Culpability and Change: The Bangladesh Disaster (Again)
[Update: Jerry Davis had a longer piece on this issue at Yale Global Online.]
Jerry Davis objects to my post, accusing me of misreading him because I didn’t read him (allegedly). “I would not summarize my argument as ‘Blame the consumers,’ and tried to be careful not to phrase it this way.” I gather part of the complaint is that ‘blame the consumers’ implies it is solely their fault, whereas (at points) Davis is clear blame is shared. Fair enough.
Let’s start with the original post.
Blame quickly extended from the owners of the building and the factories it contained, to the government of Bangladesh, to the retailers who sold the clothing. But the culpability extends all the way down the supply chain — to us.
Our willingness to buy garments sewn under dangerous conditions, chocolate made from cocoa picked by captive children, or cellphones and laptops containing “conflict minerals” from Congo create the demand that underwrites these tragedies.
I’ll concede he doesn’t actual apply the word blame to consumers – he used culpability (seemingly as a synonym for blame, which is used at the beginning of the sentence, but let’s leave that aside). Where does our culpability come from? “Our willingness” (a phrase I already quoted) to buy such goods.
So companies are culpable too, right. Well, maybe, maybe not. There’s more on why companies can’t tell what happens further up the chain, but I like this bit:
After a generation of outsourcing and globalization, corporations in many industries are often merely the last step in a long chain of suppliers and assemblers. As a result, the companies whose brands are on the product often have little idea of what might have occurred two steps back.
Again, let’s leave aside that this is a feature, not a bug, of the system of “outsourcing and globalization.” So if you are keeping score – the companies that sells you the product “often have little idea of what might have occurred two steps back” but you are culpable for buying it.
This issue gets addressed in his response to other commenters.
Should consumers feel any responsibility for how the goods they buy are produced? Ms. Goodman says no — that executives and officials higher up the chain are responsible, not us. But why should the buck stop with a retailer that buys from a wholesaler that buys from a brand licensee that sources from Bangladesh? The retailer is three steps removed from factory conditions; we are four.
We can choose to ignore distant tragedies, but our purchases keep the machinery in motion. In a Web-enabled world, ignorance is a feeble excuse: if you can use a search engine, you can quickly research which brands oversee safe practices and make the long-term commitment that Professor Posner describes, and which do not.
Ignorance is no excuse – for you. It is an excuse for the corporations, who presumably are not Web-enabled. That seems like a weird and unjustifiable double standard to me. Beyond that, my response is that I and Walmart are different in a number of ways, not just where we fall in how far removed we are from the factory. Walmart has enormous sums of money, is an exceedingly large buyer, and has all sorts of resources I don’t. Walmart doesn’t suffer from collective action problems as my fellow consumers and I do.
Can consumers do anything to promote changed business practices? Ms. Kenney mentions the grape boycott that ultimately changed the working conditions of farm laborers in California. Consumers today have the capacity to change the landscape for nearly every product they buy — particularly the affluent demographic that reads The Times. There are free apps on the Web that allow us to identify responsible products (such as GoodGuide), and some grocers post the provenance of their fresh foods.
I’ve already addressed the point about the apps, so I’ll just say the existence of a tool is not proof that the tool will deliver any level of results. Call me skeptical but I suspect those of us expressing outrage over this disaster typically have experience trying to buy ethically and are aware of the limits of such things.
But let’s talk about the grape boycott, which was not a product of aggregated consumers deciding they would not buy grapes. In fact, it was led by a union. In Bangladesh, workers need the approval of the factory owner to form a union (although that may be changing, thanks to a lot of voice.) Union members traveled around the country educating and mobilizing consumers, something that would be far more difficult for non-union workers across the globe. Also, it’s a lot easier to avoid buying grapes (which are quite obvious) than say – clothing and electronics, whole classes of items.
The question here is about how regular people can bring about change. Is it better to use their consumption choices in order to express their views, or political action to express their views? That should be the question- rather than beginning with the idea that we should see ourselves as ‘consumers’ first, when thinking about this issue. As Albert Hirschman said, “A person less well trained in economics might naively suggest that the direct way of expressing views is to express them!” Voice –that is, demanding change, causing a ruckus, which involves blaming those with the power to do something, is working quite well right now.
- Bangladesh’s government agreed on Monday to allow the country’s garment workers to form unions without prior permission from factory owners.
- Bangladesh’s government has announced that it plans to raise the minimum wage for garment workers.
- H&M announced that it signed a fire and building safety agreement as did Zara.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not against people choosing to shop ethically, or am I against boycotts of particular companies who refuse to take these sorts of steps – like the Gap and Walmart. But the former is unlikely to change to change much, and the latter is more of a hybrid tactic using both voice and exit. (That the boycott goes beyond choosing what to buy and includes naming and shaming is key – it is a very different animal than buying decisions alone). I’m for a diversity of tactics. And these changes are essentially just press releases at the moment. The work of translating them into actions remain. Decisions to buy or no to buy, it should be noted, are very blunt, and therefore not very good for ensuring implementation.
But the whole idea that “consumer choices are the motive force, and we control what we buy” (a much stronger statement than ‘consumers bear some responsibility too’) is problematic because – 1) it overlooks that we can only chose among the alternatives we are given, which leaves a great deal beyond our power and 2) it makes consumers feel guilty (or culpable or whatever) and defuses their anger making effective action less likely.
In his comment, Davis says:
If we want to change corporate behavior, we need to change consumer demand. “Naming and shaming,” boycotts, and public humiliation only work if consumers care and change their buying habits.
But that only holds if consumers prefer to buy things made under these conditions, and aren’t willing to pay the small amount is would likely take to change it. Both of these claims are doubtful. But my three bullets above suggest that change can come about through political, as opposed to economic, action. (So does the history of activism).
Regardless of intention, the overemphasis on the power of consumers and the suggestion that the only way (as a factual matter, or a matter of legitimacy) to change it is through consumption choices supports the status quo. And that status quo, including the sort of conditions that led to this horrific disaster, should not be supported.