ethical consumerism positive buyers demand more for their $

This is the first part of a weekly series about ethical consumerism.

Part 1 - Good Customer, Bad Customer

Buy to save the world

It's such an interesting and simple idea: With our dollars, we can change the world. But why is the movement not growing? Why are factory workers still being exploited? Why don't we buy more organic produce? Do we care about moral or how the concept of ethical consumerism and being a part of it makes us feel?

Phenom Phen, Cambodia, a small, muddy path in the city's west.

cambodia phnom penh factory

Source: Cambo Expo

Keal Leangky is sitting in front of a hut close to the factory where she worked as a tailor for two years. “I should not have eaten the mango back then.”

A few months back, in the middle of the rainy season, Keal was hungry. She took a mango out of her pocket and ate it. The Chinese foreman saw her and started to scream at her. She didn't understand what he said until he called a translator. “Stop eating immediately”, the translator said to Keal. 

Some of Keal's colleagues tried to help. 15 of them. They said Keal always makes her quota, and that she is pregnant. United, they demanded that the foreman apologizes and threatened to go on strike. 

They fired all of them. The workers received their remaining pay and were let go. Keal received §35. That's it. CWKH Garment Cambodia Ltd., a factory with approximately 400 workers, got rid of staff that puts up resistance. 

In the following weeks, more and more factory workers showed solidarity. They fired them too. At the time when I researched this story, they were 200. 

The unemployed fabric worker tried to fight with legal and symbolic actions. The court ruled the strike illegal and the workers have to find a new job. They must start at the bottom again. In Cambodia, one of the most productive place for producing cheap clothing,  “bottom” means a pay of $100 per month for 8-12 hours of work, six days a week.

Bangladesh, India

You might expect to read about the 2013 catastrophe when a factory building crashed and buried 3000 workers of which 1134 died. The pictures of collective guilt burnt our souls. 

But I want to share a different story with you. 

The picture is the property of You will understand why I will not post pictures of the hero and the person seeking help later on. 

cry for help

Source: Stern

“It's a fairy tale come true”, titles the German magazine Stern. 

Claudia purchased a shirt for her husband. When she unpacked it, she found the note above. A cry for help from Gazi, a factory worker in Bangladesh. That was 13 years ago. 

Gazi was desperate when he wrote the note. Even though he—as opposed to most of the people in his tiny village—had a job, he could not afford medicine for his sick father. 

Claudia wrote a letter to Gazi who noted his home address on his cry for help. A few weeks later, she received a letter from Gazi. He told Claudia about his life in Bangladesh, the pregnancy of his wife, and how hard earning money is. 

“They are not rich”, writes Stern about our heroes. “They own a small house and have four children.” The couple travelled to Bangladesh and met Gazi and his lovely wife. From then on, they sent 30 Euros monthly (about $37) to Gazi and his family. That's an average salary in Bangladesh. 

When Gazi's wife was giving birth, the couple saved her life and the life of the kid. They paid for the hospital stay and needed surgery. 

12 years later, the couple travelled to Bangladesh once more. Accompanied by a reporter team, who filmed Gazi, his wife and (meanwhile) two children and this heartbreaking story. 

For the media, this is where the story ends. 

Kudos to the couple that gave some of their money to help a fellow human being survive. 

How do you feel right now? I know the media supposes us to feel touched, happy, share the story and move on with our lives. 

It's not how I felt. I had to force back the tears and got angry for a moment. I sensed (or imagined) that Gazi did not enjoy being on camera. They did not make him say “Thank you, Massa”, but that was the only bit of humiliation they spared. 

A US American on minimum wage earns enough to buy about 1.3 shirts per hour. Questions that occupied my mind were: 

  • Could we afford to pay a buck more or ten for a shirt?
  • Do we need to buy mountains of cheap garments and throw them away after a season?
  • Did we just exploit the product of our exploitation for a viral story?

Gazi is a single person who is lucky that a family from Germany supported him. At least one of his children would be dead without their support, and likely his wife too. 

We can afford to throw a few coins because our system is based on exploitation. Not Gazi and no factory worker should suffer from extreme poverty. Many of you will agree with me. Yet, I am not doing all I could do to make things better. 

I started my path to minimalism a while back and gave away 90% of my clothes. After reading Gazi's story, I felt guilt for every shirt I still own and do not really need and everything I still own that I have purchased at a price that screams “suffering.” Why am I making so many mistakes?

Why is ethical consumerism so difficult in reality?

Hans-Otto Schrader, Hamburg, Germany

Hans-Otto Schrader made a surprising confession. He is the executive chairman of the Otto Group and patriarch of the $18 Billion Otto clan. 

He explained how seriously the Otto Group takes their social responsibility and that sustainability is now part of the strategy. Otto shared with the reporter how his heart broke when a factory in Thailand burnt down in 1987. Otto speaks about a social project the Otto Group took on (saving trees) and the importance of social engagement and other corporate values. 

Honestly, the interview was boring because none of it sounded sincere. But then it turned interesting. 

“We have to be careful,” Otto said, “we are very careful with our communication.” 

He is afraid of the power of consumers, the internet and social media. “Our analysis is,” he continues, “that buyers don't reward social engagement. They don't reward you for trying harder than your competitor, but they punish you if you make a mistake.”

A culture of outrage

Otto points out that our culture of outrage is glued to ethical consumerism. “If we take too much risk, we might become the victim of a wave of outrage that destroys everything we built.” Otto says: “If we learn that an article is produced unethically, we remote from our offering. The problem is: As a reseller of consumer goods, we don't always know if they produce an article incorrectly.”

The question is: If Otto cannot tell, how should a single simple consumer be able to decide?

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