Secrets, Lies, and Sweatshops

A few weeks ago BusinessWeek ran an unusually long and cautionary taleabout the challenges and limitations of “ethical” purchasing in China.

“Some companies that thought they were making dramatic progress are discovering otherwise. A study commissioned by Nike last year covered 569 factories it uses in China and around the world that employ more than 300,000 workers. It found labor-code violations in every single one.”

Seventh Generation has for these and other reasons decided not to source anything from China. We are clearly the exception to the rule. But decisions about sourcing products from developing countries are by no means black and white. Our own decisions have more to do with our small size and our limited ability to influence and monitor factory operations than any categorical philosophical beliefs about global trade. We do, however, believe for a host of reasons that sourcing locally, or as close to where we sell as we can get, is usually preferred.

“BusinessWeek reviewed summaries of 28 recent industry audits of Chinese factories serving U.S. customers. A few factories supplying Black & Decker, Williams-Sonoma, and other well-known brands turned up clean. But these facilities were the exceptions.”

This seemingly negative and disappointing portrait should be contrasted against the series of stories New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in 2004:

“All the complaints about third world sweatshops are true and then some: factories sometimes dump effluent into rivers or otherwise ravage the environment. But they have raised the standard of living in Singapore, South Korea and southern China, and they offer a leg up for people in countries like Cambodia.”

Kristof profiles children desperate to work in “exploiting” factories rather than face a much more dismal alternative.

What’s the answer? Heather White, Founder of Verite, the non-profit social auditing and research organization writes,

“(The BusinessWeek story) is the first piece to fully explore the recent challenges to monitoring factories in China. However it is not a simple case of dishonest factories trying to avoid complying with good American labor standards.The complicity of US corporations, the prevailing business model, and the mandates of corporate monitors should not be forgotten in the discussion. Most US companies tend to take a superficial approach, hire commercial auditors who don’t ask pertinent questions, and now require the factories the pay the monitoring costs.”

I would highly recommend anyone interested in sourcing from developing nations to consider talking to Verite first!