Hidden Labor Costs of Your Holiday Shopping List

Submitted by egreene on December 10, 2018
Mike Arney

Whether you’re the type of person who makes a list and checks it twice, or you're a last minute shopper, you're probably planning on giving at least a few gifts this month. One thing that no one plans on is giving a gift that is a product of horrific labor abuses. Before you finish shopping for your list, learn about some of the unsafe or inhumane working conditions behind some popular holiday gifts so you can buy from companies that treat their workers better, instead.

Chocolate 

It’s tempting to walk into a store, look at a brightly colored display of festive boxes of chocolate, and think “Well, that’ll make a lovely gift!” 

Unfortunately, hidden beneath the shiny wrappers are some bitter truths about one of our favorite sweet treats. 

In western Africa, where most of the world’s cocoa is grown, farmers live in poverty. The average cocoa farmer earns less than a dollar a day – meaning that, after a day of hard work, they wouldn’t be able to afford a chocolate bar at an American grocery store. Meanwhile, child labor remains endemic in the industry – over 2 million children are involved in child labor in cocoa, despite over 15 years of corporate and industry-led programs to address this issue.  

Furthermore, cocoa farming has contributed to mass deforestation in cocoa producing countries. In West Africa, more than 90% of the original forests are gone. After a report documenting the mass deforestation in western Africa was published in 2017, the governments of Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, the two major cocoa-producing countries, and 24 major chocolate companies and suppliers agreed to end deforestation in the two countries. Mighty Earth recently discovered that, despite these commitments, significant deforestation still occurred this past year in the two countries. It is paramount that chocolate companies ensure that their commitments to end deforestation translates to real, tangible action, and are expanded to include other cocoa growing countries. 

Best alternative: Check out Green America’s Chocolate Scorecard to get an idea of what the major chocolate companies are doing to address child labor in their supply chains. The scorecard also includes companies you can be proud to support, and shares what the companies with best practices are doing to support farmers. 

Electronics 

Every year, major electronics companies release the newest, and, they insist, the best version of their products. But behind the sleek commercials is an industry rife with labor abuses that affect the health – and livelihood – of its workers. 

In the manufacturing process, workers are exposed to toxic chemicals that affect their health – and can even lead to death.  In November 2017, IPEN and the Research Center for Gender, Family and Environment in Development released a report that documented the various health complications the primarily female workforce of two Vietnamese Samsung factories faced, including an increased risk for miscarriages among pregnant women.  

Meanwhile, Samsung publicly apologized to victims who have fallen ill – or died – working in its semiconductor factories, as part of an agreement it came to with SHARPS. SHARPS is an occupational-health advocacy group in South Korea that has been advocating for workers’ rights and compensation on behalf of victims of Samsung’s factories. After a prolonged campaign led by SHARPS, which was supported by Green America members as well as an international coalition of NGOs, Samsung took accountability for its role in the poisoning of its workers, agreed to provide compensation to past, current, and future victims, and to remove 11 top toxins from its supplier factories. 

Thanks to public concern generated by Green America and its allies, Apple is now working collaboratively with Green America and other companies in the electronics sector to remove toxins from its supply chain– and they are making real progress.  But, in the meantime, workers across the electronics industry are still exposed to a host of chemicals.  Workers overseas are further exposed to toxic chemicals during the recycling process, when they take apart electronic devices.  

Furthermore, our electronics are powered by lithium ion batteries. A key component of lithium ion batteries is cobalt. Two-thirds of the world’s supply of cobalt can be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The cobalt mining industry in the DRC is ripe with labor abuses, including well-documented instances of child labor. 

Best alternative: Instead of buying someone a new gadget this year, consider the less glamorous – but more ethical – alternative of gifting them a repair of a device they already have. Or, if you really want to give a gadget, consider gifting a refurbished device – these used gadgets are fixed up so they are like new (for a fraction of the price of a new device). 

Jewelry 

Diamond may be a girl’s best friend, but look beyond the glamor and shine of our favorite jewels, and you will instead see an unglamorous and disturbing reality. 

Diamond and gold mining are industries rife with labor abuses, including low wages, exposure to heavy metals, and child labor. Miners – both adult and children – risk their lives by doing dangerous work with little protection or training. Mining communities also suffer environmental damage when toxic chemicals from mining operations enter their local water supplies. Without increased transparency from major jewelry companies about where they are sourcing their gold and diamonds from, consumers won’t know if their purchases came from human rights abuses 

Best alternative: Consider fair trade jewelry. Green America's Green Business Network can get you started on a journey of finding unique – and fairer-- pieces of beautiful jewelry that don’t rely on the exploitation of impoverished miners and their families.  For example, Ten Thousand Villages has a large number options when it comes to jewelry, and with each piece, they let you know which artisans worldwide were benefited by your purchase. 

Toys 

While the children in your life may think toys come from the North Pole and are made by happy elves, the truth is much more sobering. 

China Labor Watch conducted investigations into four Chinese factories that produce toys for major companies including Disney, Hasbro, Lego, and Mattel. 

Their investigations found that during peak production seasons, workers put in 80-175 hours of overtime a month. This figure is significantly higher than the legally allowed 36 hours of overtime a month. 

Some of the other labor violations the report uncovered includes the discovery that workers were not receiving the mandatory safety trainings prior to starting work at the factories. This means, for example, workers who have to handle toxic substances may not be aware of what they are handling – and how to safely handle them. The report also noted that there was a lack of sufficient protective equipment and health safety measures in the factories. 

To see a full breakdown of the difficult conditions Chinese toy factory workers face, you can read China Labor Watch’s report here. 

Best alternative: If you do want to give the little ones in your life a toy, Green America’s Green Business Network is a great place to start your search. Or, read one of our gift round ups for kids and children at heart

 Check out our Green Pages Online for a directory of Green Business Network certified businesses for more ethical alternatives for your holiday gift list. 

Interested in a more comprehensive list of all good that are trafficked? The Department of Labor’s Sweat & Toil app documents which products involve child and force labor, and shares information on what different governments are doing to address this issue.

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