What are our toys trying to tell us?

When you open newly bought Halloween decorations, the last thing you expect to find between two headstones is a cry for help from Chinese labor camp workers across the world. That is exactly what happened to one US shopper at a K-Mart in Oregon. This woman was shocked at the explicit message inscribed in a letter inside the box she purchased.

Normally, when we buy items at a store, there is no indication of how, where, and under what conditions the product was made. Some of us may not care how products are made, but even for those who do want to be ethical consumers, it can be difficult to do so. This may be for a number of reasons including the higher cost of ethically made goods, the cynicism that we cannot make a difference, and the lack of information available to us. Shana Starobin’s Good Question, “What should we eat?” gives excellent insight into the challenges that consumers face in being aware and capable of eating, or shopping, ethically.

Imagine if every product came with a letter similar to this one, detailing the ethical or unethical practices that went into making the product. The letter, if found to be legitimate, certainly details worrisome labor practices in China. The note reads:  People who work here have to work 15 hours a day without Saturday, Sunday break and any holidays. Otherwise, they will suffer (punishment), beat and rude remark. Nearly no payment (10 yuan/1 month).” There was also a desperate plea for readers to pass the letter onto the World Human Rights Organization. Although this is not a real organization, the shopper passed the letter onto the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which is currently investigating the case.

What obligations does the shopper now have? Will she and should she stop purchasing these products?

For the next few months, she may check regularly to see what country and conditions different products are made in. Yet, she will quickly realize that much of this information is hard to find. Unlike medicines and tobacco products, our everyday purchases do not come with warning labels telling us the dangers created by the products themselves. Imagine what the world might look like, if this was not the case. You might stop yourself from buying Chris Brown CD’s if it had a label that read “WARNING: Do not buy this album! This man beats women.”

In the modern global market, goods are typically assembled in multiple countries with differing laws. Global corporations do not have any legal obligation to detail their labor practices to the public, nor do most people take the time to investigate for themselves. Given this information asymmetry, we often continue to make purchases without second thought of what effect they may be having for laborers in other parts of the world.

Even if this incident opens our eyes to unethical practices, will it change the way consumers and corporations act? If US consumers resolve to boycott products made in China (which would be nearly impossible), we will just be purchasing alternatives manufactured by sweatshops in India, Indonesia, or the Philippines. There may not be better alternatives. Furthermore, a boycott of Chinese goods could complicate global markets, harming American and Chinese laborers.

Maybe consumer boycotts are actually ineffective in the larger scheme of things, and it is better for us to pressure governments and advocate for change that way.  Or maybe the reason the laborers wrote to this woman, is because they know that consumers can do something to change the situation. As everyday shoppers, we may not know how to influence macroeconomic and government policies, but our consumer purchasing power may be our way to make a difference.

If I buy products made from Chinese sweatshops, does that not make me at least somewhat responsible for the state that these laborers are in? It is much easier to convince ourselves that these issues are out of our control, but I wonder if they are actually entirely determined by what our hands put into our shopping carts.

What do you think our responsibility as consumers is and how should we respond to this plea for help?