I was in a Starbucks bathroom in greater Vancouver last week where a poster on the wall got me thinking about our relationship as First World consumers to the labourers who make the stuff we consume. And of course that reminded me of the suicide nets hung in the Foxconn factories that make our electronics, like iPhones. Anyway, here’s the text of the poster (I didn’t have a camera with me):
Buy more FAIR TRADE CERTIFIED COFFEE than anyone in the world.
EVERYTHING WE DO, YOU DO.
It’s simple. You choose to be our customer, and that means you’re the one that allows us to DO GOOD THINGS IN A BIG WAY. Like doubling the amount of Fair Trade Certified coffee we’ll buy this year to 40 million pounds. It’s a choice we can only make because of the choice you make — to walk into our store.
SO THANKS, YOU.
Starbucks Shared Planet. You and Starbucks.
It’s bigger than coffee.
I think I’m smelling a rather self-serving double-standard on the part of cosmopolitan Euro-Americans, but I have to admit, that is some slick advertising. They make the upper half of Western society — which globally is “the 1%” or darn near to it — feel economically ethical (a feat in itself) for buying $5 coffees (doubly impressive). The bourgeoisie of the First World are made to feel we’re behaving ethically in the global economy because overspending on non-essential creature comfort status symbols is promoting economic justice. In this global village, we’re economically responsible neighbours! Now, I’m glad Starbucks is at least making some degree of effort to be ethical in its sourcing practices. I’m not so sure patronizing Starbucks means First World consumers deserve a pat on the back, but that’s actually not the main point that I want to draw out of this.
“Everything we do, you do.” As far as ethics are concerned, the corporate actions of Starbucks are our actions as well. What they do as an economic player in some far-flung, impoverished coffee-producing nation is actually an expression and extension of our choices and actions as consumers. That, at least, is what the poster implies, and I’ll assume for the sake of the argument that this is true. My questions, then, are: Why limit this kind of thinking to coffee grown in South America? Why not apply this ethical connection between corporate actions and consumers to, say, electronics manufactured in China? If we get moral credit for the good things our favourite companies do through their purchasing and employment policies, do we share blame for the bad things as well?
For example, imagine how the text of that Starbucks poster could be rewritten by other super-popular companies like Apple, who manufacture their products in China:
Buy more NOT-FAIR TRADE ELECTRONICS than anyone in the world.
EVERYTHING WE DO, YOU DO.
It’s simple. You choose to be our customer, and that means you’re the one that allows us to TAKE ADVANTAGE OF HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DESPERATE CHINESE PEASANTS. Like doubling the amount of Abusively Employed Desperate Chinese Peasants we’ll use this year to 2 million. It’s a choice we can only make because of the choice you make — to walk into our store.
SO THANKS, YOU.
The 1% Shares the Planet. You and Your Gadgets.
It’s bigger than smart phones.
I’m not singling out Steve Jobs or Apple. We, as 21st century First World citizens, have more access to information, individual autonomy, mobility, and power than any other average citizens of any other civilization in history. If we’re ethically implicated in the coffee we buy, what does that mean for our smart phones?
P.S. – I’ve only recently begun to really think about this topic; I’m mostly just thinking out loud here. So if anyone wants to provide me a foil and challenge the idea that we consumers are ethically implicated in the actions of the corporations who produce our products in China, you’re genuinely welcome. So are suggestions for potentially effective responses to the situation.
The one previous post in this vein is: Steve Jobs, Apple, China and Us.
For an introduction to the connection between your electronics (virtually all major companies, not just industry leading Apple) and abusive Chinese factories: