What does it mean to be a responsible consumer? While many corporations are beginning to look at their supply chains (a fancy way of saying where products are outsourced and manufactured), much of this approach is new, and has been a response to customer demands. Additionally, many companies have become more responsible for preserving their image (also known as corporate social responsibility).
Below I list a series of recommendations on responsible purchasing practices and understanding of supply chains. While this list is not exhaustive, it provides the framework for more responsible consumption.
1.) See where your products are made
This may sound easy, but do you really know where your clothes are from? My current outfit features jeans produced in Turkey, cobbled shoes in China, a leather jacket made in France, and socks handcrafted in New York City from yarn in Ireland. Yes, my closet is more traveled than I am.
When shopping, I try to look for products that are locally produced, or second hand, but this is not always possible. So when I buy something new, I try to see where the product is made. Here's an example: If a plastic plate I'm considering buying has been produced in Myanmar where low-cost manufacturing is prevalent, and I don't know the specifics of factory conditions, I'll do some detective work before buying. Firstly, this gives me a better idea of where I'm shopping, but secondly, it makes me responsible for the product I want to buy. I have discovered numerous supply chain issues from companies that I have considered buying from in the past, and as a result, I have written to these corporations to increase accountability for their products (I use twitter, email, and Facebook as a platform for activism ).
2.) Buy sustainably, locally or DIY
Buying sustainable products is largely associated with environmental concerns, but it also applies to people. Think of it this way: buying from a factory or brand that underpays workers and is not responsible for how its products are produced is not a sustainable business model. Corporations need to have an idea of how to manage supply chains, and most of the big brands are getting smart about it. And for those who haven't, appeal to consumer power is needed. Demand that corporations understand where their products are made.
And what about local shopping? It's not just buying at the farmers market! Use me as an example: Here in New York City, I look for locally made clothing made from recycled fabric. I know I may sound like a bit of a Brooklyn hipster, but I don't shop locally to be cool, I shop locally because it makes sense. Not only am I supporting local designers, but with the supply chain closer to home, the product is more sustainable, eco-friendly and I know I am paying a fair price for what I am buying. It is easier than it seems to find sustainable and fair trade products.
As for the DIY look, remember those socks mentioned above? Yes, I made them myself. I also have several ceramic bowls and mugs that I created using an oven at a local ceramic house.
3.) Know the policy of the supply chain of the brands.
Companies and brands are increasingly accountable to workers and consumers, working to ensure that products are manufactured in safe conditions. While it would be nice to simply assume that all corporations outsource their work and production to factories that comply with global worker safety laws, this is not always the case. To be a responsible consumer, look at companies' supply chain policy (for example, big brands like H&M and Target have been leaders in corporate social responsibility. Or visit http://www.free2work.org to see the stories behind barcodes).
4.) Campaign for workers' rights
As consumers, our job is to support the health and well-being of workers. With the increase in news coverage of factory disasters, such as the one described in Mongla, we citizens of the world must be aware of the conditions in which people are working. It's important to understand how consumers can affect major changes in workers' rights, and that our purchasing power has, well… power. By understanding the conditions in which our products are produced, we can help improve conditions for workers around the world. Campaigns like www.cleanclothes.org and www.laborrights.org are great ways to support workers and hold companies to account for workers' rights.
5.) Consume less
I love buying new clothes… and books… and THINGS. It's a guilty pleasure, but in recent years, I've tried to practice “mindful” shopping. Instead of shopping to pass the time, I only buy what I need, and I try to buy higher quality clothes that will last longer, I look for cutlery from local potters and use the public library instead of running out to bring home the newest .
How is reducing consumption related to labor standards? It goes back to my supply and demand argument. The developed world is demanding more and more cheap products, and developing nations are responding to the demand because of their ability to supply cheap labor. While I am excited to see all nations moving into the global marketplace, I question the role of consumerism in making these connections. Particularly if the demand for goods is producing unsafe conditions for workers and the lack of responsibility of the corporate sector. It's a tricky balance: everyone deserves to work, and it's surprising to see emerging industries, but not at the expense of worker health, happiness, and safety.
We all buy things and shopping can be fun. But we, the citizens of the world, must also be aware of workers' rights and the sustainability of where the things we consume originate from. Being thoughtful, thoughtful, and also defense-oriented in our shopping is not only good for our pockets, it is also good for workers.
It may be time for nations to start thinking of consumer culture as an obstacle to development. While everyone should have the ability to buy and consume in whatever way they see fit, the desire to buy often affects our ability to fully engage with each other. While it is wonderful that workers in developing countries can find work, is it really the right kind of work? What does it mean that the source of income and labor for many people is linked to the needs of foreign consumption?
Regardless of how you feel about supply chains, corporate social responsibility, and consumerism, the bottom line is this: Workers' rights matter. And it is our duty as citizens of the world to ensure that all people are safe in all aspects of their lives, including the workplace.
Share your thoughts in the comment section. In what ways do you think it is better to ensure that workers' rights are respected?