picking your ethical battles as a consumer

In our global economy, where much of what we consume from foods to retail goods is produced overseas, it’s hard to know not only what you are getting, but who made it and where. “Ethically sourced” and “conflict free” are some of the buzz words surrounding this issue. They come up in the media when a large-scale tragedy occurs (such as the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 workers) or a lawsuit is filed (such as the one filed against Apple for child labor in its Chinese factories).

We’re outraged when we hear about these incidents, and rightfully so. And they go on and on. Diamonds that are called “conflict” or “blood” diamonds (because they are illegally mined and sold to fund wars in war zones. Chocolate harvested by children who are also enslaved. Smart phones with parts made in Asian factories with bad conditions and gold mined with child labor in Africa. Coffee and other crops harvested with little to no profit to the grower. Beloved cookies made with palm oil, which destroys habitat for animals and precious rainforest. You could write for days on each of these issues and the conflicts they create.

Many of these lines are murky. For instance, it is almost entirely impossible to source a conflict-free diamond unless it’s made in a laboratory. Once diamonds are brought in for trade, they are legitimized and their “dirty histories” wiped away. (See this enlightening article for details on why this is the case.) And while most people are interested in the use of diamond profit to fund wars, there’s also the issue of who mines those stones in the first place – children. 

The same goes for smart phones. An ever-expanding electronic industry has made the demand for gold and the other minerals (copper, cobalt, tin, etc.) used in production increase, and Human Rights Watch has questioned the use of child labor in very dangerous mining jobs. Like diamonds, it’s nearly impossible to buy an ethically “clean” smart phone. The supply chains for the hundreds of materials used to create a phone are complex, diverse and sometimes untraceable.   

I only very rarely eat chocolate that is not fair trade or organic. (See this post – did a slave harvest the cocoa in your candy bar? for details.) I don’t eat at fast food restaurants for a variety of ethical reasons that go beyond health. 

I also wear an engagement ring with a diamond in it. I use a smart phone and a Chromebook.

I buy as much produce and meat from local farms as possible, and buy other handmade, local products when I can. 

I wear clothes that I purchase at retail stores that don’t say “Made in the USA” on the tags. Or that the cloth it was made from is produced there either.

So what do you do? What do you do if you want to be an ethical consumer in a world where those lines are sometimes virtually impossible to understand?

My philosophy is this. I heard during a lecture once (or read in a book maybe?) that you can judge a person by the integrity of their compromises. For myself, I try to pick battles that meet two criteria: (1) it’s within my control and (2) has a reasonable alternative which can satisfy my ethical conundrum. 

I can choose to not purchase produce and other food products (meat, dairy, etc.) which are not produced and farmed in a manner I approve of, and a reasonable alternative is to buy them locally and be a member of a CSA. I don’t eat at fast food restaurants because I can reasonably choose local restaurants where many of my ethical issues with fast food are not present. Or I can just not eat out at all. (Novel idea!) Chocolate isn’t even a necessary food in the first place, but if I want chocolate, I can buy fair trade or organic chocolate, which satisfies my issue with child labor and slavery practices.

But I am going to choose to use a cell phone and to keep wearing my engagement ring. Because I can’t buy a locally made cell phone as an alternative, there’s no one who benefits from me not purchasing that one phone. I would be better off supporting organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which use their lobbying power to help change legislation to protect labor forces and get corporations (such as Apple and other electronics manufacturers) to own up to their supply chains and face monetary penalties for not doing so. 

That being said, I don’t need to go overboard on my consumption of retail goods in the first place. I realize that there are many other ways in which I could live my life “more ethically” and I try to think through purchases and understand what role I play in the world by being a consumer. I also do my best to research and understand what’s at stake with a particular issue, so that I’m not just hopping on a trendy, petition-signing bandwagon.

At the end of the day, I hope my compromises can be judged to be made with integrity, in the absence of perfection.  

did a slave harvest the cocoa in your candy bar?

I spend a lot of time thinking about the ethics of what I consume (and not just since reading Peter Singer’s book). I am constantly asking myself when I am at a store or a restaurant – how is this product more than just a thing to buy? How does it affect the environment, the hands that produced it, my health, etc. This is especially true for what I think of as luxury foods – the ones that we really don’t need to survive. High on that list is chocolate. 

Cocoa beans are grown in tropical climates – primarily West Africa and Latin America. West Africa is by far the largest producer, with 35% of the world’s supply of chocolate coming from Ivory Coast alone. Cocoa bean harvesting is hard work. Workers harvest pods from trees using machetes and then gather the pods in heavy sacks. Agricultural chemicals such as pesticides and fungicides are used on the trees, which exposes workers to detrimental health effects. 

But who is doing that work? Too often, the unsettling answer is forced/slave labor, including children under age 12. Add the difficult and unsafe nature of the work to the conditions of extreme poverty (malnourishment and unsanity conditions) as well as a lack of access to education and the threat of physical violence, and you have major violations of International Labour Organization (ILO) standards, particularly for children. The minimum age for children to work is 15, and the rule is 18 for hazardous jobs – and harvesting chocolate with machetes and being sprayed with chemicals qualifies as hazardous.

Thousands of trafficked children working in the cocoa industry have been documented, leading to enough debate that in 2001, the industry started making promises that it would work to eliminate child or forced labor/slavery from its supply lines. These promises were voluntary, and done in response to a legislative battle. In 2001, Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Eliot Engel introduced an amendment to an agricultural bill that would give the FDA resources to create a label that would indicate that no child labor was used in the creation of that product. The bill passed in the house, but was stalled in the Senate due to intense industry lobbying. 

Rather than have the bill pass, the industry negotiated what’s known as the Harkin-Engel Protocol in September 2001. The industry (including 8 major chocolate companies) set July 2005 as a deadline to establish credible standards as they related to adult forced labor and “the worst forms of child labor.” 

By 2005, they hadn’t met the deadline and failed to create and implement an industry-wide certification standard. The signers met and gave themselves an extension to 2008. And then they blew that deadline. And they gave themselves until 2010. In 2010, when they STILL had not met the protocol’s objectives, they vowed to reduce the instances of child labor and slavery by 70% by 2020.

Much of this struggle over more than 10 years has been a blame game. Governments of west African countries say they don’t have the resources to investigate and prosecute violations. The industry says they can’t be held responsible for what suppliers do, and that it’s the suppliers’ responsibility to ensure that their beans were not harvested by children. (Most chocolate producers buy their cocoa at commodities exchanges where cocoa from many Ivory Coast sources is mixed. They claim they don’t know where their beans come from.) A group even tried to sue the industry on behalf of three children trafficked from Mali and put to work in cocoa harvesting, but the U.S. determined that corporations cannot be held responsible for violations of international law. 

A few things are clear. Chocolate manufacturers have acknowledged publicly that child labor, slavery, and forced adult labor exists in their industry, and in their supply chains. They have not invested the resources to stop these practices in their quest for ever-cheaper cocoa. (The cheapest form of labor is slavery.) 

If the chocolate factories that are in central PA just a few hours from my home were to employ 7 year olds to work the machinery for 12 hours a day, make them live in a slum and deny them education and nutritious food, a public riot would ensue and the factories would be shut down. But our empathy doesn’t extend halfway across the world, especially when it would mean passing up that chocolate bar.


So what do you do, though, if you really like chocolate? Are there any alternatives? Here are a few recommendations.

1. Buy organic chocolate.
Organic chocolate is typically grown in Latin American countries, where there have been no reports or documentation of child labor or slavery in cocoa production. Check the country of origin to be sure, but you are probably fine eating most organic chocolate.

2. Buy Fair Trade.
This is a contentious issue, because no labeling system is perfect, and when you live in Pittsburgh you are trusting that someone halfway across the world is doing in practice what the label promises in theory. Also, fair trade has been accused of taking away the livelihood of small farmers who are not connected with the certification organizations. That’s a fair statement, especially when it comes to industries like coffee and tea where child labor has not historically been an issue. 

But in a situation where your options are chocolate produced by companies who have not been able to create any semblance of a certification system in more than 10 years and who readily acknowledge that there is child labor/slavery in their supply chains and a company that has done the leg work to work toward a fair wage for adult labor and production (NOT children), go with fair trade. There are lots of great fair trade options popping up in grocery stores now – not even just the specialty grocers. One of my absolute favorites is Theo Chocolate, an American chocolatier that produces organic, fair trade chocolate from bean to bar. 

For me, it comes down to this. I look into the face of my beautiful little niece and think, somewhere in Mali there’s a child just like you, who in 6 years will be up in a tree with a machete in the middle of the scorching heat, having not had enough to eat, away from her family. All because in America, we want our mocha lattes. And so, I can’t buy and try not to consume any chocolate that could have been produced with cocoa harvested by slaves – child or adult.