There is an old chestnut in political arguments that if the government constrains business practices too much by closing corporate tax loopholes, enforcing environmental regulations, or requiring disclosure of supply chain details, businesses will relocate their manufacturing overseas at the cost of American jobs and tax revenue. It is the constant threat of the “job creators” myth, and it’s coupled with the fear that increased demands for quality or adherence to standards (for example, labeling GMOs or requiring hamburgers to contain real meat) will result in such an increase in prices that goods and services will become unaffordable.
It makes a sort of rational, logical sense because it is the message we receive over and over and on the surface, of course higher quality or business ethics should cost more (they don’t). It’s a deceptively misleading and fallacious declaration. Critical to every conditional action supported by this thinking is the clause, “for companies to remain maximally profitable.” Their bottom line is mainly relevant to shareholders, and they have control over what decisions they make.
People may believe that raising the federal minimum wage to a livable standard is a nice idea, but then they are told they would not be able to afford food from McDonald’s or clothes for their children. No one likes the idea of children in sweatshops sewing their clothing, but we shudder at paying $35 and up for a cotton t-shirt. We are presented with the false dichotomy that the only way to support ethical manufacturing processes is to pay a premium, but this is a distortion by companies seeking to profit from slightly assuaging consumers’ misgivings. And when so many people are also underpaid by their employers, that crunch presents an overwhelming temptation to excuse the abstract ethics of where and how an item was made, by whom and in what conditions, and just take the deal.
Walmart is the most profitable and largest public corporation in the world (when ranked by revenue), with over 2.2 million employees. They have a massive economic impact to workers and communities, with revenues that would put it on par with the GDP of the 25th largest economy in the world, as of 2011. Yet until January 20th of this year, they vehemently resisted raising the hourly wage for workers and were famous for keeping hours just below the threshold to receive full-time benefits, costing the US an estimated $6.2 billion in public assistance. By nominally increasing wages and promoting 150,000 workers from part-time to full-time (about 6.8%) Walmart claims they will lose $1.5 billion in profits. That sounds scary and upsetting, until one remembers chairman Rob Walton personally has a net worth of $19.7 billion and is one of the 20 wealthiest Americans. Other Walton family members collectively have net worths over $64 billion. That $1.5 billion is a deduction in profit no longer subsidized by the US government, out of a revenue stream of $485.65 billion in 2015. Even if their profit margin fell below 3%, it’s really a drop in the bucket and literally, the least they can do. Not even getting into tax cuts or a host of other cost-savings measures funded by taxpayers, Walmart would still be subsidized by over $4.7 billion in government assistance to workers. They are emphatically not losing money, and even if they did, it should be clear they can afford it.
Walmart exemplifies the sentiment FDR expressed in his statement on the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933:
In my Inaugural I laid down the simple proposition that nobody is going to starve in this country. It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By “business” I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as the men in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level-I mean the wages of decent living.
(His full statement is quite a good read.)
And yet people need food, clothes, shoes, furniture, cars, household goods, gasoline, utilities, etc., and we’re not all Waltons. I can’t blame people of limited means for choosing the less expensive option or say that I personally know how everything I’ve bought was produced. Far from it. So apart from making every effort to support small businesses, only buy organic and fair trade, and try my best to only buy from companies with reputable corporate ethics, what can I do? It’s a daunting and exhausting proposition to live in a way that doesn’t actively fund the exploitation and oppression of others.
Thank you, Margaret Mead, or whomever.
This February, the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, H.R. 644, became law. Nestled among other adjustments to US trade policy is the closing of a loophole that has allowed goods produced by child and slave labor to be imported since 1930 if there was “consumptive demand” that couldn’t otherwise be met.
Having worked extensively with import/export and Customs, I am cautiously optimistic about this bit of government charcuterie because I have no doubt companies will find workarounds and loopholes, but it is important to at least have it on the books. I anticipate broad opposition to allocating funds for retraining and enforcement because the only people who are generally aware of Customs regulations are typically business owners looking to get around them and the extremely wealthy who resent paying duties and taxes on the luxury goods they import. The US has the capacity to dramatically affect global manufacturing policy by making seismic shifts in our trade and tariff laws, but it can’t be left to companies to advocate for these changes because it is not in their financial interest to cut into their own profits. So what do we do as consumers of the end products?
Increased access to the internet is resulting in an involuntary push toward corporate transparency by bringing issues of labor exploitation, campaign contributions through Super PACs, and unethical sourcing into mainstream conversation. In 1996, I remember a big tabloid explosion when it was discovered that Kathie Lee Gifford‘s clothing line for Walmart was produced using sweatshop and child labor. It was investigated, she apologized profusely, her career went quiet for a bit, and life went on as usual. People didn’t ask if their clothes were also made in sweatshops because we basically knew they were and didn’t know what to do about it. I remember my father buying a pair of cotton shorts on sale for $6 that were prominently labeled “Made in Bangladesh,” and my brother and I were embarrassed about having no idea where in the world Bangladesh even was. We didn’t have the faintest idea that those shorts were almost certainly made by forced laborers or children younger than us, in deplorable conditions. But now we do.
Despite living in the age of massive boycotts (and counter-boycott buying sprees) any time a CEO donated to an anti-marriage-equality Super PAC, I still own an iPhone, and I’m typing on an Apple computer. I tell myself there just aren’t equivalents that meet my needs on the market, but I’m certain I’m wrong about both what I need and what’s available. I am skeptical that even if people had all the details of a product’s supply chain and could confirm that it wasn’t made by slave labor and pieced in America to give a “Made in the USA” label, they would make ethical choices if they cost more. The brutal trap of capitalism is that we are forced to make choices, usually compromising ones, every time we need to buy something, and each choice we make adds up to the funding that maintains the status quo.
I wish I knew how to quit you.
I think food provides an excellent model for more ethical consumerism, specifically because it is universally necessary. I’ve been looking to Michael Pollan as my role model for food ethics (and pretty much everything) for years now. In the tremendous new Netflix four-part series Cooked, based on his book of the same title, he eloquently describes one of my primary objections to factory farming of meat, “We’ve hidden meat in our transaction with animals behind the high walls of these abattoirs and feed lots. We don’t have to deal with the karmic costs.” In the conclusion of the first episode, he beautifully explains the problem with abandoning tradition in favor of mass production:
Traditions survive because they’re adaptive. They’re the result of a kind of cultural selection, like natural selection. They survive because they help keep people healthy and happy, and to throw them overboard wholesale is very often to lose things that are critical to our well-being… When you let corporations cook for you, all this is hidden from view, and one of the most important things we can do around our food culture is reconnect to its sources. It doesn’t mean turning back the clock and living as hunter-gatherers again. It means looking at traditions for what they still have to offer. Outsourcing has its values, and it certainly makes life easier, but it renders us all into passive consumers, and I don’t know about you, but to me that’s my least proud identity.
(For real, watch it, you will love it.)
He acknowledges that a person can’t make perfect choices at every meal because we are dealing with the enormous complexity of a government-subsidized corporatization of food. I don’t like being rendered a passive consumer. I personally lack the means and property (yet) to set up a subsistence farm to grow my own vegetables and ensure the animals whose bodies and products I consume are humanely treated, so I’ve been eating a vegetarian diet for the past 9 months. I make occasional exceptions for venison and wild game that my brother and father harvest because I know these animals lived and died in a way that is compatible with my ethics. It is overwhelming researching exactly how a cow whose milk or cheese I eat was treated, but I am encouraged by Pollan’s reminder that every meal is a choice, “The wonderful thing about food is you get three votes a day. Every one of them has the potential to change the world.”
And I realize that slowly, carefully, and with equal parts discipline and forgiving myself, I can use the way I spend my money to change my impact on people and the planet. That is the extraordinary opportunity of capitalism: we can reward people and companies who do good things and avoid those with questionable practices. I am delighted and incredibly relieved to find that the more I do to embody my ethics in my consumption, the happier I am with the resulting products. Knitting a sweater myself with organically-dyed, hand-spun yarn from a sheep whose name and lifestyle I know is inordinately more satisfying than buying something machine-made from a store in a mall. It is time-consuming and it can be more expensive, but I know every part of the sweater was produced ethically and at a vastly higher quality than can be bought. It is the sartorial equivalent of cooking vegetables I grew myself in a garden, and that is invaluable to me.
Aelbert Cuyp, Young Herdsmen with Cows, c. 1655-60, oil on canvas
I dream about a massive economic shift and an accompanying social Renaissance, where instead of the government subsidizing factory farms that exploit both animals and workers for the sake of corporate profits, opportunities are provided for smaller, organic family farms and fair trade goods that are not just sold as luxury items. As a society and as a sentient species, we don’t need more middle managers and people working office jobs in sales and marketing – we need creativity, innovation, artisans, and hands-on production. Instead of manipulating the market so that the less ethically mass-produced goods are more affordable, the government could actually spend less by helping individual people and small businesses thrive.
It is a long, tenuous uphill battle to shift to buying ethical or handmade, but it is possible – we’ve done it before in countless iterations of civilization. And I truly believe that for humanity to get back to a more honest, ethical relationship with each other and the planet, we cannot keep favoring the oligarchy of corporate interests. They may threaten to eliminate jobs and close stores, and in the short term that is a scary prospect, but if we keep our eyes on the long-term possibilities, it is not an overstatement to say that ethical consumerism could be the very change needed for a revolutionary improvement of life for all on earth. I think we should at least try.