When buying a product there are many things to take into consideration. What I like to remember when shopping is that every decision we make has an impact on the others around us whether we see it or not. And overall I think that our money, as a powerful societal driver is one of the things that can have the biggest impact (unfortunately). Every time you buy an item you are voting for that product, for the system that created that product, for the transportation, and labor and everything else associated in the process to get that product to you. When I was studying abroad in the Dominican Republic, we took a field trip to a factory called Alta Gracia. Alta Gracia is the only factory among developing countries (or so we were told) that has pledged and been certified to pay its workers a living wage as well as actually provide decent working conditions. Even after hearing all the horror stories about working and living in developing countries it was still pretty astounding that so few companies in these nations actually make sure that their workers are treated with basic respect and dignity and are paid enough to be able to support their family’s basic needs.
Throughout my visit I began to think deeply about the importance of knowing where your products are coming from and what sort of conditions these products are created in. It made me reflect back on some of the truly pivotal classes that I took in college. In one of these classes we used a website to check our slavery footprint. Our footprint is calculated based on the things that we own, have bought, and personal habits. Although not completely accurate, the website gives visitors an idea about how the things that they own are related to modern day slavery practices.
(The idea of “slavery” may sound odd in this context and many people may believe that it is no longer something that happens in our society today, and that it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, that is not the case and after examining my slavery footprint in this class I decided to spent the next semester in another class called Human Trafficking. In this class we examined cases of modern day slavery and ways that people are still sold like commodities especial as sex slaves, child workers, general workers etc. If you do some research you can see how modern day slavery is still happening ALL over the world. Yes, that’s right even HERE in the United States.)
This website also makes it clear that supporting products made with slaves supports overall slavery. I don’t remember how big my slavery footprint was back in college but I recently redid the slavery footprint survey and I’m sure that today it is much smaller than it used to be. Nevertheless, I’m ashamed to admit that even today after all my zero waste lifestyle changes there are still 31 slaves in my slavery footprint who “work for me” and are associated with the items I own and my lifestyle choices. I think we can all agree that even just one slave is far too many.
As a result of these experiences I came up with this series of levels that questions just how well you know the products you consume. These levels overlap in many areas and there may be something that I missed or left out but here is general idea of things that should be taken into consideration when buying something-especially when buying something new. I phrase these levels into questions as a way to make you really think about the processes that are used to make the products you consume but also to use as a future reference when you are in a store looking to purchase something. And if you ever come across a product where you don’t know the answer to any of these questions I urge you to find out. This system is far more complicated than we imagine and includes so many different components. All along the way and through these processes we can choose what we support and if we don’t like how companies are doing business or how they are making their products, it is our societal responsibility to urge them to make a change. To make it more sustainable. To make it more just. To make it more humane. If companies don’t provide you with information about what their products contain and don’t empower consumers by giving them what they need to make informed decisions and choices (ie. Products with GMO’s or that use slavery/bad labor practices) then we most especially need to say something! There are plenty of documentaries out today that show what bad conditions certain laborers work in; they are easy to find with just a little bit of research.
First Level: Raw Materials
What raw materials are used to make that product? How are those raw materials obtained? Are these materials obtained in a way that is damaging to the environment? Do these materials pose a threat or negatively impact human health or the health of other beings? Are there any byproducts produced in the processes used to obtain the raw material? What sort of negative effects can that byproduct have? How are these byproducts dealt with?
Second level: Transportation and Processing of Raw Materials
Where do the raw materials go from there? How are those raw materials transported? What fuel is used to transport it? What sort of processes do the raw materials go through in order to become the product that you will ultimately end up purchasing? What is needed to make those processes occur (ie. machinery) and how are those things obtained?
Third level: Workers
How do those processes affect the people who are working in that factory and creating that product? Do these processes create harmful and negative conditions in which people work? Are those people treated fairly and paid a living wage? Are they given a reasonable amount of time-off? Are these companies looking out for their workers or looking out for themselves? Is the health and wellbeing of the workers taken into consideration? How much influence and control over the processes or workflow does the individual worker have? Are the workers allowed to unionize? Are there opportunities to move up? Are workers given multiple trainings to improve their skill sets? Are companies honest about their treatment of workers?
Fourth level: Packaging and Transportation to Store
Once the product is finished, how is it packaged? Is the packaging necessary for transportation; are there other solutions or other options the company could have used instead? From the packaging, what is wasted? Is the packaging a single use product or part of the overall product? Who packages them? What sorts of conditions do they work in? From the factory to the store or market, how is the final product transported to where it will be sold? What is the difference between the place where it is made and where it is sold? How far does it have to travel? What types of resources are needed to transport it? Who transports it? What is their job like?
Fifth level: Marketing, Selling, and Quality of the Product Cost
How is the product marketed or sold? What sorts of resources are used to market or sell it? Is the product something that people really need or is it something that people have been convinced that they need? What is the quality of the product? Is it made to break within a set amount of time or is it made to last a long time? Is the product affordable or is it sold for ridiculous prices? Are all the costs of producing, shipping, and disposing of that object built into the price of the object or is marked down to make it attractive to buy? Is it marked up in price? How much of the money that you paid for that object will actually go back to all of the workers that make it? How much money goes to the bosses and overseers and the other people at the “top” of the company? Is it fair? How does the demand for this product affect the supply? How does the demand for this product affect the economy? How does the production of this product affect society and the world?
Sixth level: Consumer and Shopping
Where does the consumer go to purchase that item? Is it local or far away? How does the consumer get to the store to purchase it and what resources did they use to get there? Is the consumer buying new or second hand items? What does the consumer use to carry it home in? What waste is associated with the item? How is that waste dealt with? Does the consumer follow proper product care guidelines to make the product last as long as possible? How is the product treated by the consumer once the item is purchased? Does the consumer use the product until it is no longer useful or is it disposed of even though it can still be used? Does the consumer upcycle or reuse all the parts from a product even if it is no longer useful? Can the consumer potentially be negatively affected by consuming this product? Is the consumer aware of the potential dangers? Has the product been sufficiently tested to prove that it is safe? If the product does negatively affect consumers does the company take full responsibility? Does the company properly compensate the consumers negatively affected by their product? Does the company take measures to make sure that their future products are safe once it comes to their attention that it has been unsafe for a consumer? Does a company make sure that their product cannot be used by consumers to negatively impact other people?
Seventh level: Disposal
When a consumer is done with the product how do they get arid of it? What sort of resources do they use to get a rid of it? Does the consumer choose to dispose of it properly? And if not what happens to it? What sort of negative impacts can it have even if it is disposed of properly? Where does it go? Is it reused/upcycled or recycled or thrown away in a landfill or incinerated? Does it end up in the ocean or pollute local water sources? Does it continue the nutrient cycle? How long will that product take to break down? Will it ever break down?
Like I said there may be even more levels on which you should know what you own and buy but there are the ones I can think of. There is a lot more going on to the things you see in the store than just what appears on the shelf. And more people need to think about these things before buying them. More people need to care. My suggestions are: 1) buy local and if you can buy second-hand instead of new 2) know your companies and products as well as all the processes that are used to make them 3) aim for high quality, natural materials, and ethical sources 4) know how to properly dispose of the product and how long it will take before you need to buy it again 5) fix, reuse, and up-cycle things before resorting to throwing it away 6) don’t buy what you don’t need and 7) always refuse to create more waste, reduce your footprint and what you need to live, reuse materials that you have, recycle everything properly, and rot everything else!
Your product should be a product that is good for everybody every step of the way!
If you are interested in finding out what your slavery footprint is I definitely encourage you to google it and take a peek around to learn ways you can take slavery out of your life.