The dollar vote: ethics through consumerism


Check the tag on the back of your shirt. Read the part where it says which country it was made in. Chances are it will say something along the lines of “Made in China,” “Manufactured in Vietnam” or “Made in Bangladesh.”

Chances are possible that if it says “Made in Bangladesh,” it may have been produced by the hands of one of the laborers of Rana Plaza, a garment factory that collapsed April 24 due to cheap and inadequate construction. Officials have put the official death toll of this disaster at 1,127.

While this is certainly one of the more attention-grabbing events regarding catastrophe in the developing world, examples of hazardous workplaces are all too common. Five months earlier there was a factory fire that killed over 100 workers. There was another textile factory fire May 9 that killed eight people.

This only accounts for the nation of Bangladesh. Around the world there are countless more people who risk their lives working in subpar conditions, often for a pittance of wages. According to the World Bank, approximately 1.25 billion people worldwide live on less than $1.25 a day.

Some solutions, such as creating regulations, have been proposed to prevent these tragedies from happening.

“Regulations would only work if they applied to all developing nations,” said Ludovic Comeau, a professor at DePaul’s School for New Learning. “With situations (of underdevelopment), there is an urgency to create jobs.  As it is, nations are already competing to get investors for their unemployed masses. I don’t know that there have been any nations that have achieved development without cheap labor.”

If the world organizations were to create regulations that specifically targeted nations such as Bangladesh, it would likely not contribute to the goal of alleviating workforce abuses in the world.

 Instead, it would put Bangladesh at a comparative disadvantage as worldwide job providers moved their production to a cheaper, less regulated nation, thus leaving Bangladesh jobless.

But that does not mean that nothing should be done either. In fact, the power to influence world conditions may involve the decisions of us, the consumers.

“Producers are dependent on the purchasing power of consumers,” said Laura Hartman, a DePaul professor of business ethics. “If producers don’t please them, (they) cease to exist. Consumers can make the ultimate decision.”

By choosing to purchase from producers that follow an ethical standard of production, we ensure that money flows to companies that treat people fairly.

“If you support a retailer that supports bad causes, you are supporting those causes with your spending power,” said Hartman.

For starters, consumers should be aware of where their goods come from. 

“Consumers and governments should work together to bring awareness,” said John Berdell, a professor of economics at DePaul. “Without knowing how things are produced, how can we make inroads to these . . . human rights issues? You have to be able to track the product.”

With ethical consumerism, there are a few worries. The most obvious one is that making ethical choices will, oftentimes, force us, as consumers, to spend more money.

Another risk is stigmatizing products from developing countries, said Berdell. If consumers were to indiscriminately shun products from an area known for ethically poor production, then corporations will be forced to lower production prices in order to raise demand.

Thus, it is important for us to ensure our decisions as ethical consumers are smart, too. Don’t simply shun products made from a certain geographic area of the world. Research your retailers. Know where and how your goods are being produced.

Ethical consumerism is not a new idea. DePaul itself has participated in matters of ethical consumer decisions. In 2001, a number of union members at a Coca-Cola franchised manufacturing plant in Colombia were mysteriously murdered. Corporate leaders failed to investigate this affair. As a result, DePaul became a “Pepsi school.”

“In the same way we hold corporations and organizations responsible for how they spend their money, we should hold ourselves responsible,” said Hartman.