By Tim Bartley
Michael Hobbes’s Huffington Post article, “The Myth of the Ethical Shopper,” powerfully shows that we should not rely on conscientious consumption to improve labor conditions around the world. His vivid account resonates with the findings of our recent book, Looking behind the Label: Global Industries and the Conscientious Consumer. In chapter 5, “Apparel and Footwear: Standards for Sweatshops,” we show how the codes of conduct adopted by Nike, The Gap, H&M, and other companies have failed to alter the harsh logic of global sourcing: Price pressures are extreme, and companies have often abandoned the factories and countries where improvements were occurring. Like Hobbes, we see the trend toward “fast fashion” and complex subcontracting networks as undermining the already imperfect approach of asking large brands and retailers to be the guarantors of global labor rights.
Hobbes is absolutely right that “we are not going to shop ourselves into a better world” and that it’s been a mistake to try to bypass governments. We need strong and smart labor regulation in countries that produce apparel, footwear, and electronics. And we need government policies in countries with large and powerful consumer markets (like the US) that support this.
The question is, how do we get there? Here, we’re not quite as pessimistic as Hobbes about the potential for something good to come out of consumer concern and pressures on large brands and retailers. Let me sketch a few scenarios:
- A vibrant “slow goods” movement among consumers, combined with revised ways of rating “corporate social responsibility,” could push companies to slow down the race to the bottom. Workers and citizens in China, Indonesia, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and beyond have pushed from the ground up for important reforms, only to find orders moving to other countries (or other parts of the same country). The speed pressures of “fast fashion” and “fast electronics” make workers precarious and vulnerable. Slowing things down and staying put won’t solve things overnight, but it might allow the kinds of domestic reforms Hobbes champions to take hold.
- Stronger expectations for corporate accountability could amplify the reforms that *are* possible through supply chain pressure. Nike, Adidas, and New Balance banned the toxic chemical toluene from their supply chains and promoted safer glues for their suppliers to use. Judging from a powerful recent exposé in Wired magazine, electronics brands need to get serious about doing the same with the solvents used to make our smartphones (which routinely include highly toxic benzene and n-hexane). Banning a few dangerous chemicals in a few factories won’t solve the problem of labor exploitation, but it’s still worth doing.
- Relatedly, if laws in the US and Europe actually penalized brands and retailers for illegal actions in their global supply chains, these companies wouldn’t stand by idly as their supply chains got more complex and opaque. It may sound like pie in the sky to expect new laws that would seize goods from Target or Walmart if the subcontractors of their suppliers in India relied on bonded laborers. But this is just what has happened around the problem of illegal logging.
These are just a few possible and intersecting paths forward. We’ve seen over the past two decades that many consumers are concerned about labor exploitation, and yet many problems have persisted. The challenge is to channel conscientious consumption into more productive forms.