We still have a Saturn that we bought brand-new not too long after the company began manufacturing. At 130,000 miles, it’s not exactly going strong, but it’s been a good car.
I have to admit that we bought it as much for sentimental reasons as any kind of hard-bitten consumer evaluation of price or quality. Meaning that we liked the promotional language about reinventing the relationship between labor and management, about rethinking the work process of car production, and about getting rid of the unsettling environment in car retailing where salesmen try to figure out how much they can get away with in setting a price.
I remember too that we used to buy Ben and Jerry’s ice cream not just because we liked it but also because we liked what we heard about their wage scale.
What’s curious is that of all the ethical commitments that liberal-leaning consumers with discretionary income try to maintain today (dolphin-safe tuna! locally-sourced food! environmentally-safe detergents!) the circumstances of workers rarely if ever figure into the imagination, and yet, it’s not been so long since the treatment of workers did have a place at that somewhat trendy table. Now? You can see the banners at Whole Foods that mark off the company’s ethical commitments and not expect to see anything about its laborers or even about the labor conditions at the point of supply. That’s not just that the owner of the company is something of an infamous asshole about labor and regulation, it’s par for the course. Apple moved to deal with rumbles about labor conditions among its Chinese suppliers before they became a major issue, but it’s hard to imagine consumers making this a major part of their brand preferences or even foregoing certain products entirely. I don’t say that as an accusation against others: I can’t imagine myself not having a mobile device or desktop computer out of scruples about the workplace ethics of the producers.
What I can imagine is that I might be willing to pay more for a product that came with guarantees about workplace conditions. That is more or less how “ethical consumption” operates in general: as a form of upscaling. That’s where there’s a standard that’s going strong: fair trade. But it’s interesting to see how the application of fair trade branding has been both deep and narrow to certain product categories, and how little the standards have changed the overall picture.
Ethical consumption built around labor standards runs into the same wall that similar kinds of branding efforts encounter: that they mean absolutely nothing without a trusted independent auditor who has extensive access to all parts of the production process or some other kind of extensive and transparent access to information about the manufacturer or supplier. A lot of products that are labeled as green or organic turn out to be little more than just that: labels.
I know that many activists are deeply suspicious of ethical consumption as a concept, indeed of consumption as a domain of meaningful agency or worthwhile causality. That’s a big conversation that I’ve been involved in for my entire life as a scholar. I’ve never accepted this disdain for consumption. But the time has come perhaps for different campaigns to come together to push for a general change, and labor issues should be the major reason for that banding together.
Our legal system insists that investors in public companies are entitled to information, and that the same information should be available to all of them at the same time. We also believe as a matter of policy that consumers are entitled to some information about finished products (nutrition, expiration dates, location of manufacture) but on the whole, consumers have much less available to them unless the manufacturer subscribes to an independent audit. That’s what should change. Every product I buy, whatever it is, should come with a small scannable tag that contains full disclosure of its site of manufacture, the supply chains for its components, the labor conditions in those manufacturing sites, the materials in the product, and so on. Falsifying that information should be a crime and expose the manufacturer to civil penalties.
In a digital age, keeping that tracking information associated with a product should be little additional burden to a company (I hope none of them would pretend that they themselves don’t really know where products are coming from or how they’re made?). If the companies can track me around the web, it’s only fair that I should be able to track them in turn. The only reason not to share it is that you don’t want it known by consumers. If I’m content, like Matthew Yglesias, with the proposition that poor countries not only do but should have lax safety standards, then that’s fine: I can go ahead and buy clothes made in those countries without hesitation. If I’m not content and actually think, unlike Yglesias, that there is something I can and should do about that situation, it would be a good thing to actually know that I’m looking at a pair of jeans made in Bangladesh rather than waiting for the brand name of those jeans or of the retail outlet that sells them to show up in the rubble of a collapsed building. Even libertarians (supposedly) believe in information, right?