Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Culpability and Change: The Bangladesh Disaster (Again)

with 3 comments

[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.

  1. Bangladesh’s government agreed on Monday to allow the country’s garment workers to form unions without prior permission from factory owners.
  2. Bangladesh’s government has announced that it plans to raise the minimum wage for garment workers.
  3. 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.

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Written by David Kaib

May 15, 2013 at 5:28 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] [Update 2: Davis also makes his objections in this comments to this post. My response is here] […]

  2. Let’s stipulate that the point of this discussion is not to apportion blame for its own sake, but to figure out what is the most effective path toward eliminating unjust working conditions in the supply chain of the goods that reach Western consumers. Also stipulate that the audience for 300-word letters in the “Dialogues” section of the New York Times opinion page is readers of the New York Times (which should seem obvious).

    Supply chains are highly dispersed across many or most industries today. It is less true for some foods (grapes, coffee, chocolate) that have short supply chains; more true for other consumer goods (e.g., garments); and rampantly true for sophisticated consumer electronics. This dispersion is driven by cost, with the side effect that corporations are often (knowingly or not) enabling and encouraging unjust working conditions that often accompany low-cost production (e.g., in Dhaka). Whether ignorance of conditions in the supply chain is a bug or a feature (enabling plausible deniability for corporations), it is generally a fact. HP was unaware of the provenance of the minerals that go into its laptops not because its executives love civil war in the Congo, but because HP hires an assembler in China that buys from component producers that buy from parts suppliers who source from smelters who buy from minerals brokers who buy from mines that might be contolled by warlords. Prodded by the Dodd-Frank Act’s provision on conflict minerals, HP put in the extraordinary effort to locate the 195 relevant smelters in the world that are 4 steps back in its supply chain, and who could then be pressured to eschew conflict minerals.

    What could cause corporations to identify working conditions in their supply chains (which might be costly) and enforce standards (ditto)? As a matter of law, shareholders have no standing to change this, and shareholder proposals are mostly useless, because even business practices like overt employment discrimination are deemed “ordinary business” under the discretion of management and the board (see, e.g., the Cracker Barrel case). Corporate counsels will advise boards of directors (inaccurately) that their primary duty is to shareholders, but this does not mean that shareholders get to dictate policy. It means that profitability is the North Star of corporate action. Shaping the profile of what is profitable works; trying to make directors of Walmart feel bad about conditions four steps back in the supply chains of the tens of thousands of goods Walmart sells is hopeless.

    What political action, specifically, will make a difference? Labor conditions overseas are not under the purview of the US Federal government. To say that “voice” is responsible for the three changes you cite is a bit imprecise. The government of Bangladesh had to act to prevent a complete exodus of Western brands that might follow the path of Disney. Any brands tainted by the factory collapse had to make a show of damage control to prevent a consumer exodus, at least as long as the disaster is fresh in the minds of (some) customers. In other words, it was threats to future sales that drive changes in policy. (Similarly, the grape boycott worked because consumers actually stopped buying grapes. It was led by a union, but was efficacious because of consumer behavior, which is the point.) So: for profit-oriented corporations, political action will work if it threatens profits (e.g., by changing consumer behavior), and not so much otherwise.

    This is why consumer demand ultimately underwrites workplace conditions. I did not say that the only way change can happen is through consumer choice, but that demand is a critical component. (It’s most effective if demand changes can be aggregated, e.g., if many of us followed GoodGuide, Buycott, etc.) Times-reading consumers that made the effort to be aware of the consequences of their choices (such as through agreeing to a grape boycott) can be a potent force.

    The idea that customers can “only chose among the alternatives we are given” in the case of garments suggests that you are unaware of how many options there are for, say, t-shirts. Or chocolate: one national brand sources from child slaves; others do not. They sit next to each other on the store shelves. Lack of options is a fairly strange concern, particularly if one is speaking to the New York Times demographic, many of whom are familiar with Amazon. (Maybe you mean that the iPad is the only real option for a tablet buyer because HP’s tablet is not cool enough?)

    It also seems strange to argue that making consumers feel guilty will immobilize them and support the status quo. Presumably there is a limit to this claim: some might actually prefer it if consumers felt guilty about buying veal, SUVs, seal fur, slave chocolate. Taken to the extreme, this would suggest that consumers should have no qualms about any legal purchases that they make. Is that what we want—veal and Joe Fresh polos with impunity?

    jerrydavisumich

    May 18, 2013 at 10:58 am

  3. […] or consumers for things like labor conditions is a cop out.  (Here and here for voters, here and here for consumers). The general idea is that social outcomes are not a product of unalloyed aggregated […]


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