Editorial: How many slaves ‘work for you?’


Being told that a specific number of slaves “work for you” is an alarming experience. That phrase is so condemning in its cold factuality.

But sometimes disturbing is exactly what people need to shock them into change.

At the end of Made in a Free World’s online survey about the truth behind consumers’ choices, each person is informed of exactly how many slave laborers are behind the products they use. The survey extensively analyzes all types of products, including clothing, food, electronics, toiletries and jewelry.

All members of The Brown and White editorial board answered the survey’s questions about their consumer habits and faced their personalized, disturbing numbers at the end. The sum of our individual results is 464 slaves.

464 slaves.

All of us are reasonably educated consumers– or so we thought. Where are we going so wrong? How can we ensure that we do not buy products that involve slaves, sweatshops, cruelty to animals, or elements that are destructive to the environment?

We are all college students in the United States, which explains part of the problem. As Erik Olin Wright and Joel Rogers point out in the chapter on consumerism in their book, “American Society: How It Actually Works,”  the U.S. is a hyper-consumerist society. They attribute much of the drive to consume to exhaustive marketing campaigns that convince people that they need certain products. As Wright and Rogers say, “Ads do much more than simply transmit information: they display and reinforce certain values, constantly affirming the association between happiness and consumption, between success in life and buying things, between sexual attractiveness and particular forms of consumption. These associations and images are part of the taken-for-granted culture that Americans learn from early childhood and make a life heavily oriented to consumption seem natural.”

That perfect, absolutely necessary product we covet one day quickly becomes replaceable and updateable once we own it, like the old toys that initiated our cycle of consumption. Also, as associate sports editor Lisa Kocay mentions in her edit desk, most college students have a limited budget. Many of us cannot afford this pattern if we constantly buy from expensive stores. So, we resort to inexpensive stores, like Forever21, which are known for using child labor and other unethical means to lower their prices.

Wright and Rogers also mention the work of the economist Robert Frank, who says, “For the last three decades, virtually all income gains in the United States have gone to top earners. Recipients have spent most of their extra income on positional goods, things whose value depends heavily on how they compare with similar things bought by others.” He continues, “Additional spending by the rich shifts the frame of reference that defines what the near rich consider necessary or desirable, so they too spend more. In turn, this shifts the frame of reference for those just below the near rich, and so on, all the way down the income ladder.”

What if those top consumers decided to only purchase ethically produced goods? Would those consumption patterns trickle down, as well?

Stella McCartney, a high-end designer known for her brand’s animal and environment-friendly policies, started the “vegan leather” trend that a multitude of mainstream, affordable stores are now copying. In an interview published on her website, she puts all her efforts into perspective, saying, “I’m not perfect, I travel on airplanes, I drive a car, but I recycle and the electricity in the house comes from wind power. However, to be a true environmentalist, you would have to live off the grid. I‘m aware and I ask questions. I shop in health food stores. I live in a nice house and I have electricity, but I turn the light off when I leave the room. I am definitely not perfect and I don’t think I’m perfect in my job…When we can make things better, we do it. We do things on an achievable level in order to make it happen.” This vegetarian designer who collaborates with the Ethical Trading Initiative and Natural Resources Defense Council is humble but also very wise.

At this point in time, it is nearly impossible to only purchase completely guilt-free items while on a budget and living within Western society. But progress is not zero-sum. Every time someone posts an article on social media, chooses Chipotle over McDonald’s, or splurges on an American Apparel sweater instead of five from Forever21, that is progress. If that happens enough, the Forver21s of the world will adapt to what consumers demand and the number of slave laborers, among other things, will go down. Every inch towards awareness or slightly changed practices is an improvement.

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