My first exposure to the injustices taking place in the global workforce came when I took a class last year called The Legal Environment of Business. We learned about a case study on the shrimping industry, and I found out that most shrimp consumed in the United States is harvested with the use of slave labor in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
This assignment opened my eyes not only to the unethical business practices taking place worldwide, but also to how my consumption habits might contribute to these injustices.
The shrimping industry, of course, is only one of many international industries that uses unethical labor practices. Recognizable companies like Apple and Nike have been accused of allowing questionable labor practices, like child labor and worker abuse.
As consumers, it’s our duty to reject companies that use unethical business practices and to search for companies that align with our values. And as college students — some of us making financial decisions without our parents’ help for the first time — we have the opportunity to lay the foundation for a lifetime of ethical consumption.
Even small purchasing choices can make a difference, like shopping at small businesses or buying fair-trade certified products, meaning the producers from developing countries were paid fairly for their work.
Mimi Shorokey, a sophomore mathematical education major, is on the board of directors at The Rad Dish Café. She said shopping locally is one way to know where your food is coming from and who is producing it.
“During the fall semester and later in the spring, we have the farmer’s market in front of Morgan, which is a really great option,” she said.
William Cook, an advertising professor, said students need to “actively search” for brands that use fair labor practices.
“You have to make every conscious decision possible to buy products from ethical companies and brands,” Cook added. “Otherwise, you’re no better than the uninformed person down the street.”
“It might seem hard, but from food to clothes, if you read the label and do a little bit of research online, you can learn a lot about a brand or product,” Cook added.
This is true — with access to the Internet, there is no excuse to be ignorant about where our products come from, who made them and how they were made.
But I understand that being an ethical consumer is not always easy.
Sometimes, very popular products are made using unfair labor practices. Most people, myself included, own at least one Apple product, whether it’s an iPhone, iPad or Mac. Apple has been accused of using abusive labor practices starting as early as 2010. As recently as 2016, the international watchdog group China Labor Watch has found factories in China producing Apple products where workers are paid low wages and work 80-hour weeks.
“I was not aware, and it does make me feel guilty,” Shorokey said. “It makes me want to shop less from them.”
And while it does seem hard to go without an iPhone, there are ways consumers can push companies whose products they like in the direction of ethical production, like protest.
This proved effective in recent years, regarding ethical concerns linked to PNC Bank. In 2011, after West Virginia-based mountaintop coal removal companies were found to be detrimental to the environment, many Wall Street banks stopped investing in them. But PNC did not. Students took note of this ethical dilemma, given Temple’s partnership with the bank, and orchestrated a sit-in at PNC’s Main Campus branch. The protest ended with three students being arrested.
With more pressure from environmental groups like Earthjustice in years to follow, PNC finally withdrew its finances from these coal removal companies in March 2015 — proof that concerned, vocal consumers can make a difference.
The main focus of big corporations will always be profit. That means it’s up to consumers to educate themselves and to keep these companies in check regarding ethical concerns.
We need to dedicate ourselves to researching products before we make purchases and only give our business to companies that deserve it. And when we have the chance to speak out against injustice, we need to take it. We might need to alter our spending patterns, join in protests and discuss ethical practices with our friends and family members.
Remaining silent allows those in the global workforce to suffer at our hands.
Matthew Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.