Ethical Holidays, pt. 1

We are quickly approaching, not only my favorite time of year, but a time of year where we often times do more violence to those we will never meet in the name of charity, gifts, and love (nice curve ball, huh?).  I realize that probably wasn't the best way to start this blog, but I wanted to just throw it out there, and then explain.  Many of us will be heading to grocery stores and toy stores in the very near future to stock up on baking goods that consist of chocolate, coffee, and sugar.  Many of us will be armed and ready to make those nice cute cookies with Hershey Kisses on them, or bake cakes with the cheapest store brand cocoa powder we can find.  We'll look for the best price we can find on sugar, and the cheapest coffee we can find to keep all our holiday guests fully caffeinated to combat the massive sugar crashes we will all endure.  This is to be expected.  But what few of us know (at least I hope our violence is out of ignorance), is that we will be infusing the slave-trade market with their biggest influx in business than seen the rest of the year combined.   

It seems during the months of March through September, this message is more readily swallowed.  We are noble citizens with the resolve to do our part in ending this atrocity.  But when the holidays hit, I hear more "logic", reasoning, and excuses to justify our purchase of cheap stuff so we can properly celebrate the season of excess garnished with greed with as much stuff as possible.  Before we get to the place where I am sharing resources to help you shop and consume more ethically, I want to take a few blogs to address some of these "excuses" we use to justify becoming modern-day slave drivers (if you've seen 12 Years a Slave, then you know associating ourselves with Edwin Epps is not a pretty thing, but our craving and demand for excess driven by greed does just that). 

My hope is to answer as many of these questions as I can with integrity.  I'm not a business man nor a politician, so I decided to ask my fellow Allies Against Slavery board member, who is also the CEO and founder of Good and Fair Clothing, and Chief of Staff for Texas House representative Debbie Riddle,  Shelton Green to help me field this question.  

MH: Shelton, often times, especially around the holidays, when we preach the message of ethical consumption and slave free holidays, many people ask several questions.  The following is one of those most asked question: "I thought slavery was abolished in our country, and if slavery was abolished aren't there laws that prohibit slave labor in the buying and selling and exporting of products sold in the US?  If there is slave labor in the supply chains of the products we purchase, then why is this allowed by a government that claims to be the "land of the free" and the major exporter of "free enterprise"?

SG: The answer is pretty clear cut - when America outsourced production, it also outsourced responsibility. This applies to us a individuals, a country, and our government. When everything happens half a world away the determining factor becomes the bottom line cost at an acceptable quality. In 1960 90% of all goods purchased in America were made in America. Today, only 5% of goods purchased here are made in America. Since this change began a "race to the bottom" ensued. Factories around the world are fighting a bloody battle to get production contracts and the victims are the poorest among us who have no power to push back and countries that don't alway respect the rule of law. 

MH: Okay, I get that, but aren't there laws that limit and regulate our major corporations from taking part of this and importing good tainted with slave labor?  

SG: The big answer is the lack of meaningful penalties and strict enforcement of laws that are currently on the books. These are some of the biggest companies in the world. 

Also, when you produce a good in another country you are only obliged to follow the laws of that country and that is still subject to how strongly the government in that foreign country enforces it's own laws. 

The US customs office does not ask you if slaves were used to produce the stuff you are importing. They only care that you pay the proper tax and duty fees on the goods as they enter the US. 

So we have two problems, one in the foreign country, where the goods are made, and one here in the US. 

MH: Okay, that makes all the claims I hear from our government about wanting to spread our "freedom and democracy" sound like propaganda.  But I guess if you do the math, that's true.  If we as a nation, who makes up 5% of the global population, and yet consume over 20% of the worlds resources, then we are in a sense guaranteeing that poverty and oppression must be inflicted on a large percentage of the global population.  

Okay, Shelton, does the US government know it is complicit in international slave labor trade by allowing companies to make products with slave labor in forgein countries and then import them with no repercussions? 

SG: Yes. They do know it happens. 

MH: But why would a government that claims to be the largest opponent of slavery stand aside and allow businesses to use slave labor in their supply chains?

SG: First reason: Because consumers (you and I) want the cheapest clothing, technology, shoes, food possible and (going back to the beginning) we have outsourced responsibility for how our stuff is made. We have to demand more products that are made ethically. 

Other reasons: the pressure these companies put on US law makers to make sure the penalties and fines are very low for breaking laws currently on the books regarding ethical production.  Laws get passed with no teeth (weak enforcement provisions) all the time. 

We are at the beginning of a general awareness of how bad the conditions really are all over the world. It will take constant effort on our part to make sure our government feels enough pressure to make sure companies can't import products made with slave labor or unjust labor practices. 

 MH: In this last response, it seems like you put the burden of change on the consumer.  You said, "we have to demand more products that are made ethically" and "we are that beginning of a general awareness of how bad the conditions really are all over the world" .  Am I to assume from these statements that if we believe all humanity deserves freedom and dignity, that we as consumers and US citizens must take responsibility for it, that we can't wait on the government and major corporations to change?  So, if I am hearing you right, you are saying this is a "bottom-up" sort of change - meaning, it is up to us, consumers, to take responsibility to consume with a conscious and to evangelize about the lack of justice and transparency in the supply the chains of the products we so dearly love?

SG: Yes, you have assumed correctly - the burden of change rests on the consumers (you and me).  We have to quit pretending that the choices we make at toy stores, grocery stores, and online stores only effect us, our pocket books, and those we are buying gifts for.  All of our choices are connected and effect people we will never meet nor see.  Major corporations are driven by consumers to care about money and the bottom line first. We also know that all corpporations will follow the money trail.  As a people, if we start pointing our spending in the direction of ethical businesses, fair trade foods, and companies with transparent supply chains, then those corporations who are willing to participate in unethical business will be forced to submit to our demands.  So, the real question is, are we willing to prove that we actually believe that every human being deserves both freedom and dignity?  If so, lets consume accordingly. 

MH: Thank you Shelton for taking the time to answer this.  Readers, as I said above, Shelton is the founder and CEO of Good & Fair Clothing, and if you are in the market for things like underwear, t-shirts, and scarves from an looking ethical company with a conscious, Good & Fair is a great option.  

The next reason, question, or excuse we'll tackle is, "does my one single purchase really change anything?"... but that's for next time/