5 products you probably buy that are quietly driving human rights abuses - Vox
Being a consumer means participating in a vast, global system of supply chains, labor markets, and corporations, and almost all of it beyond the average person's visibility. It can be near-impossible to
judge which products might be tied up in something nefarious or destructive.
Making this more difficult, there is no truly effective international authority to govern private corporations and guide consumers. The United Nations has tried, but of the world's roughly 80,000 multinational corporations, only 323 appear on a UN list of companies with stated human rights policies, according to GWU Professor Susan Ariel Aaronson and researcher Aaron Higham. Or those companies, Aaronson and Higham finds that only a fraction have policies that meet UN standards for corporate codes.
Here, then, as means of illustrating how the complicated webs of globalization can link innocuous-seeming products with far-away harm — and thus perhaps help perpetuate that harm — are five common consumer products that have demonstrated connections to serious human rights abuses. The intent isn't necessarily to call out these products or their producers as especially egregious — though some are — but to show just how common these practices have become in the global economy, and how difficult they are to stop.
Fried products at Burger King, McDonald's, Taco Bell, and KFC
First, climate change: tropical forests in those southeast Asian countries are being cut to the point of total destruction — a UN report indicates they'll be 98 percent gone by 2022. As if the habitat destruction were not bad enough in itself, according to May-Tobin, tropical deforestation already contributes about 10 percent of global carbon emissions. Moreover, planting new palm oil trees often involves draining peat soil, which stores huge amounts of carbon.
Second, human rights. A 2013 US Department of Labor study found clear evidence that the Indonesian palm oil industry has used child labor, and the Malaysian industry has used outright slaves.
Still, palm oil is used by Burger King to make its fries and is used for unspecific food products at McDonald's and stores under the Yum! Foods brand: Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut. It's not certain that all fried products at these stores use palm oil, but they are confirmed to make use of palm oil, so it stands to reason that french fries or other fried products could include the ingredient.
Now, it isn't inevitable that palm oil contributes to these problems. May-Tobin wrote in September that several companies — including Dunkin' Donuts and General Mills — have developed more environmentally friendly and ethical sourcing regimes to continue using palm oil in a way that doesn't cause these problems. Still, the fast food chains listed above — and surely many others — have not embraced such practices. According to May-Tobin, Burger King failed to deliver on a 2010 pledge to reform its palm oil sourcing.
In June of 2014, the Guardian released a blockbuster report on shrimp production in Thailand. "Large numbers of men bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand are integral to the production of [shrimp] sold in leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco," Guardian reporters Kate Hodal, Chris Kelly, and Felicity Lawrence wrote, revealing a pattern of beatings, torture, and murder of slave workers on boats that supply Thailand's largest shrimp company.
The named companies responded by promising to reform their purchasing practices. But unless authorities in Thailand address the problem or the global shrimp market somehow develops an entirely new market, it's not clear that the problem is fully possible for buyers alone to solve.
Over 90 percent of shrimp purchased in the United States is imported. According to US government statistics, the bulk of that is farmed in South and Southeast Asia (there's a bit from Latin America as well). A massive Environmental Justice Foundation expose released in April 2014 found evidence of rampant human rights abuses in the South and Southeast Asian shrimp industries
Jansport backpacks and other VF Brands products (Northface, etc.)
Enormous numbers of Bangladeshi garment sector employees work in unsafe sweatshop factories. These poorly inspected buildings are prone to deadly fires and wholesale collapses. The employees work long hours for very little pay. After about 1,100 people died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, this problem became impossible for the world to ignore.
Recently, a great deal of attention has focused on VF Brands — the parent company of Jansport, Nautica, and NorthFace, which contracts from 90-odd factories in Bangladesh. In June 2014, a fire broke out at a Medlar Apparels factory in Dhaka — which, according to customs data reviewed by the International Labor Rights Forum, is a longtime VF supplier. An activist organization, United Students Against Sweatshops, says that VF-linked factories have a lengthy history of fires and labor abuses.
VF is far from the only supplier to use Bangladeshi factories or fail to adhere to safety standards. But it's been singled out because, as of October, it has refused to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a corporate agreement to implement more robust safety inspections. Over 150 brands have signed onto accord; VF and several dozen other companies (including WalMart) created an alternative agreement on factory safety that, per the New York Times, labor groups believe is insufficiently robust.
SodastreamWhatever your view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's very hard to argue with one basic point: Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as they currently exist, really hurt Palestinians. Palestinians suffer through a system of checkpoints that choke off economic life in their community, live under a separate- and- unequal justice system from the rest of Israel, and are victims of a vigilante violence campaign designed to make it hard for Israel to ever withdraw from the West Bank.
This is why it's so problematic that SodaStream, the huge home seltzer company, has its largest factory in a West Bank settlement. The factory, which employs 1,100 workers, is in Ma'ale Adumim, a settlement just east of Jerusalem. Ma'ale Adumim isn't just any settlement: it's in a settlement area called E1 that, if further expanded, would threaten to make the Palestinian West Bank non-contiguous. That would make Palestinian travel inside the West Bank far more difficult, and make it much tougher for the Palestinians to establish their own state. In other words, settlement construction in E1 is a literal, physical barrier to peace.
By locating in E1, SodaStream grants legitimacy to — and, indeed, physically and economically entrenches — a settlement project that's widely considered illegal under international law.
Today, over 70 percent of the world's chocolate comes from West Africa, with about a third from Cote d'Ivoire. While activists and legislators have put serious effort into addressing child labor issues since 2001, not all is well. In February 2014, CNN reported that there were still up to 800,000 children working on Cote d'Ivoire cocoa farms. Not all child workers are slaves, of course, but human rights groups agree that child slavery is still a major problem for the cocoa industry.
There are hopeful signs. In May 2014, 12 major chocolate and cocoa companies launched something called CocoaAction, an initiative to make cocoa farming more ethical or sustainable. "The commitment of the industry to share strategy and objectives related to sustainable cocoa is a positive signal," Oxfam Novib policy analyst Frank Mechielsen said of CocoaAction."Besides the productivity and quality agenda, attention is provided to community development and child labour remediation. It shows the sense of urgency the companies show to address the challenges and work on solutions together."
But this is still relatively new. We've got a long way to go before we can give the cocoa industry a clean bill of health.
Humanists for Social Justice and Environmental Action supports Human Rights, Social and Economic Justice, Environmental Activism and Planetary Ethics in North America & Globally, with particular reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other Human Rights UN treaties and conventions listed above.