What do you think about when you shop? It probably depends on what you are buying, but do you ever pause to think about who made the product or how many people it took to make all its parts? What about where and in what conditions it was made?
If so, you are probably already someone who understands there is often a human cost behind the apparent bargain. You may also be aware that even for some costlier items, there may be a price behind the fashionable name brand, the gourmet delicacy, or the exotic import. Just because something costs more doesn’t mean it was made “ethically.” From apparel to furniture to technology, the reality behind many of the products we rely on every day can involve profound and protracted human suffering.
From forced child labour in central African cobalt mining for mobile phone parts to state-imposed forced labour of ethnic minorities in China—accounts of worker exploitation and abuse abound from around the world. As more and more stories come to light, awareness has grown about the conditions that millions of people toil under every day—mostly in developing or semi-developed countries. These conditions are not just a consequence of poor labour protections in those countries; they are equally driven by the demand for low-cost products, churned out in short time frames, often for consumers in the developed world. As decades have passed, these forces have jointly entrenched a global system of inequality and disenfranchisement of the worlds’ poorest people.
However, there are signs that this may finally be changing. Encouragingly, increasing awareness has started to shift consumer attitudes about companies caught up in labour abuse and other controversies, with many deciding to ‘vote with their dollar’ and seek out more ethical options. Companies responding to this are very slowly beginning to see tangible financial rewards, but a lot more is required to meaningfully and broadly shift standardised business practices.
If you are one of these people, you will know that this is not as easy as it sounds. Whilst there are some websites that provide guidance for the ethically-minded consumer, sometimes the highest-ranked company or product is still tainted with risks. In other cases, the ‘ethical choice’ available exceeds the consumer’s budget or there simply is not an ethical option readily available.
In truth, consumers alone cannot change the many complex issues behind this problem. Multiple things need to happen, over multiple years, at multiple levels, including businesses making active decisions to change their own harmful business practices. This does not mean, however, that consumers can’t make a difference. Indeed, consumer action may be the only way to prompt businesses to change their behaviour. If this is starting to sound complicated and difficult, be reassured that there are actually some very simple ways ethical consumers can build their impact in the short term.
First, be curious. Take some steps to be a more informed consumer. There are a range of websites and apps that provide advice on ethical purchasing, including ethical.org.au, fairtradeanz.org/for-consumers, and thegoodshoppingguide.com. There are also organisations that publish reports on various products such as Know the Chain, the Ethical Trading Initiative, and Verité.
Second, be courageous. Don’t be afraid to ask for information and reassurance from companies you are thinking of buying from. Unless thousands, if not millions, of consumers suddenly and dramatically change their purchasing behaviour, businesses will need a signal to stimulate change. So, if you can, respectfully let companies you purchase from know that you are making an active choice because you care about how products are made. This will encourage those doing the right thing, to keep doing the right thing. They can also share that good news in their annual reports, demonstrating to shareholders, consumers, and importantly—competitors—that they are ‘getting good by being good.’
In turn, tell the companies who you’ve decided not to purchase from that they are losing your business. It only takes a quick email and consumers could have even greater impact by including the company board on that email.
Finally, be creative. If you haven’t heard of ‘circular economy’—check it out. Everyday, there are new ways emerging to reduce waste and shift away from the traditional “take-make-dispose” model that is at the heart of poor labour conditions for supply chain workers. In other words, by reducing our consumption through creative purchasing, such as clothing swaps and ‘buy nothing’ social media sites, we reduce the demand for products made in ways that are bad for both people and the environment.
These are just a few ways to become a more ethical consumer. Check out our articles in this category for more information on how you can ‘Shop Ethically’.
By Heather Moore – Policy & Strategic Projects Adviser