Environmental Leader, along with most major news outlets, reports that Walmart is preparing to develop a sustainability index for its suppliers and products. The index will try to account for the environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance of Walmart suppliers "in such a way that consumers [can] easily discern the sustainability of one product over another." Marc Gunther at The Big Money writes: "For the [Walmart] index to work, consumer-goods makers will need to understand the origins of everything they put into their products."
Recent news about the global supply chain has made me think about my own origins.
I don't usually refer to myself on the KLD Blog, but on this topic, I'll make an exception. I was fortunate enough to attend Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – an industrial town, and a school founded by an industrialist and a financier. I was able to do so because my father, a manufacturer's representative, had a productive understanding of the 1980s market for truck equipment in the Northeastern US.
College's big ideas and relationships (including my marriage) were, in a sense, brought to me by a stream of dump bodies and liftgates from a plant in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
The power of the industrial supply chain is both personal, and profound. Perhaps this is why I found this New York Times report, on the roots of recent violence between ethnic Uighurs and Han in China, especially painful. Andrew Jacobs describes a hellish brawl, and also the stage for this tragedy:
"During a four-hour melee in a walkway between factory dormitories, Han and Uighur workers bludgeoned one another with fire extinguishers, paving stones and lengths of steel shorn from bed frames. … "Li Qiang, the executive director of China Labor Watch, an advocacy group based in New York that has studied the Shaoguan toy factory, has a different view [of the cause of Uighur/Han violence]. He said the stress of low pay, long hours and numbingly repetitive work exacerbated deeply held mistrust between the Han and the Muslim Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority that has long resented Chinese rule."
The setting for this madness was a toy factory. All this suffering is at the front of a supply chain that leads to me, and my kids' allowance money.
Labor activists might scold me for needing to be reminded of this, and a new book will make more Americans less comfortable with all our cheap stuff. In "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture," Ellen Ruppel Shell considers our culture's "insidious human costs," in the words of Salon reviewer Stephanie Zacharek.
Accounting for such costs, Ms. Zacharek writes, is "impossible" without China, but she also points out that "China isn't the source of the 'cheap goods' problem":
"[Author Ellen Ruppel Shell] quotes Mark Barenberg, a professor of law at Columbia University and an expert on international labor law: 'The severe exploitation of China's factory workers and the contraction of the American middle class are two sides of the same coin.'… In other words, employers in the United States can easily use the threat of downsizing and outsourcing to gain more power over, and squeeze more juice out of, their employees -- who, in turn, enjoy increasingly less protection from unions."
"Cheap" author Shell explores the role of retailers like IKEA in maintaining "discount culture." Ms. Zacharek makes an example of IKEA's purchases of timber. While the firm is the third-largest buyer of wood in the world, it employs only 11 forestry experts to monitor its suppliers. Many of them harvest in remote regions where wages are low, working conditions are poor, and "half of all logging is illegal."
Ms. Zacharek asks the question that Walmart is now attempting to answer:
"Would enlightened consumers pay a little more, maybe, to buy products made from wood that had been, unquestionably, legally harvested? Maybe -- but it's not the consumer's choice to make, at least not right now. And if there's one thing that makes reading this eye-opening book an ultimately frustrating experience, it's that Shell can't offer many helpful solutions to this tangle of economic and moral problems, aside from urging us to be more aware as consumers."
I would argue that, rather than becoming "more aware as consumers," we should remember that there is no such animal as a "consumer." Each of us produces, consumes, and benefits from the work of others – past and present. The money I spend at IKEA, like my education and my career, came from the labor of my Dad, and also people in Council Bluffs and Shaoguan.
My life's good fortune was brought to me by a certain sort of economy; the world's supply chain makes our lives, not just our stuff.