The audit report sat heavily on my desk, the weight of it bearing down on my heart. The situation sounded like a recipe for disaster…the perfect storm for the next tragedy on the front page of the morning news. Thoughts of the recent fires at Ali Enterprises filled my mind, the lives lost due to working conditions similar to those documented within the report I had just read. Locked exits; barred windows; children as young as 12; no fire extinguishers or fire drills conducted; unsafe electrical wiring; the list went on and on. I felt powerless, this factory was not my factory, it was not manufacturing any products that I was directly ordering. I did not own the relationship with this factory management, nor did I have any opportunity to directly influence them. My client, who was manufacturing product in this factory, would immediately halt production and move it elsewhere as a result of this audit report, the risk of a future factory fire or child labor scandal being too great to manage, the need to ensure their products were not being manufactured in this type of facility, the foundation of their company code of conduct blatantly disregarded.
I was taken back to my very first time stepping onto a factory floor in China. I was 22, juggling the shock of all the sites, sounds and smells I had been experiencing since entering the manufacturing-driven factory cities where we would be sourcing our products. As I walked down the production lines, young workers looked up at me, staring as they continued their monotonous task, watching me walk along the line inspecting their work. I can only imagine the thoughts that ran through their minds, the looks on their faces entirely unreadable. Later I sat in the sample room, watching my boss negotiate the cost of our tooling and per piece product price, down to the half cent. We had three priorities in that room- timeline/production turnaround, material and product quality, and price. Those were the priorities during that initial negotiation, that was all that would determine if we placed production in that facility. The faces of those workers were not yet a part of the conversation.
My experience during that first visit is not necessarily the status quo of how every brand and retailer chooses to source product globally, however, it is the reality of the priority for most companies when they begin building relationships with factories. The company I was working for was not a “bad” company with ill intentions, actually it was full of well-intentioned caring individuals who were raising families and simply doing business as usual. I have spent years working with companies to manage the challenges that are uncovered by audits, the poor working conditions or environmental practices, the lack of systems or understanding of requirements. More than anything, this work has shown how critical that very first meeting with factory management is, that very fundamental establishment of priorities, establishing what matters most. Had my client taken into account the zero tolerance issues that were a part of the audit in the very beginning of that factory relationship, production would never have begun. But, does that mean these people working there would have been safer as a result? No.
Getting back to this moment, sitting in my office in the city, the evening turning dark, contemplating what to do with this Pakistan factory report. My struggle was not that my client had begun production in this factory in the first place; my struggle was that there would be no one left caring once my client left. My client’s own ability to influence change would be limited even if they did choose to engage with this factory, as their production orders only made up 5% of the factory’s output, and would be limited to one production run anyway. This report would be sent, production of this product would be stopped but the production of the other factory customers would continue; there would be no one asking any more questions, evaluating conditions and pushing the management to create a work environment that was safe and positive. I left the office in tears, frustrated with my lack of ability to keep those people safe, my lack of ability to directly motivate positive change.
From all of these years spent working in this industry, I have a pretty unique view into the complex and dynamic environments in which most of the products we buy are made all around the world. I have inevitably adapted a cautiousness to consumerism, bearing this weight of my conscience in knowing the conditions in which a product may have been harvested or manufactured, depending on the country of production as well as the monitoring practices and messaging of the company. So much exposure to so many problems, challenges, and complex social and environmental conditions can be discouraging, but it can also be a huge motivator for influencing change. Knowledge of this reality presents a profound opportunity to rethink the broken model, to come at these challenges from a different angle, to motivate and inspire change that will enable consumers as well as business executives to be conscious of the impact of their buying decisions, but will also engage them as citizens, helping us all to realize that we are all connected to the products we choose to buy and the places we choose to go.
At this moment I write this blog from the top of a cliff overlooking the Pacific coast along a stretch of sand lining the middle of Chile. The products that I carry with me as I travel and explore must serve multiple purposes in order to make the cut. They must be durable, resilient, fixable and reusable. Out of bare necessity I need these products to function in this way, if they don’t serve a purpose daily, I don’t really need them. I adapted this perspective while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail- where every single thing you carry literally weighs you down, and when you feel the physical weight of all the items you own, your priorities shift dramatically. Efficiency and purpose are core. The companies manufacturing the products you use must stand by them and be prepared to support in the repair in order for the product to last through your journey. If you extend your vision of “this journey” to be your time spent on this Earth, now you have a standard to hold them accountable to. Even now as I now backpack through the Andes of Chile I carry on my back my Gregory backpack that I bought six years ago and have carried literally thousands of miles, across multiple mountain ranges all around the world. I intend to pass it on to my children.
We all want to buy things without the weight of negative realities that challenge our own ethical boundaries bearing down on us. We all want to have access to products that can reassure us that this product did not make the lives of those who made it worse, it did not contribute to further damaging our Earth. So, what can be done? Most simply put, if you don’t love it, don’t buy it.
Consider the life of everything you purchase- question how, where and why it was made. Consider how where and why you will use it- how often and for how long.
Consider where it will go when you are finished with it- will it go in a landfill? Can it be recycled? Better yet, can it be upcycled? Could it be composted? Has the company who created that product also created a path for it to follow once you are done using it?
How does the company who sells this product talk about its supply chain? Do they have a Code of Conduct, and more importantly how do they explain it to their suppliers? Don’t demand perfection, demand transparency. Begin asking questions, challenge companies to provide answers, not public relations soundbites or flashy sustainability reports. Become conscious of your actions and acquisitions and believe me, everything will change.
I try to put forth every effort to consider whether or not I will really love a product once I have bought it- from that essential waterproof jacket to the kitchen chopping knife. Believe it or not, I am by no means a minimalist, I understand and appreciate the comforts of “things” that I like to indulge in, and I believe that there are many products that bring people joy and do generally improve our lives. However, I hope to inspire others to join me in this path of conscious consumerism- to evaluate our purchases with a greater sense of purpose, and to truly consider the impact that every dollar spent on a product has on the past and future of humanity. To demand more of the companies we buy from, but to remain conscious of the fact that they are wrestling with incredibly difficult and complex realities of a global supply chain and therefore perfection is not what must be demanded, progress and transparency is. Because it is all connected, I have witnessed it intimately and whether we like it or not we all have a hand in the futures that our children will live, as well as the present day of others halfway around the world.
So with that I ask…what is the last thing you bought that you stopped and thought, “Man I am going to love having this”? How much do you know about the manufacturing practices of the companies you buy from, have you ever wondered about their ethical philosophy? Just to begin, check out this great little rundown created by the Story of Stuff Project to encourage conscious consumerism. I encourage you to begin asking, to start the conversation and continue it, because we can make a difference one at a time, we can influence change directly in a positive way, we simply need to choose to do so. There is vast opportunity to join this revolution, to change the way that we interact with our environment and with one another, to reevaluate and align our priorities with what truly matters most to us. I don’t know about you, but I am diving in headfirst.