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The consumer-oriented strategies that Dara O’Rourke discusses are controversial in the anti-sweatshop and labor movements. Many activists and unionists are deeply skeptical of social labeling, product scorecards, and related approaches for several reasons.
First, under such schemes, multinational brands can win plaudits for small-scale and largely ersatz social initiatives and use the resulting goodwill to mask rampant, ongoing worker abuse in their supply chains.
Second, vague, shifting, or non-existent standards, and minimal regulation, can allow companies to market as “socially responsible” products whose manufacture differs in no meaningful way from the sweatshop norm. Deceptive claims may become the rule, not the exception, in the ethical products market.
Third, rating systems and scorecards grade on a curve, rather than measuring companies against fixed standards. The resulting grade inflation can make corporations such as Walmart look like they are doing a decent job, and more sophisticated players, such as Adidas and Levi’s, look like heroes.
Over the last decade, we have witnessed one empty ‘corporate social responsibility’ initiative after another.
Finally, even if the development of a robust market for ethical goods leads to meaningful gains for some workers, the success may be oversold and weaken the impetus for deeper change.
These fears are grounded in experience.
Over the last decade, activists have witnessed one empty “corporate social responsibility” initiative after another in the apparel sector, such as Walmart’s “women’s empowerment” program in Bangladesh, which provides training of dubious value to 2,500 workers, in a country where hundreds of thousands of people make Walmart products for a minimum wage of $0.21 an hour. The program costs Walmart less than the value of the clothes Bangladeshi workers produce for the company in half an hour.
The track record of apparel industry codes of conduct and monitoring systems has been particularly instructive. These programs, now utilized by virtually every major apparel brand and retailer, are the most fully articulated mechanisms to date for assessing and reporting labor practices in global supply chains. These regimes differ from the programs under discussion here—their purpose is not promotional but prophylactic: to protect brands from being publicly associated with sweatshop abuses. However, at their core, the two approaches are similar: both communicate claims about companies’ labor practices as a marketing tool. The lessons are sobering. Brands and retailers have used codes of conduct and monitoring programs to convince key audiences that they have cleaned up their acts and are making a good-faith effort to protect workers in their supply chains. In the view of most unions and labor rights advocates, however, most have achieved this public relations success without any benefit to workers. Apparel-industry wages in many countries are lower in real terms than they were a decade ago; abusive conditions still abound; and workers who speak out or try to exercise their right to unionize are fired no less frequently today than when these programs were first implemented. Factories where significant change has been achieved are the rare exceptions.
A more recent example: Fair Trade USA’s effort to establish a fair trade apparel program in the U.S. market. Disregarding the vigorous objections of unions and labor rights advocates, FTUSA has adopted a wage standard that makes a living wage merely a goal; a factory can achieve fair trade certification despite paying workers the same sub-poverty wages as the sweatshop down the street.
Given this history, it’s reasonable to expect a fully developed ethical-products sector in which most companies attain the benefits of ethical marketing despite misleading, exaggerated, or downright false claims about labor (and other) practices. Even GoodGuide, a large improvement over past rating efforts and a useful tool for consumers, gives generous scores to major apparel brands whose primary achievement has been developing more sophisticated forms of empty rhetoric. It rates companies that have adopted FTUSA’s deficient apparel standard above Alta Gracia, the only brand in the field that actually pays workers a living wage (full disclosure: the Worker Rights Consortium helped develop Alta Gracia and wrote the labor standard).
I believe ethical consumption can be an effective means to advance workers’ rights, but not without the following three component. First, high standards and clear definitions that enable people readily to distinguish the fake from the real, so that companies benefit from an ethical label or a favorable rating only if they pay workers a living wage, treat them with respect, give them a voice in the workplace, and are prepared to recognize independent unions. Second, recognition that social labeling efforts need to be part of broader activist campaigns; getting an ethical seal of approval will be a far more powerful motivator if combined with reputational pressure, and ongoing engagement by labor and its allies is the only way to keep any labeling system honest. Third, moving from ethical labeling as a form of special recognition to ethical labeling—and, more important, the labor practices necessary to earn it—as a minimum standard, one that comes as close as possible to replicating effective public regulation: forcing substandard products off the shelves.
A small percentage of consumers have already moved a portion of the market toward more sustainable practices. But the larger promise of ethical consumption remains unmet.
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