Cover Story

Follow your labels: Your place in the global consumer chain

After the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, food and clothing labels have become a point of debate. A look at the faraway lives where opportunity and exploitation blur.

By , Contributor

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    This story is part of the cover story project on the global food and clothing chain in The Christian Science MonitorWeekly issue of July 22, 2013.
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Your morning coffee is a miracle of globalization. Someone somewhere in the world had the faith to plant a seedling that years later would produce small cherries harvested by nimble fingers. And then the coffee bean would be transported down bumpy roads cut into active volcanoes, and across oceans. It would be processed and roasted, and ultimately it would find its way to you.

But the miracles don't end at the bottom of your cup of coffee. The bluejeans you slip into before rushing off to work were crafted from swaths of denim in a factory in a country you probably can't find on a map.

In a 1967 speech, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "[B]efore you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you've depended on more than half of the world."

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His words were never truer than today. Almost 98 percent of clothes sold in the United States in 2011 were imported, reports the American Apparel and Footwear Association. And while many Americans are attempting to get closer to their food by purchasing locally, the amount of imported food has doubled since 2000, according to a 2011 US International Trade Commission report.

It's amazing, when you think about it, to eat a banana that traveled thousands of miles from a plantation in Costa Rica. But perhaps more amazing is that so many staples of the American diet – coffee, apple juice, chocolate, to name a few – come from so far away that most of us can't imagine the plants they grow on, let alone the people responsible for producing them.

Food and clothing labels become red flags, though, when a tragedy occurs like the April collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed 1,129 workers. We realize that our shirt was made in Bangladesh, and maybe we bought it at a price that was guilt-free for our budget, but when we see reports on the catastrophe, that shirt might not feel guilt-free any longer.

How can we not wonder: Should we stop buying clothes made in Bangladesh? Should we do the same for the food we eat from places that may have similar questionable labor practices?

But the global economy is not so simple. I've picked coffee on an unimaginably steep mountainside in Colombia, hauled 80 pounds of bananas on my back alongside Costa Rican workers, and walked rows of sewing machines in a Bangladeshi factory, and I've witnessed how the line between exploitation and opportunity blurs quickly.

Our needs create opportunity for factory workers and farmers abroad, which is good. But are their lives improving because of our demand?

The global economy may provide farmers with incentives. But to get a grip on the next rung of the global economic development ladder, farmers see higher wages at urban factories as the answer. And that opportunity can be shortlived in a global market that rapidly shifts to find cheaper wages elsewhere, or if middlemen take their cuts and consumers demand still-lower prices.

Ai, one of 85 garment workers involved in sewing together a single pair of Levi's on a Cambodian production line, left the fields for the factories. When she was told that some Americans don't want to buy the jeans she makes because they think she should earn more than $55 per month, she quickly replied: "If people don't buy, I'm unhappy because I wouldn't have a job."

In his book "The End of Poverty," economist Jeffrey Sachs points out that Bangladesh – home to the world's lowest minimum wage ($38 per month) – has a firm grasp on the first rung of the ladder in part because of the success of its garment industry, which has capitalized on the flood of cheap labor into the cities. As a result, Mr. Sachs explains, over the past four decades per capita income has doubled, life expectancy has increased by 26 years, and the infant mortality rate has dropped by two-thirds. Many economists, like Sachs, say the climb up the economic ladder for Americans was similar – involving urbanization. But not everyone is so optimistic that this climb continues today elsewhere when business is more global, and a single brand, such as Nike, may source from more than 50 countries.

"A garment industry job can help keep a family from starving," says Liana Foxvog, the director of organizing and communications for the International Labor Rights Forum, "but the vast majority of these jobs are not a path out of poverty. The fact that so many workers returned to work at Rana Plaza the day after the cracks appeared in the building is an indicator of the level of poverty these workers live in."

Their working conditions may be poor, but workers fear losing their jobs all the same. Karla Licona earns $1.31 an hour working at a garment factory in Honduras and worries about the garment industry: "I've heard the rumors that the jobs are moving to El Salvador and Nicaragua because our wages in Honduras are the highest…. Even if Honduras has the highest salary, I only make [$65] weekly, [and] I have to pay utilities, telephone, rent, and send my daughter to school."

Farm-to-factory pressure

So can we just shop for our basic needs and take comfort in knowing that the people who make our stuff in faraway factories and grow our food in exotic locales have no better options?

Over the past six years I've met garment workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Honduras, and Ethiopia, and almost every one was a former farmer. So in 2012, I went to work alongside farmers on four continents whose work provides Americans with bananas, apple juice, coffee, chocolate, and lobster. Many of the farmers hoped their children would get an education and move to the city. This is happening around the world. Farmers are leaving the fields for the factories, hoping that a job in the city sewing Levi's or assembling iPhones will improve their lives.

Farmers aren't just pulled from the fields by opportunities in factories, they are also pushed by dwindling farming opportunities. Many get paid less despite the increased appetites of developed nations for the fruits of their labor.

Coffee is a prime example. Antony Wild, author of "Coffee: A Dark History," writes that in 1991 the value of the global coffee market was $30 billion, of which producing countries received 40 percent. In 2005, the coffee market was worth $70 billion, and producing countries received 10 percent.

Raj Patel describes the food chain in his book, "Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System," as an hourglass: lots of producers at the bottom, a lot of consumers at the top, and a small group of companies in between that move and sell the food and have "market power both over the people who grow the food and the people who eat it."

Gabriel Silva, a former president of the Colombian Coffee Federation, estimates that of the $3 Americans spend on a fancy mocha latte at Starbucks, a farmer gets about 1 cent.

For each milk chocolate bar sold, farmers in Ivory Coast earn only one-third of a cent, a calculation based on what farmers told me they were paid and factoring in the weight and cocoa content of a typical chocolate bar. So some farmers economize on labor by using methods that amount to slavery, as documented by Tulane University's Payson Center for International Development in a report commissioned by the US government.

Workers in Costa Rica at a Dole banana plantation were paid $28 per day a decade ago, but were down to $20 per day when I visited. One evening I asked one of the veteran workers, who had seen co-workers die from snakebites and had lopped off one of his own fingers with a machete while working, if he had advice for the younger worker sitting next to him. He did: "Find a different career."

From his perspective, he saw no opportunities in the fields. Similarly, Bangladeshi seamstress Reshma Begum saw no opportunities in the city factories.

After being pulled from the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory where she was buried for 17 days, she ended a press conference with a simple statement: "I will not work in a garment factory again."

So what can you do?

While the workers of the world may struggle to find opportunities in the fields or factories, concerned consumers can have their own struggle finding ways to support them. Looking at a country-of-origin label is important but, by itself, can't ensure a consumer that the product was made in a way that treated people and planet fairly.

There are 72 ethical labels for food alone in the US. Certification agencies may work to educate consumers, empower producers, and ensure that certain social and environmental standards are upheld. They affix their labels to approved products, but many consumers do not know what the labels, such as those of the Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade International, Fair Trade USA, and Fair for Life, actually mean. To make matters more confusing, these groups heatedly debate what "fair trade" means. Fairtrade International says coffee plantations can't be certified, but Fair Trade USA believes the laborers on the plantations can benefit from fair trade standards. And there is constant debate on how much of a product's components have to be from fair trade sources for it to receive certification.

Fair Trade USA's motto is "Every purchase matters." And, says Paul Rice, president of the group, "If we can get people to understand that something as simple as a banana or cup of coffee or a chocolate bar can change people's lives, then we're really onto something."

Good World Solutions, a partner of Fair Trade USA, has an initiative designed to give farmers and factory workers a voice and connect them with consumers: Labor Link. Workers report on factory conditions and job satisfaction through a survey on their mobile phones. The thought is that workers are the best auditors, and some brands make the survey data available to consumers along with information about the workers so consumers can "meet" them.

Ethiopia-based soleRebels, a shoe company certified by the World Fair Trade Organization, exports to 30 countries, employs 140 people, and pays them three times the wage at other factories. Wubuyau Legasse, a mother of two, had worked at the factory for four years when I met her in 2010. "Before, [my children] didn't go to school.... Now they [do]. Life is really better now," she said.

Fair Trade USA is the leading certifier of fair trade products in the US, but only 38 percent of Americans have even heard of Fair Trade USA, according to a poll conducted by the Natural Marketing Institute in 2012. And only one-third of Europeans and North Americans, according to a 2012 Nielsen report, are willing to pay more for products from companies that give back to society, compared with half of consumers willing to do so in other regions of the world.

Awareness of where and under what conditions your food and clothing come from starts with checking the tag of your jeans and the label on your bag of coffee beans and realizing that every grocery store is a farmers' market and every department store is filled with the work of artisans.

Americans are sacrificing a smaller portion of their budgets for food and clothing than ever before; others sacrifice much more.

Kelsey Timmerman has made it his business to follow the labels on his food and clothing straight to their source – the people who sew his family’s clothes and grow the food on his kitchen table. This cover project is adapted from his books – ‘Where Am I Wearing?’ and ‘Where Am I Eating’ – for which he traveled the globe to tell the stories of the food and clothing economies – including human rights, rural poverty, the loss of cultural diversity and biodiversity, climate change, and fair trade – through the lives of the workers he met along the way.

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