‘We are not going to shop ourselves into a better world’

Warehouse in Kampala. Photo by me!

I’ve been working on this article, in my head at least, since probably 2007, when I started working in CSR, consulting companies on how to reduce their human rights impacts. The conclusion I came to, that everyone in my field seems to come to eventually, was that companies don’t matter. What matters is the environments where they operate.

One little story that didn’t make it into the article:

Here’s a World Bank profile of a Vietnamese Nike factory. In 1997, 84 percent of workers had nose and throat infections, mostly from failing to wear masks when they were working at dyeing stations. Nike, scrambling to respond to the decade-long boycott campaign against it, started delivering worker training, posting hazardous-material info in the break rooms, issuing a monthly health newsletter. By 1998, infections were down to 20 percent.

Huge success story, right? Well … hmmm. The same investigation found that managers were dumping wastewater in the local river, transferring the health risks to the entire population downstream. When the case came to light, they hired the son of the local Communist Party chairman to negotiate the terms of the settlement. The company was never punished.

In that story is everything that consumer boycotts have achieved. It’s not nothing that the factory improved its health and safety practices. In another study, a Cambodian manager grumbled to investigators that “Nike is so much stricter about everything.” Props to Nike, seriously.

But you see this with almost all of these company efforts: The gains inside the factories are dwarfed by the impacts outside of them. Colluding with political officials, poisoning local communities, these are exactly the kinds of things that audits can’t find, that companies can’t fix, that consumers can’t keep track of.

A few months ago I made that video about Uganda. In 2007, the Industrial Court, the place where workers go to file complaints, lost its mandate. It wasn’t renewed until this year. That means that for eight years, labour inspectors couldn’t levy fines against companies that were breaking the law. Workers couldn’t take their bosses to court for failing to pay back wages. I see this again and again in the developing countries I go to for work: Institutions are there on paper, but absent in practice.

Another little point that that didn’t make it into the article:

Sweatshops don’t happen without the participation of their host governments, and they don’t get solved without them either. One of the reasons India’s garment sector is so informal, so exploitative, is that only 2 percent of its textile factories use shuttle-less looms. In China, it’s 15 percent, boosted by government loans, grants, more than a decade of cajoling its factories to move up the value chain.

India’s own Ministry of Textiles boasts that its desperately poor workers are a competitive advantage: “Rising wages and cost of living in countries closely competing with India,” says the agency’s strategic plan, “provides a vast opportunity for India to capitalize.”

If we’re going to solve sweatshops, we need to consider why they are there, why they endure. We need to stop trying to vote with our wallets, and start voting with our votes.

Thanks to everyone I interviewed for this article! All of the ideas in it, especially the smart ones, are not mine, they’re all taken from the work of researchers and inspectors and CSR folks who have thought about and done this a lot longer than I have. I’m gonna write some follow-up posts highlighting their work.

Also, I have the best editors. As you can tell from the un-edited snips above, I need them!

2 Comments

Filed under Essays, Personal, Serious

2 responses to “‘We are not going to shop ourselves into a better world’

  1. Bob Fankhauser

    For me, the long form version of this essay led me to think about TPP, which In theory could address some of these issues as a matter of international agreement. I wish I had enough info to know if that’s the case, and if I lived in a real democracy, instead of the United States, I’d have that info.

  2. Amazing, amazing piece. Thank you for the time and effort.

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