When I was spending most of my time in China, going to factories everyday, I witnessed a sliver of the daily lives of the factory workers. The workers would often look up at me as I walked by, staring openly. I suppose I was a bit of an oddity to them, considering I was a very young western woman, something they were less accustomed to seeing in the far-flung remote factory cities. It was much more typical for them to see older western men in suits.
At the time I was studying Mandarin via Rosetta Stone, but my Chinese was not anything to boast about, and my direct interaction with the workers was hardly anything beyond observing the repetitive processes they had to do while constructing our products. As we prepared for audits, I would skim the records of the IDs the factory presented to me, searching for those who were underage. I would tour the factories and dormitories, walking into their sleeping quarters, seeing the wooden platforms they slept on, the cramped spaces they shared, the corner where their food sat in a pile on the cement floor, awaiting cooking after they finished for the evening.
At the time, I was there to do a job that had very little to do with caring about those workers, aside from being sure there were enough of them to meet our production targets. I was there to make sure those workers were making the products to the quality specs we had negotiated with the factory, to be sure the materials being used were those we had signed off on, and to confirm that the factory hadn’t outsourced our production elsewhere. I was not there to evaluate the conditions in which the workers were being managed, aside from a high level tour of the factory to confirm there were no children or obvious violations. I was not there to care about the people that were fundamental to the success of my company. In retrospect, it sounds harsh, but it is an honest depiction of the role thousands of manufacturing manages play for companies all around the world.
Over time, I was exposed to things that made me uncomfortable, finding within the midst of the production lines underage workers here and there; the harsh tones factory managers would use when disciplining a worker, the toxic fumes the workers were exposed to without masks, the blatant sexism and gender discrimination.
I had to face these things, because once I witnessed them, I felt in some way responsible if I did not take action. This lesson was massive, as it was definitive in determining the path I would take my career- the choice of complacency or action, the choice of rolling up my sleeves or turning a blind eye. The reality that complacency and a blind eye are the comfortable, easy paths of least resistance; the reality that choosing to take action meant preparing for uncomfortable conversations, acceptance of reality but commitment to the conversation of change.
When I began working on the other side of the industry, in the field of social compliance auditing and human rights, actually facing these issues head on and working to build solutions to the vast challenges that arise when you are managing an international supply chain in a global economy, I had no idea the depths of darkness this work would expose me to. I also had no idea the brightness of the light that could shine when even just one worker was impacted in a positive way.
There is something to be said for leaning into things that scare the hell out of you, or make you angry. Of stepping back and realizing that things that piss you off are essentially cloaked opportunities, and they are pivotal in defining the kind of person you want to be.
I hate the vastness of the problems that exist in supply chains all around the world. I hate knowing the likelihood of slave labor contributing to the products that I buy. I hate that there are some many companies in this world that simply don’t give a damn.
But I love the fact that there is a huge network of people collectively working toward improving the lives of these workers, of reducing the negative impacts production has on the environment. I love that we can now have conversations, legislation and accountability when it comes to sticky uncomfortable realities such as slave labor. I love that there are companies who care, and they are trail blazing and finding creative ways to tell their stories. They are inspiring others- companies and consumers alike, to challenge the norm when it comes to a broken system.
There are millions of opportunities for us to do better, in everything we do. It takes a willingness to roll up our sleeves, to be willing to get some dirt on our face, to walk boldly into a dark night, to leap from a cliff and know we will be caught. It takes finding your voice, and USING your voice, believing in something and standing steadfast.
But it also takes acknowledging that you cannot do it alone, we need one another, we can be incredibly powerful when focusing on our immediate sphere of influence- knowing that there will be a ripple effect beyond our control and our sight. I have experienced countless moments feeling defeated, in this work, seeing so much work to be done and not feeling as though I am having an impact; and yet, when I bring myself back to my immediate sphere, and I see the positive impact I can have with each person I touch and know, I am again inspired to get back to work and continue pushing.
Think about it. What have you confronted to find the opportunity beneath the fear, the anger or the frustration? What has made you stop and say, wait, this isn’t okay with me, and I’m going to do something about it?