Right and wrong at the cash register

by Beacon Staff • February 11, 2009

American consumers decide the fate of millions in developing countries everyday, most without ever thinking about it. When shoppers buy a product, they encourage its continued production and the conditions in which laborers and farmers work. The goods and companies patrons choose help determine whether or not those conditions are humane. Consumers should do their best to choose ethical companies, and to avoid unethical ones.

The employees of beneficent companies would profit immediately. The extra dollar consumers pay for each product would go directly to the workers, who would then spend it in their communities. Soon, each of these communities, and eventually whole countries, that once suffocated under the grip of exploitative companies would begin to grow and thrive.

Companies are first and foremost concerned with making money, and many go to deplorable lengths to do so. For decades, large corporations have been moving operations to countries with little or no labor law enforcement. Then they save money by paying excruciatingly low wages. In 2007, USA Today reported that Hershey cut 1,500 U.S. jobs and moved some manufacturing to Mexico, where wages are much lower, to reduce costs. Some go beyond that. According to the American Anti-Slavery Group, there are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today-more than any other time in history. It's human bondage in the name of profit.

Consumers who buy from a specific company help preserve its labor structure. By purchasing chocolate from Hershey, Mars or Nestleacute;, for example, consumers support the child labor and slavery practices those companies practice. According to the corporation watchdog CorpWatch, approximately 286,000 children work on cocoa farms on the Ivory Coast, the primary cocoa source for the chocolate triumvirate. About 12,000 of these children were trafficked and sold to the farms, so the cocoa likely passed through the hands of a child laborer or a slave.

Companies like these engage in inhumane and disgusting labor practices to keep their production prices low. Through cheap labor, companies dramatically fatten their profit margin. If no government or world trade organization tries to stop these unethical companies, they will have no incentive to change their practices-why change what works?

If you don't want your hard-earned money to support inhumane labor practices, don't let it. Boycott unethical and irresponsible companies.

The best way to start a boycott is to inform yourself. Betterworldshopper.org, which gives companies letter grades to evaluate their social and environmental behavior, is a great place to start. From there, you can do more in-depth research into what poorly rated companies are doing wrong, and what highly rated companies are doing right.

The next step is simple: Buying from responsible companies instead of exploitative ones. If you want tea, buy from Honest Tea instead of Lipton. If you want a beer, buy a Sam Adams instead of a Milwaukee's Best.

Products from responsible companies are often more expensive, but not by much. They will often save you money in the long run because they're usually of higher quality and last longer. Even ethical products that won't last long, like chocolate, are better-made than their cheaper competitors. People tend to do better work when they can afford to eat well everyday.

If you feel that going it alone is too daunting, create your own movement. Find a club that shares your views, or recruit like-minded friends. Start a Facebook group to spread your message. Attend an Emerson Peace and Social Justice or a Boston Fair Trade Coalition meeting. Explain to those around you why you choose one product over another.

Cynics are often quick to say that a personal boycott doesn't make much of a difference. Maybe that is true, but it's unnecessarily discouraging. A widespread boycott-a movement-can make a significant impact. A movement is nothing more than a group of individuals making the same decision. Every one-person boycott adds to the greater movement. Every individual action matters.

iDarylle Sheehan is a junior print and multimedia journalism major and a contributor to/i The Beacon.