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How to be a responsible consumer

Workers sewing clothes at the Bozkurt textile factory in Kahramanmaras, Turkey
Flickr- Travel Aficionado

Bangladesh does not have the best track record for worker safety. Last week, eight people were reported dead after a roof collapsed on top of construction workers in Mongla, Bangladesh (for geographic reference, Mongla is a port city in the south-west region of the Asian nation). This deadly incident is the latest in a series of factory accidents within the country - and recalls thecalamityin 2013, when 1,100 textile workers died after a nine-story building collapsed.

While laws are in place in Bangladesh to protect workers, oversight is scant, and violations of working conditions are often overlooked, according to a BBC correspondent covering the disaster. Further, foreign investment is often involved in the products manufactured at factories in developing nations.

Worker safety standards are often overlooked for the poorest and most marginalized peoples (here is a link to a GREAT article on poverty and workplace safety). And due to expanded globalization and product outsourcing, foreign influence is a large reason for the rapid expansion of poorly constructed factories. It's an issue of supply and demand, and with many Western and first-world nations craving cheap products, developing nations are meeting the need with inexpensive labor and shoddy factories.

So, what does that mean for consumers? Do we simply stop buying products made in developing nations? In my mind, the answer to this question is no, but the onus falls to consumers to demand accountability from companies that are outsourcing labor. While many corporations are beginning to look at their supply chains (a fancy way of saying where products are outsourced and made), much of this focus is new - and has been a response to customer demands. Additionally, many companies have become more responsible to preserve their  image (also known as corporate social responsibility).

Below, I list a number of recommendations on responsible buying practices and awareness of supply chains.  While this list isn't comprehensive, it does provide the framework for more responsible consumption.

1.) Look at where your products are made

This one may sound easy - but do you really know where your clothes are from? My current ensemble showcases jeans produced in Turkey, shoes cobbled in China, a leather jacket manufactured in France, and socks handmade in New York City from yarn spun in Ireland. Yeah, my wardrobe is better traveled than I am.

When shopping, I try to look for goods that are produced locally, or are second-hand, but this isn't always possible. So, when I do buy something new, I try to see where the product is being manufactured. Here is an example - If a plastic dish I am considering buying has been produced in Myanmar, where low-cost manufacturing is prevalent, and I don't know the specifics of the factory conditions, I will do some detective work before I buy.  This firstly gives me a better idea of where I am buying from, but secondly, makes me accountable for the product I want to purchase. I have discovered numerous supply chain issues from companies I have considered buying from in the past, and as a result have written these corporations to increase responsibility for their products (I use twitter, email, and Facebook as a platform for activism).

2.) Buy sustainably, locally, or DIY

Buying sustainable products is largely associated with environmental concerns,but it also applies to people. Think about it this way- buying from a factory or brand that under-charges workers and isn’t accountable for how its goods are produced isn’t a sustainable business model. Corporations need to have an idea of how to manage supply chains, and most large brands are getting smart about this. And for those that haven’t - it goes back to consumer power. Demand that corporations understand where their goods are being manufactured.

And what about local buying? It’s not just for shopping at the farmers’ market! Use me as an example - here in New York City, I will look for locally made clothing produced on recycled fabric. I know I may be sounding a bit Brooklyn hipster, but I don’t buy locally to be on trend, I buy locally t because it makes sense. Not only am I supporting local designers, but with the supply chain closer to home, the product is more sustainable, environmentally friendly, and I know that I am paying a fair price for what I am purchasing. For all you New Yorkers, check out kaightshop.com and www.sustainable-nyc.com. It’s easier than you’d think to find sustainable, fair-trade products.

As for the DIY aspect, remember those socks previously mentioned? Yeah, I made them myself. I also have several ceramic bowls and mugs I created using a kiln at a local pottery house (not doing much for my hipster argument…).

3.) Know the supply chain policy of brands

Corporations and brands are becoming increasingly more accountable to laborers and consumers, working to ensure that goods are manufactured in safe conditions. While it would be nice to simply assume that all corporations outsource their labor and production to factories that comply with global worker safety laws, this is not always the case. To be a responsible consumer, look at the supply chain policy of companies (for instance, big brands like H&M and Target have been leaders in corporate social responsibility. Or check out http://www.free2work.org to see the stories behind the barcodes).

4.) Campaign for worker’s rights

As consumers, it's our job to support the health and wellbeing of workers. With increasing news coverage on factory disasters such as the one profiled in Mongla, we, global citizens, have to have an awareness of the conditions people are working under. It is important to understand how consumers can affect important change in worker’s rights - and that our buying power has, well… power. By understanding the conditions that our goods are produced in, we can help to support better conditions for laborers across the globe. Campaigns like www.cleanclothes.organd www.laborrights.org are great ways to support laborers, and demand accountability from companies on worker’s rights.

5.) Consume less

I love buying new clothes....and books….and STUFF. It's a guilty pleasure, but in recent years, I have tried practicing "mindful" buying. Instead of shopping to pass time, I only buy what I need, and try to purchase higher quality clothing that will last longer, look for flatware from local potters, and use the public library as opposed to running out to bring home the newest hard-back novel.

How does consuming less relate to labor standards? It goes back to my argument of supply-and-demand. The developed world is increasingly asking for more and more cheap products, and developing nations are answering the demand because of their ability to supply cheap labor. While I am thrilled to see all nations moving onto the global market, I question the role of consumerism in making these connections. Particularly if demand for goods are producing unsafe conditions for laborers, and lack of accountability from the corporate sector. It’s a tricky balance - everyone deserves to work, and it’s amazing to see emerging industries, but not at the expense of workers’ health, happiness, and safety.


We all buy things, and shopping can be fun. But we, global citizens, should also be aware of worker’s rights and the sustainability of where the things we consume originate. Being thoughtful, mindful, and also advocacy oriented in our buying is not only good for our pocketbooks, it’s good for laborers.

It may be time for nations to begin thinking of consumer culture as a hindrance to development. While everyone should be able to have the ability to purchase and consume in the ways they see fit, the desire to buy often impacts our ability fully relate to one another. While it is wonderful that workers in developing nations are able to find jobs, is it really the right kind of work? What does it mean that the source of income and labor for many individuals are linked to the needs of foreign consumption?

Whatever you feel about supply chains, corporate social responsibility, and consumerism, the bottom-line is this: worker’s rights matter. And it is our duty as global citizens to make sure that all people have safety in all aspects of their lives - including the workplace.

Share your thoughts in the comments section. What ways do you feel are best to make sure worker’s rights are being met?