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The High Cost of Low Prices

I realize that this post is long overdue, and I apologize for that oversight. That said, it's time I gave you some concrete information about the companies' human rights records and what code I shop by. For those of you who want to take a step to more sustainable shopping that will help your dollars go to support a better tomorrow for not only America, but for the countries that supply our goods.

I've tried to draw these into a step by step approach, but you should always do your own research, double check my facts, and determine what products need to change in your household. For me, it was coffee, tea and sugar, my clothing, and shoes. You may find that you need to put a larger emphasis on clothing or another product.

Here are some steps to take with your daily/weekly shopping for a better today, and a brighter tomorrow.

1. Buy local. Supporting your local businesses means that you have actual interaction with the person who owns it, you know directly where your money is going, and often, you are paying the direct paycheck of a person you know. For Wacoans, that means your only option for coffee/tea is pretty much Common Grounds, or the lesser known World Cup Cafe (run by Mission Waco).

2. Do some preliminary research. One of the sites I primarily used last year when I started to research companies was Green America (formerly Co-Op America) Responsible Shopper Guide. Since then, numerous watchdog websites have popped up with information on companies, such as Free2Work, which is specifically targeted at slave labor goods, and, which is much much larger in scope, but contains numerous articles/blog posts about the ethical behavior of various large monopolies. The recently discovered (by me) is also a good resource.

3. Look for the fair trade label on goods that are commonly tainted by slave labor. These goods include coffee, tea, chocolate, cotton materials, sugar, etc. Fair Trade Certified guarantees that labor practices are done in an ethical manner, that the workers producing the goods are paid a living wage, and are not working an obscene number of hours in the day. Fair Trade, is, unfortunately more expensive, but a couple extra dollars is well worth it for me to be able to drink my coffee with a good peace of mind too. If the fair trade label isn't there, research the company. Some companies have fair trade practices, but can't afford to certify (it takes a lot of money, unfortunately, to get inspectors out there and get it certified). Republic of Tea, for one, practices completely fair trade, but only has the label on a few of their product lines (Common Grounds carries this tea, by the way).

4. Avoid companies that have monopolies on the market. This means, yes, Wal-Mart is out. If you walk into a Wal-Mart anywhere in America, it will be hard to swing a dead cat without hitting goods made by slave labor. It's about time I got on my soapbox and talked about the "always low prices" company, for at least a little bit. I have not been inside a WalMart in 3 years, and I don't plan to return. Why?

-Wal-Mart has been known to take every step they can to prevent workers from unionizing.
-Wal-Mart was investigated in 2007 by the Human Rights Watch for their labor practices in supply factories overseas. They are the only major company to have this happen.
-Wal-Mart, though having been a company on the mainstay of the American mind for 40-some years, only just formed a human rights committee in 2008, only after they were investigated by the HRW. Since then, they have stopped production at only one company, in South America, but its supplier factories in China, India, and other Southeast Asia companies are still up and running just fine.
-Wal-Mart has documented cases of child labor in its factories overseas.
-Wal-Mart has fired executives for being "too aggressive" over enforcing labor/working condition violations in its Central American factories.

Wal-Mart's been extremely slow to move on any of these violations, and continues to carry goods produced by child and forced labor at their stores because Americans demand their "always low prices." They also refuse transparency about their product lines, so you never know completely whether or not the company's telling the truth about fixing their problem because all the checks and balances are internal.

Other large companies are no angels: Target almost exclusively carries Mossimo, a brand known to use child and sweat shop labor in overseas factories. Nike has been embroiled in huge human rights violations for years, and have been extremely slow to move to change their policies.

The State Department recently released an official report of goods most like tainted by child labor, listed by country. Unfortunately, no companies are named, but it gives you a good idea that if your cotton comes from Uzbekistan, chances are it's a tainted good (IKEA sources a lot of their cotton from there, by the way). Nestle, also, uses cocoa sourced from areas known to use child labor; Kraft has extremely poor labor records, etc.

5. Stick to your guns. It's going to get expensive. It's going to get frustrating when you have a craving for something. There's a reason I put a picture of the little kids from Mypadu on the inside of my wallet - I remember that the human being on the other end of the supply line is far more important than how much I want a nice bubbly Coke right then.

I do not have all the answers by any stretch of the imagination. One thing that has helped me is purchasing the Better World Shopping Guide which is, also, by no means extensive, but gives you a general idea of what to get. It's been a life saver when checking what companies to buy from in the store if I couldn't recall what brand to get.

Essentially, what this boils down to is transparency between the customer and the company. How quick is the company to solve a violation? How willing is the company to say, "here are our labor practices, come look at our supply line"? How is the company making an effort to respond to human rights around the world? And frankly, if a company has a monopoly on the market, if a company is so huge that they can have a shoplifting policy for only charging customers who take a certain amount or more, then it makes it clear that their goal is about the zero-sum, dollar amount at the end of the day.

Human rights are not operated in a zero sum. Do your research, put your money toward companies that aren't just about the bottom line. If we do that, maybe they'll stay in business long enough to threaten the big guns.

Thanks for reading this rather scatter-brained post. I hope this points you in the right direction for some things, and I look forward to seeing big changes in the way companies operate around the world.

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