-by guest author Reid Maki
With the holidays approaching and many Americans scrambling to buy presents, we at the National Consumers League (NCL) get many questions from those interested in shopping responsibly. New data suggests that there are about 152 million children worldwide trapped in child labor today. How can one avoid buying products that contribute to this rampant exploitation?
The supply chains of many companies have multiple layers of production–even reaching into people’s homes–and it’s extremely difficult to monitor this work at all levels. We wish the answer was simple.
Fortunately, there are tools out there to help consumers. One of the best is the U.S. Department of Labor’s “Sweat and Toil” phone app, which informs consumers about 130-plus goods produced with child labor. It also tells which countries produce those goods, and ranks their progress in reducing child labor. Say you are going clothes shopping; this app and online database searches which countries have been identified as producing clothes with child labor (Argentina, Bangladesh, India, Thailand, and Vietnam top the list). Coffee? Sixteen countries. Gold? Twenty-one countries. One drawback is that assembled products – like cell phones – are not listed, though many of the metals and minerals that make them are. As an early Christmas present to yourself, download the “Sweat and Toil” app today!
Why can’t holiday shoppers buy a product labelled “child-labor free”? The enormous difficulty and expense of monitoring supply chains has made this goal elusive, but GoodWeave, a nonprofit member of the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), is a great example of a responsible labelling program. Not long ago, one million children wove hand-made carpets under slave-like conditions; today, that number is believed to be under 250,000. Using monitoring and response systems, GoodWeave identifies and addresses child labor risks at production level – transforming the lives of thousands of children by helping consumers buy carpets from responsible sources. They hope to expand into other industries soon: creating more products that we can confidently identify as child-labor free.
If you’re shopping for a dessert-lover, consider Divine Chocolate, which works with West African farmer cooperatives to produce fair trade chocolate from local cocoa. Farmers actually own a major share of this company and earn greater income which, along with other measures, helps them avoid the cheap and exploitative child labor rampant in the region’s cocoa production. Here in the U.S., AFOP’s own Children in the Fields Campaign, a CLC partner, is a key player in the fight to eliminate agricultural child labor. The fight for fair food is fueled by consumer choices to support responsible labor practices – all the more important as we gather around the table for holiday meals.
Fairtrade America, also a CLC member, pays a premium price to farmers for engaging in better labor and environmental practices. Helping farmers prevent child labor is one of its stated goals, and addressing endemic poverty is part of the solution. The incredible difficulty of monitoring remote farms makes it hard to say with certainty if products are produced without child labor, but we love that groups are working hard with farmers at finding solutions. Fairtrade embraces a “continuous improvement” model as it pursues its goal of child-labor-free and forced-labor-free products.
The responsible consumer has a critical eye when researching companies, because, as many advocates have noted, some companies talk about “corporate social responsibility (CSR)” but their true efforts fall short. It can be difficult for consumers to tell the difference between CSR efforts that are “window-dressing” versus those that are substantive in their efforts to reject child labor. We ask consumers to educate themselves and ask questions about the intersection of consumer goods and child exploitation.
When they became aware of rampant child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, many apparel companies signed the “cotton pledge” promising to avoid buying Uzbek cotton for their clothing. To date, more than 270 companies have made this promise. We do not often support boycotts, which can lead to deprivation for impoverished rural communities. However, when state-sponsored child labor is in play, we are forced to make an exception.
Choose to support legislation that addresses the child labor problem – still very much present in the U.S. as well as globally. In 2012, California passed the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which requires large companies to post online information about their engagement in the fight against human trafficking and child labor. The CLC and its members have worked on federal legislation that would do the same thing, but unfortunately the bill has not been re-introduced. We need consumers to call their member of Congress and tell them how important such initiatives are.
We dream of day when consumers will be armed with the knowledge they need to make informed shopping decisions; that day, child labor will be a thing of the past. Money talks, and when consumers like you make it clear that this holiday season you will shop with a conscience, companies will respond. You hold the power, with every dollar you use supporting clean labor chains.
Reid Maki is the Director of Child Labor Advocacy for the National Consumers League, America’s oldest consumer advocacy organization; he also coordinates the Child Labor Coalition – a partner of AFOP’s Children in the Fields Campaign. The CLC features 38 groups fighting to reduce child labor in the U.S. in and abroad.
Blog edited by AFOP Health & Safety.