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Modern slavery and the responsibilities of individual consumers

How can one be an ethical consumer in a globalised world? There are ways to mitigate our involvement in harmful global supply chains. Continuing with business as usual is unacceptable. 

We are regularly confronted with disturbing news about our connection as individuals to various forms of wrongful harm involved in the production and trade of everyday products. Purchasing iphones, seafood or chocolate, for example, seems to involve us with practices of modern slavery or trafficking.

Wrongful harm can occur at many points in complex global production chains. Slave or bonded labour may be used to create products. Purchasers may exploit their market power to obtain components or goods at unfair prices. Alternatively, production processes may encourage or enable wrongdoing by others. For example, millions of people have died in Africa in recent decades because of conflicts directly related to the extraction and sale of minerals.

Most people claim they want to do ‘the right thing’ when confronted with these facts, yet it is far from clear what that might be. Thus, consequently many people do nothing. How should we approach this? There seem to be three broad options.

Option 1: do nothing

We can simply do nothing, and go on purchasing goods without considering what is involved in their production. This stance is often justified by claiming that, when faced with problems of such magnitude and complexity, individual responses are futile. We might understandably wonder whether there is any point in changing our behaviour, since we would forgo benefits without mitigating the harms.

Problematically, however, the do-nothing approach doesn’t appear to be accepted elsewhere. Few people believe, for example, that prior to the American Civil War, ordinary citizens were obliged to do nothing about slavery, simply because any difference they might have made would have been vanishingly small.

Moreover, just because we cannot easily track the effects of our actions, it does not follow that our actions have no effect. Not only do small individual actions have potentially large cumulative effects—as efforts to end slavery and sexual discrimination have shown— but individual choices have powerful signalling effects regarding what we value as a society, and what behaviour we expect from others. Doing nothing signals to producers and other consumers that it is okay that such processes continue.

Another line of argument states that doing nothing is acceptable because this is a problem for collective institutions and governments, not individuals, to solve. To be sure, this might be the most fair and effective way of addressing the issue if national governments and other institutions were willing and able to stop extreme exploitation.  But when government institutions lack the requisite capacity to effectively tackle such harm, and when state institutions use their powers and resources to promote other ends, it seems hard to argue that individuals should not step up, just as courageous individuals in the antislavery movement did.

Option 2: refuse to buy goods identified as linked to harm

A second option would simply be to refuse to buy such goods. Such conscientious consumerism is appealing because it appears to remove us from direct involvement in the harmful processes. It also signals that harmful practices are unacceptable. This option seems particularly attractive when ‘ethical’ versions of the goods are available.

But what if the goods in question are things that we seem to need to function well in modern societies, and no ‘ethical’ alternatives are available? Is it acceptable to continue to purchase and use iPhones, for example, if a comparable but more ethically-produced smartphone is unavailable? Are we obliged to make significant sacrifices when our purchases have so little effect on anyone’s welfare?

Option 3: buy the products you want, but undertake countervailing efforts to redress harm

A third option is to continue to purchase such goods, but only if we simultaneously try to address the kinds of problems that are embedded in these products. Just what consumers should do might depend on their capacities. For example, a student might initiate or join collective social movements that question and resist the practices involved in producing apparel sold by their universities, while an investor might help pressure more powerful institutional actors they hold shares in to help address the issues. Others may support social change by supporting political parties, or other social organisations committed to taking action on these issues. Legislation on the trade in so-called conflict diamonds, for example, could not have been achieved without such efforts.

So what should the concerned ethical consumer do?

To be sure, a concerned consumer must wrestle with an array of difficult trade-offs: between helping people who are immediately disadvantaged, or promoting actions that carry the possibility of bringing about broader systemic change; between making a big difference for a small number of people, or a smaller difference for a greater number of people; and so on. But these challenges are part and parcel of any effort to bring about large-scale social change.  And it is important to recognise that real change may be occurring even while serious problems persist—incremental improvements in labour standards can mean a lot to the people they affect, even if the improved conditions still seem seriously objectionable.

What then should we do? First, we must accept that doing nothing cannot be justified. Working out what precisely we ought to do is very difficult, but that doesn’t excuse us from continuing to try. When alternatives are available, we should be willing to take on additional costs to purchase them instead, since by doing so, we promote and facilitate the production of goods in a different way. We must be cautious in assessing such alternatives, since they may not always be better and it is often difficult for us to tell the difference. When such alternative products are unavailable, we must explore the most promising means of addressing these problems in other ways, and here also we may be quite unsure how best to proceed. But waiting for certainty in this, as in most important social justice goals, is not a luxury we can afford. 

About the authors

Christian Barry is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University. His recent work includes the book, International Trade and Labour Standards: A Proposal for Linkage (Columbia University Press, 2009, with Sanjay Reddy). He acknowledges support for his work on this article from the Australian Research Council and the Research Council of Norway. Follow Christian on Twitter @cbmaximin.

Kate Macdonald is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on the politics of transnational production and business, with a particular focus on social, labour and human rights regulation of global business. Publications include The Politics of Global Supply Chains: Power and Governance Beyond the State (Polity Press, 2013), New Visions for Market Governance: Crisis and Renewal (Routledge, 2012, with Shelley Marshall and Sanjay Pinto); and Fair Trade, Corporate Accountability and Beyond (Ashgate, 2010, with Shelley Marshall).


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