it through.

I apologize if this comes across as abstract, naive, or white-savior-y.

For several years, I drastically cut down my purchases of non-essential items, especially clothing, because of a general concern that those items were manufactured by companies that deliberately exploit workers and withhold employment benefits. For years I chugged along, thinking that this was the Best Course of Action for me to take as a consumer, and that I was signaling my discontent by divesting from mainstream consumer culture and, occasionally, buying an item that was made under relatively more fair circumstances.

A couple days ago, I kind of had a watershed moment where I realized that my diligent abstaining, if many people joined in, would be likely to lead to layoffs and other shitty cutbacks that would have the exact opposite effect on quality of life than I wanted to promote. I realized that I might have allowed the perfect to become the enemy of the good, and that it's more helpful to promote stable (if imperfect) work opportunities with one hand, while lobbying for better conditions with the other; to support the greatest number of people's livelihoods by buying mainstream stuff, but without sitting back and saying "everything about the global labor market is 100% okay; carry on."

This all makes practical sense to me, but I need help thinking this through -- is there some crappy consequence that I'm missing with this plan? Would it be better for me to restrict my buying to manufacturers that proactively advance worker's rights (this seems like it would concentrate benefit in smaller pockets of people)? And finally, if I make my purchasing habits labor-agnostic, how can I advance worker's rights in other ways?

Huge-ass footnote to all of this: I know I'm a ridiculously tiny speck in the large ocean that is the global economy, and that my personal choices are really not very impactful. However, I want to do the best I can with my infinitesimal stake.

Additional footnote: I know that environmental impact is also a huge problem, but at the moment I'm focusing on the issue of worker safety and compensation, to the (limited) extent that those issues are separate from environmental concerns.
posted by delight to Shopping (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Just purchase reasonable amounts of things that you need, or want enough while following general ethical guidelines regarding where and what you purchase. Trying to literally minimize global suffering in all aspects, to the iota is not productive or practical.
posted by so fucking future at 8:15 PM on September 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

It's not your personal job to keep people employed by a big company. I feel like the time and effort you're spending might be better used advocating for something like minimal workplace standards or a guaranteed basic minimum income.
posted by Miko at 8:21 PM on September 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

Buy the lowest cost item you can find that meets your needs and take all the money you save and use it to advocate for causes that you think are important (workers rights, improved regulatory environments, political candidates you support, etc).

Supporting businesses solely due to their perceived benefits to employees is inefficient - primarily, you don't know that they are actually supporting their employees (you don't have a way of knowing your money actually goes to where you want it to go) and secondarily because it doesn't actually solve the root cause of the issues you are trying to solve (I'd rather have a world where it is illegal to treat employees badly rather than a world where employees are not treated badly solely due to a "truce" with customers).
posted by saeculorum at 9:20 PM on September 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

Did a parent ever ask you if you would jump off a bridge if all the other kids were doing it? This is related, but sort of reversed.

Your impact is small, don't self-aggrandize by considering naively what would happen if huge chunks of humanity decided to buy what you buy (or not).

Also I wonder if you have considered how many jobs you would support by buying mostly used things, or who you think provides immaterial goods and services. I've noticed I have a lot more money for less tangible things when I buy fewer tangible things, and you might feel some of those things are worth supporting too.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:24 PM on September 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

You are not naieve, and your small part is being shared by other people all over the world who are trying to support good business practices. Not everyone has the ability to focus on these issues. Since you can, and especially since you're engaging with the issue intelligently and trying publicly to understand what would work best, you are very much part of helping us all, as a culture, figure this out.

Money is not the way to solve this. Just spending the minimum (on presumably low-ethics/low-quality goods) and "giving cash" would essentially be supporting the current system: people 'advocate' for change, but the cynical heuristics that guide company policy tend to focus only on the money spent to buy their products, which, as far as they can tell, goes up mainly in response to lower prices to the exclusion of all other factors. I'm not in favor of engaging mainly by shopping for cheap goods.

What I think could make a difference: Asking these questions, finding what works for your ethical system, and then sharing that information. If action like this were done in concert with others so that it was more noticeable by the companies in question, it would probably make more of an impact. Companies that engaged in incremental improvements to their supply chains and practices could be incrementally rewarded, and those that were thinking about improving practices would have a sense that it does matter.

As it is, I think of the one or two or three executives in a company trying to argue for ethical practices being drowned out by people pointing to numbers and historical practices; the ethical change advocates need people like you to exist and to be visible in order to help carry their points.
posted by amtho at 3:56 AM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Short version: coordinate with others who are working to have a public effect.
posted by amtho at 3:58 AM on September 13, 2016

A couple days ago, I kind of had a watershed moment where I realized that my diligent abstaining, if many people joined in, would be likely to lead to layoffs and other shitty cutbacks that would have the exact opposite effect on quality of life than I wanted to promote.

This reasoning is a little flawed. Yes, if there were a sudden tide of people not buying sweatshop goods anymore, there'd probably be an acute period of layoffs and the like. But capitalists like to make profits, and if one market legitimately dries up, they will look for others to serve. And if that market happens to demand ethical treatment of employees and environmentally responsible sourcing... that's where they will go.

As it is, yes, your individual contribution is small. But that small contribution that might be a drop in the bucket to
Nike or whatever could be what helps a local manufacturer "that proactively advance[s] worker's rights" flip from the red to the black.

Because this issue is important to you it seems that to the extent that is possible and reasonable, you should spend your dollars to support the people who are building the world that you want to see. This should be in addition to working to advance worker's rights in other ways.
posted by sparklemotion at 8:34 AM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

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