Although 16 of the 19 Olympics sponsors received failing grades in Dream for Darfur’s second “report card,” the other three companies were commended: Kodak and Adidas, which received B+ grades for sending public letters to the U.N. urging action, and McDonald’s, which got a C+ for taking some unspecified private action made known to the nonprofit.
In a recent post, I mentioned a green-minded shopper butting heads with Macy’s over being given an unwanted plastic bag. Now comes an interesting paradigm reversal: I never thought I’d see the day when the Middle Kingdom out-greened the U.S., but China just banned plastic shopping bags. (Although, to be fair, I must mention that San Francisco recently beat it on that front with its own ban.) Starting in June, the production of totes less than 0.025 mm thick will be illegal in China. What do you say to that, Macy’s? (And when are you going to respond to my email?)
It’s great to hear about the plastic-bag prohibition, but my smile fades when I read stories like this one from the New York Times, which reminds us that worker abuse in China is still common, despite the fact that many businesses are starting to get a clue about CSR (corporate social responsibility) and take such issues seriously. Indeed, a number of big companies now hire auditors to inspect their supplying factories.
I’ve discussed problems in the social auditing industry before, and they reappear in this article: factories being warned about audits beforehand, managers bribing inspectors, etc. I’d like to think that China’s new labor law, which just went into effect at the beginning of the month, will help, but I have my doubts (though I applaud it as a first step). In a country where corruption is so rampant, the enforcement of laws is so fickle, and independent unions remain prohibited, it’s hard to be overly optimistic about labor.
Last month I blogged about trying to get info from shoemaker Earth about its factories in China (link).
Why would a company with such a progressive image, I wondered, not be happy to verify its glowing assertions about the safety and labor-friendliness of its overseas contractors by having those operations inspected by one of the many third-party certifying organizations that exist for this precise purpose?
Why, in short, should consumers trust any corporation to effectively police itself?
(Since my original post, I’ve learned that problems still exist even when such certifiers are used, but I remain convinced that auditing is the best way to go.)
Five and a half weeks after my inquiry (which went unanswered, so I sent two more emails and left one phone message), Earth customer service finally responded. After disingenuously claiming to have received only my first email (I know that at least one of my later messages went through, because I got an out-of-office reply), the representative wrote:
We do not have specific answers for these questions, and I’d rather not open up the conversation.
We hold our facilities in China to the utmost
standard both environmentally and socially. Our shoes are manufactured
in a controlled, clean, and safe environment that is inspected, not
only by our top executives, but also by larger US corporations. Our
factory and offices are cleaner than most US plant and our workers are
living and eating far above Chinese standards. Ten years ago, our
workers were walking or pushing used bicycles to go to work, today
several of them have their own cars. In short, US companies are
pushing the envelope and raising up the bar for a better living and
better environment. Thanks to companies like us, we influence changes
and improve people’s life. I hope this information helps.
A few thoughts that might get Earth more grounded:
1. If you don’t want to have a conversation about these issues, you shouldn’t use them as a marketing ploy.
2. You can’t make claims about something that consumers care about and that has an effect in the world and then refuse to back them up.
3. Cutting-and-pasting unverifiable cherry-picked anecdotes does not reassure informed customers asking crucial questions. Rather, it insults them, invites claims of greenwashing (etc.), and pisses them off.
I followed up (politely) asking what “larger US corporations” means. What type of corporations? Fellow shoe manufacturers, perchance?
Evidence suggests I should hear back, oh, maybe by the end of September.
What a great feeling to find an e-commerce site that states in big letters on its home page that it sells “only goods made in countries where labor laws or unions are in place to protect the workers! We don’t sell any products made in China or other countries known for sweatshops.”
Pangea sells not only shoes but all sorts of things: cleaning products, pet supplies, cruelty-free cosmetics and body care, etc.
How does it vet its merchandise? I traded email with Pangea employee Phil, who told me that the company’s main source of information is its founder, Shari Kalina. “Over the past 11 years she’s had to do so much research and have so many discussions with various experts that she has probably learned more than can be found at any single website,” he wrote. “For any unfamiliar ingredient, she’ll use the internet as a starting point and then get in touch with as many people as necessary for us to be confident about the
Which tells me that Pangea must be a pretty small operation. But it’s one I’m happy to support. In fact, I’m eyeing a pair of red No Sweat high-tops right now...
Yesterday I was shopping at my local REI, and I couldn’t help but notice how many of the windbreakers I was trying on were made in China.
Since I’ve been blogging about such issues of late, I decided to ask whether REI uses an auditor to ensure that the Chinese-produced apparel it sells is made in factories that adhere to decent labor standards. The clerk I approached said she thought so but wasn’t sure, so she paged a manager. The manager said yes, there was some type of auditing, but he didn’t know any of the details, like whether REI did it itself or hired an independent certifier. He suggested that I call or email the company to get in touch with someone who worked in the area of social responsibility.
While I was glad that my inquiry didn’t meet with blank stares, it’s a shame that even a retailer that identifies so highly with green and worker-friendly principles doesn’t have structures in place to disseminate this type of information to customers on the floor.
Concerns about sweatshops and ethical-labor practices have
been on the contemporary public radar ever since the early to mid-1990s, when
the Kathi Lee Gifford child-labor fiasco and other scandals erupted in the
I’ve been learning as much as I can about these issues
recently, and I was excited to discover the existence of auditing organizations
such as the Institute for Marketecology, Social Accountability
and Verité that conduct independent inspections of
factories and other types of production facilities to ascertain whether certain
codes of conduct are being met. If the facility passes muster, it gets a
certified stamp of approval.
What a great idea: a way for consumers to ensure that
they’re not subsidizing exploitative business practices, and for responsible corporations
to put their money where their mouths are. I’ve even started pestering
companies to encourage them to take part in such certification programs.
So imagine my dismay when I came across this Business Week article about Chinese factories that deceive auditors in order to be certified. It’s well worth reading in its
entirety, but the gist is that nowadays it’s commonplace for factories in China to maintain extra sets of books containing falsified records, and to distribute
scripts for workers to recite if they are questioned by inspectors. Not only that, but “a new breed of Chinese consultant has
sprung up to assist companies … in evading audits,” the article states.
Pretty depressing, huh? But not entirely surprising.
still digesting the contents of this article, but a few thoughts come to mind.
One is that, as much as I sometimes enjoy heaping scorn on big business and
calling large companies “evil,” it’s not always as black-and-white as that. After
all, big players such as Disney, Nike, and Wal-Mart regularly use auditing
organizations, and the large-scale pressure these companies provide has
undoubtedly helped check some of the worst abuses. The system is certainly
imperfect, but at least these institutions are in place; that’s the first step
to meaningful reform.
Another thought is just how much, for me, China represents so many of the complexities, contradictions, and shortcomings of the
global economy. I’ll no doubt be thinking about that tonight when I see Manufactured Landscapes, a new
documentary about Edward Burtynsky, whose awe-inspiring photographs capture
just how massive industry in China is.
Yesterday I woke up with the sinking suspicion that the breakfast cereal I was about to eat contained toxins from China. (I just can’t seem to get off the topic of food lately.) I think it was an aftereffect of hearing Michael Pollan on radio show City Arts & Lectures last month. He related an anecdote about a food producer who had to order flax seeds from China after a bad crop in the U.S. The seeds arrived quite dirty, and the guy decided to test the soil that was collected from the cleaning process. The result? Heavy metals galore.
So before pouring my Grape-Nuts onto my Straus yogurt, I called Post’s 800 number and asked whether any of the cereal’s ingredients were non-domestic, and if so, where they came from. Nope, they’re all domestic, and the company has a policy of listing any foreign ingredients on the box.
Well, that’s a relief. But I still feel uneasy about having Grape-Nuts on my shelf, because Post is such a huge company. It’s gotta be evil in some way, right? In fact, Post isn’t even a real company anymore. It’s owned by Kraft, which is a subsidiary of Altria, formerly known as Philip Morris. Definitely some evil to be found in there.
Truth be told, having Grape-Nuts on my shelf is a bit of a fluke; I usually buy Safeway’s less-expensive version of the cereal, which bears the unfortunate name of Crunchy Nuggets. But Safeway is also huge. How do I know it’s any less evil than Kraft/Altria?
Most Americans think so. According to a study released today by Consumers Union, the nonprofit behind Consumer Reports, 92 percent of us support country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for food. Ninety-two percent!
I would be surprised at that number were it not for all the recent problems with tainted goods from China. But I was surprised to read that the federal government mandated COOL way back in 2002 for nearly all food products. However, “implementation has
been delayed until October 2008, with the exception of seafood.”
A few years ago, I decided to stop buying leather shoes. After all, I reasoned, I’m a vegetarian (well, actually, a “fishetarian,” since I do occasionally eat fish), and it would be inconsistent to reject beef but still buy leather products. So, on a trip to New York a couple years ago, I went on a minor shopping spree at Moo Shoes and purchased several vegan pairs, among them, a pair of black Mary Janes made by the Earth shoe company.
Fast-forward to this week, when I came across this long but interesting blog post highlighting the contradiction between the vegan ethos of nonexploitation and the fact that most shoes, leather-free or not, are made in Asian factories whose labor standards are waaaaay lax compared with those of the first world. Granted, many of the employees in those factories are no doubt thankful for their jobs, but their working conditions would probably give many Western consumers pause.
The post also makes several criticisms of Earth, including the fact that the interiors of the company’s shoes feature the image of the American flag—which I actually remember seeing in the store and thinking, “Oh, cool, these were made domestically”—but with the words “Designed in USA” in very small type under Old Glory. At that point I had to stop reading and grab my shoes to see for myself. Yup. Not made in U.S.A. Designed in U.S.A. Pretty cheeky, huh?
And also somewhat bizarre, given that the Our Company page of Earth’s website is very up front about the fact that its shoes are made in China. It even casts that as a good thing, because it means better value for the consumer. As for labor conditions in the factories, “Family members and executives go there frequently
to watch operations and working conditions.... The factory and offices are up to par
with many US plants, and our workers enjoy a lifestyle above Asian
standards.... In short, Earth, and other US companies operating in China’s
special industrial zones, have created a new life for Chinese workers.
We are pushing the envelope and raising the bar; fighting for better
living and a better environment. We have and will continue to influence
changes to improve people’s quality of life everywhere on Earth.”
As I read those words, I could feel my skepticism hackles raising. From what I’ve read about these special manufacturing zones, they represent a complicated web of contractors, subcontractors, and go-betweens. Orders can float from factory to factory, and oftentimes companies don't even know which facility is making their goods.
Luckily, there is another way: third-party certifiers such as Social Accountability International and Verité, which work with companies to ensure that the workers producing their goods are treated ethically.
So here’s the message I emailed to Earth a couple days ago (no response yet; I’ll let you know if/when I hear back):
I was just reading the Our Company page on your site, and my interest was piqued by your words on China. You say, “Family members and executives go there frequently to watch operations and working conditions.”
Here’s the thing, though. These days, companies are falling all over themselves to make claims about how green and socially responsible they are. Consequently, there’s a lot of greenwashing going on. The smart consumer doesn’t simply believe everything she hears or reads.
For a company’s CSR claims to be worth anything, it’s important for them to be backed up. So I was wondering if Earth is considering using the services of an independent third-party certifier, such as Social Accountability International’s Corporate Programs, or Verite, which New Balance uses. If not, why not?
I was also curious about the environmental impact of Earth’s shoes. You say that you are an environmentally responsible company, but are your shoes manufactured in an eco-friendly way? I can’t seem to find any information about this on your site, and factories in China are famous for how polluting they are. Do you have any oversight in this regard?
I encourage any readers out there to send similar notes
to companies whose products they are concerned about. Let me know what
comes of it!
Did you catch the FDA warning about toxic toothpaste a couple weeks ago? I didn’t, thanks to an insanely busy (albeit fun) weekend. But when I fired up my computer this morning, my eye was caught by the New York Times’ interesting follow-up (“FDA Tracked
Tainted Drugs, but Trail Went Cold in China”) on the story.
“Provenance” is a word I’m going to be using a lot more from here on out (I’ve also added it to my categories for this blog). The general inability we as consumers have to know the provenance of so many of the things we buy represents a huge problem.
Provenance blindness is the underlying theme of my recent posts on apparel and bedding, but it takes on a whole new urgency when it comes to something like poisonous toothpaste—or tainted food or pet food, also from China. It’s one thing to care about the working conditions of the people who labor in those nameless factories over there; it’s another to realize that our own safety is in danger when we use products of uncertain origin.
I found an interesting parallel in the toothpaste story with my recent bedding conundrum with Gaiam. In both cases, we have entities refusing to divulge their product sources because they’re worried about being undermined in the marketplace.
So, does global capitalism preclude transparency? Whose job is it to police these supply chains? And if the FDA wasn’t able to find out the origin of toxic products being sold in the U.S., how are we consumers to do so?
December 2010 I haven't actually bought anything from Po-Zu yet, but I appreciate their awareness of the fact that many vegan shoes are made of petroleum products and aren't necessarily better for the environment than leather footwear. Po-Zu seems to set a high bar for itself when it comes to ingredients and supply chains.
March 2010 After running out of dish soap, I started using our good old bars of Sappo Hill out of necessity. But you know what? Our dishes are just as clean, and when I pick up the soap at our grocery store, the only packaging on the bars is the price tag. And did I mention the soap is awesome? We love the oatmeal bar.
February 2010 TMI alert: If you're a squeamish guy, read no further. I'm done with tampons! Instead, I'm using the DivaCup.
January 2010 Mr. Wallet Mouth and I both love Pact. Its underwear is made of organic cotton, and the company donates 10% of its sales to worthy environmental causes. Not only that, but the company is serious about eco-friendly packaging. Each pair of undies comes not in a plastic bag but in a little cloth pouch made from fabric remnants. I'm also impressed with how responsive Pact is over email; when I asked a packaging question, I got a nice reply from the CEO.
December 2009 After reading about Skoy Cloths, the biodegradable paper-towel alternative, on Fake Plastic Fish, I bought a bunch for stocking stuffers and my own kitchen, and I'm now a fan. They're lasting a long time, despite repeated washings in the laundry, and they arrive with minimal packaging.
October 2009 I was already of fan of Straus yogurt (see June 2007), but now I love it even more. According to Michael Straus, a son of the company's founder, Straus yogurt "is made, cooled, and set in stainless-steel vats, unlike most yogurts, which are poured while still hot into plastic cups to cool and set." As someone who's concerned about plastics and chemical safety, I'm happy to hear that!
July 2009 I'm using a lot more baking soda now that I'm making more of an effort to clean the house in a nontoxic way. But from now on I'll be buying Bob's Red Mill, since Arm & Hammer engages in animal testing.
July 2008 Started feeling extra-good about buying one of my fave meat substitutes, Tofurky, after learning that its maker, Turtle Island Foods, is an independent, family-owned company (Unlike Boca Foods, which is a subsidiary of Kraft, and Morningstar, which is owned by Kellogg).
April 2008 I'm going to start buying my canned beans from Eden Foods, for two reasons: it uses custom-made cans that don't contain bisphenol A, and it's an independent, family-operated company.
February 2008 From now on, whenever I order takeout or ask for a doggy bag, I’ll make sure to avoid #6 polystyrene containers (and, of course, Styrofoam).