Fair trade coffee, fair trade chocolate, conflict-free diamonds, and a host of other products have emerged in recent years as consumer-driven efforts to address systemic injustices that plague workers abroad. Such initiatives promise (Truthfully or not) the buyer a clear conscience, and theoretically, the knowledge that their purchase has not contributed to human rights violations internationally.
Ironically, this movement has failed to create a popular or well-known alternative in the industry where such demands for global awareness began: the textile and clothing industry. In the mid to late 90’s Nike and other companies were among the first to receive intense pressure to change their labor practices following revelations of child-labor and sweatshop conditions. Despite some changes, the industry does not provide the kind of well-known consumer alternative that coffee does. While homemade clothing movements are on the rise and hipster culture has brought into vogue Goodwill shopping, consumers have failed to bring meaningful change to an industry that provides for basic human needs but is also characterized by rights violations.
The reality of this situation flashed across our televisions in recent weeks following the horrific collapse of a clothing factory in Bangladesh, resulting in the death of over 1,100 people. Reports emerged swiftly that U.S. companies such as J.C. Penny and Walmart either bought or had bought clothing from this company previously, quickly bringing Western corporations into the international spotlight.
Western multinational companies responded in two different ways: The “European” plan, heralded by varying Swedish, English, and other Western European companies, features independent factory regulation and inspections as well as a legally binding contract that forces corporations to suspend purchases from factories that fail to address safety concerns. Meanwhile, the “American” plan, advocated by U.S. companies like Wal-Mart and Gap, essentially places responsibility on corporations to conduct safety checks and ensure factory upgrades.
This “American” plans leaves me slightly incredulous and embarrassed. Large multinational Western corporations have demonstrated repeatedly that they cannot self-regulate. In this case, human rights—most basically the right to life—and therefore, justice, were violated because Western corporations do not possess the will nor the incentive to ensure the rights and protections that justice demands. Yet concerns of America’s “litigious society” apparently override such basic guarantees.
This isn’t new. Last year, Wal-Mart was accused of massive corruption in Mexico, and questions have long existed regarding its use of sweatshop labor. Western companies are regularly denounced for their unwillingness to put people, rather than profits, first, and whole NGO’s dedicate their existence to overseeing, reporting, and fighting this.
But this has not produced change. And this provokes a question for Christians—especially U.S. Christians, who live with those that lead these corporations and who represent their primary consumer base. How can we ensure justice in the production of our food, clothing, and other goods? Ignoring the problem, or denouncing globalization, will not make the problem go away. We live in a global market economy, one largely created and advocated by the country we inhabit, and this inevitably produces a moral responsibility to address its unjust effects.
Christian philosopher Bob Goudzwaard, who has written extensively on Christian norms for the global political order, notes that justice must follow economic power in our globalized world. The tentacles of Western corporate power now stretch to the far end of the globe and particularly, to countries with weak regulatory mechanisms. Goudzwaard argues that such states simply cannot be expected to regulate these companies, given the overwhelming nature of their economic power—and often, the dependency on such economic activity for national well-being.
Thus, concludes Goudzwaard, the nation state must act in accordance with principles of public justice in the international order. For Goudzwaard, this implies international agreements and institutions, and most significantly, a public international law to regulate such activity.
This, of course, should represent a long-term goal for Christians. But, in the absence of such an order, Christians must also think practically. How can we hold our nation’s companies accountable, given that they have proven incapable of holding themselves accountable, especially by refusing to enter legally binding agreements?
First, we ought to increase international aid that is designed to strengthen and refine regulatory practices in those countries where Western companies operate. Such a step would ensure that other states could ensure justice for their own citizens and defend their needs against powerful corporate interests.
Second, we must think creatively. If corporations will not submit themselves to the law, then why not employ existing law against them? Increasingly, litigants are using the U.S. Alien Tort Statute to bring suit against multinational corporate irresponsibility and destructive behavior internationally, with varying successes. Christians should not be afraid to use this law when it is necessary and appropriate, in order to defend the justice for others.
Finally, consumer attitudes are important. We cannot ignore the injustices our purchases support. While personal consumption changes cannot entirely address the systemic issues discussed here, they do make a difference, and represent an important aspect represent part of a holistic efforts to faithfully seek justice in our globalized economy.
-Aaron Korthuis currently works for the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras on issues of citizen security. He graduated from Whitworth University in 2012, and will begin his legal studies at Yale Law School in the fall of 2014.