The Pro Bono Thinking Society

PBTS4: A Classic Consumer Conundrum

Status: Complete

REPORT (updated December 15th, 2011)

PBTS Project #4)
Title: A Classic Consumer Conundrum
Start Date: 10/20/11
Report Date: 12/16/11

I. Summary of the problem
Problem submitted by the public:

“I recently was informed about all the human rights abuses at the Classic factory in Jordan. Horrible rapes, working hours, wages and intimidation to name a few. I do like the products that come out of this factory and the workers need to have this (little) income to support their families in Sri Lanka. So, what does a concerned consumer do? Boycott seems to hurt works, but purchasing the clothing makes me feel like I just supported rape. Help!”

II. Initial research
We deliberated on this topic a bit longer than we originally planned. As the name suggests, this is a classic consumer conundrum. How do we justify purchasing products that we know were produced inhumanely? Is it even possible to live a modern life and avoid supporting unethical companies?

In the end, we decided to present a few different alternatives instead of one silver bullet. Each alternative will appeal to a different combination of commitment to the cause, scarce resources, and general intent.

III. Recommended solutions
1. Sea Change
Assuming a high level of commitment to the cause, we suggest a complete sea change in your overall approach to purchasing clothing. Purchasing clothing entirely from ethical producers is going to be unfortunately difficult. The nature of our global marketplace means that many products you use every day were produced in a way that might be unsettling. Our sea change suggestion promotes a much more local and sustainable approach to clothes buying, recommending small independent producers and thrift stores as your first choices for clothing. If you must purchase from larger multinational producers, we suggest arming yourself with free information and ratings available online and choosing companies that have a track record consistent with your own values.

1a. Buy from small local producers with ethical sources
Small, local, independent businesses are less likely to engage in and support labor conditions like those found in the Classic factory in Jordan. By purchasing from local companies, your money is more likely to remain in your community and you will be supporting an alternative to multinational corporations that are more likely exploit workers.

1b. Buy from thrift stores
These clothes are already produced and available in your community. By purchasing from local thrift stores, you avoid supporting unfair labor practices, keep money in your community, save money, and usually end up with a more unique wardrobe.

1c. Arm yourself with information and purchase only from ethical companies
In reality it’s not always possible to rely on local producers or thrift stores to provide the products you’re looking for. The same technological advancements that enabled the global marketplace that created this consumer conundrum also provide us with much greater access to information. We suggest you use this information to guide all of your purchases.

The Fair Labor Association puts out tracking charts that contain a great deal of information on working conditions at individual factories. One example (pdf download).

Ethical Consumer magazine contains a wealth of information on how to be a more ethical consumer. Their Buyers’ Guides rank producers of all types of goods on several different criteria, including environment, animal, people, and sustainability. You can even customize the rankings based on your own level of importance placed on each criteria.

Additional resources:
Green America’s Responsible Shopper
Ethisphere’s 2011 World’s Most Ethical Companies

2. Sweatshop Credits
Assuming a moderate level of commitment to the cause that combines the need to purchase unethically produced clothing AND the need for further action to discourage unfair labor practices, we suggest a novel concept called “Sweatshop Credits”. Sweatshop Credits are similar in concept to carbon offsets, where any purchases from companies with unethical labor practices are offset by support of organizations that oppose these unethical practices. If you absolutely must continue to purchase the clothing produced at Classic, consider offsetting your actions by donating to any number of organizations that work to oppose unfair labor practices. Your individual actions could result in a net gain to society, as your negative act of purchasing Classic-produced clothing is offset by the positive actions of the organizations your helped fund. Also, you get to wear your preferred Classic-produced clothing.

We’ve included a list of organizations that are fighting the good fight against unethical labor practices:

  • National Labor Committee
  • SweatFree Communities
  • The National Mobilization Against Sweatshops
  • United Students Against Sweatshops
  • Labor Behind the Label

3. Cold Shoulder

This alternative assumes a low-moderate level of commitment to the cause. If you’re looking for cheap peace of mind, simply stop purchasing clothing produced at Classic. A consumer’s most direct voice to a company is through their pocketbook. By no longer purchasing goods produced at Classic, you are telling the marketplace that these labor standards are unacceptable. Note: If you stop purchasing from Classic and go on to ignore the labor practices of other producers you purchase from, it is likely you’ll continue to support unfair labor practices.

Additional Resources:

Jordan Free Trade Agreement and Office of the United States Trade Representative
International Labor Organization Better Work

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We welcome any feedback to thinkers@probonothinking.org. You can also engage us on Twitter @probonothinking.

BRIEFING (updated October 20th, 2011)

Problem submitted by the public:

“I recently was informed about all the human rights abuses at the Classic factory in Jordan. Horrible rapes, working hours, wages and intimidation to name a few. I do like the products that come out of this factory and the workers need to have this (little) income to support their families in Sri Lanka. So, what does a concerned consumer do? Boycott seems to hurt works, but purchasing the clothing makes me feel like I just supported rape. Help!”

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