Keep voting responsibly, and not just with your wallet

The purchasing power of affluent countries has brought us a long way on the road to a fairer global marketplace.

After a quarter of a century of consumer activism, most major brands now have codes of conduct to protect manufacturing workers, applying American or European standards to all factories producing for those markets and improving local living standards through education and social projects. Moving beyond an initial flurry of dubious, quantitative monitoring paperwork, they are now finding creative ways to go deeper and achieve genuine, lasting improvements. Nike, for example, responded in 2009 to a disturbing discrepancy between reassuring audit data and worrying qualitative feedback by creating a model factory in Sri Lanka to train factory managers.

Many large suppliers now have fairly-paid, permanent workforces in safe factories, and reputation-conscious brands, burned by decades of bad publicity, are their biggest clients. But increasing demand, particularly in the fashion sector, for ever greater speed-to-market has also led to a rise in ‘mega-suppliers’, huge agencies trading entirely on thousands of ephemeral working relationships with unregulated small manufacturers in the interest of fast turnaround. Wal-Mart, now a leader in sustainability practice, is among those to move supplier relationships in house in the interest of better traceability. It’s an ongoing struggle, but it continues. The big high-street chains, supermarkets and multi-national brands whose names still turn up in the occasional tabloid horror story about intolerable working conditions, are in most cases leading the fight.

Yet the global sweatshop culture persists. Westerners insisting their brands’ goods are made by safe, healthy, respected workers just forces them to  order from more compliant, and consequently busy, manufacturers. Smaller designers unable to afford to pay their own welfare inspectors can then end up producing generic goods to sell in less scrupulous national markets.

Affluent countries now comprise just 10% of the world population, and their share of consumption is falling. A recent World Bank report anticipates above all a growing demand for cheap, undifferentiated goods to meet the needs of burgeoning populations in developing economies. In Delhi’s garment cluster 80% of clothing workers are informal, some trafficked migrants, others children working at home, all paid per item. Most of their products will be sold India, Bangladesh or Pakistan, far beyond the reach of big western brands and their welfare standards.

Local conditions can seriously impact any efforts by foreign buyers to improve conditions. Nike’s factory manager training worked well in Mexico, where unions and NGOs are eager to educate workers about their rights, but less so in China, where new labour regulations are ignored by businesses and institutions alike.

It’s always worth supporting any ethical enterprise, whether it’s an ideals-motivated start-up with a world-changing idea or a huge business responding to consumer pressure. The most sincere, recognising the limits of purchasing power alone, contribute funds to NGOs working to support grassroots movements in their host countries. It’s when governments begin to respond to these demands from the people they represent that the necessary fundamental changes occur.

Brazil is an inspiring example of a country that’s transformed itself from a developing economy to a world leader in sustainability. Its government’s 3,000 inspectors are employed to creatively tackle problems rather than simply discover and report them. They collaborate with other government agencies, unions and NGOs to identify solutions to serious problems like outdated machinery, dangerous buildings or systematic worker discrimination.

It’s an approach that’s worked.  The labourers producing charcoal for pig-iron, an ingredient of stainless steel used by foreign car manufacturers, used to live and work much like those Delhi homeworkers, in small informal units. Setting up in a clearing in the rainforest, burning trees to charcoal, tending 1000-degree furnaces barefoot, selling it to smelters then moving on, they endured terrible working conditions yet remained trapped in a cycle of debt to employers or labour brokers. Using the country’s well-developed environmental and labour laws to prosecute any one of them was not going to solve the problem. Determined not to be bested by ‘market forces’, inspectors instead enforced an obscure law against businesses outsourcing their core activities. They held the smelters responsible for their suppliers’ working conditions, persuaded the country’s biggest iron-ore supplier to sell only to those who could prove their charcoal came from responsibly managed forests, and worked with state-run banks to cut off subsidised credit if they didn’t comply.

The smelters responded by founding an industry-wide auditing body, and the furnace workers began cooperating with the smelters to produce higher-grade iron for more lucrative markets. They were soon signing employment contracts for living wages.

Roberto Pires of the Institute for Applied Economic Research in Brasília, has called it “A kind of regulatory acupuncture… finding the specific points where applying pressure can provoke systemic effects.”

This sort of persistent, creative national response is much more than an individual could hope to achieve through their choice of car. It’s dependent on political commitment and government investment. And the best way to influence those is through international laws and politics.

Strict trade agreements protecting lucrative intellectual property and patents already exist, and they work. Our governments have the power to bring about huge positive change way beyond our influence as individual consumers. And they represent us in a way businesses never will.

So do keep voting with your wallet, but don’t forget to use your vote, too.

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