OPINION: How to combat unethical products

A picture of a person bearing the weight of unethical consumerism.
(Crystal Yang • The Student Life)

Sugar, milk, chocolate, cocoa butter and child labor: all the ingredients necessary to make that wonderfully satisfactory, oh-so-delectable Hershey’s chocolate bar. 

As consumers, we often don’t think of what we purchase as an end of a means — a product of a process. If we did, the chocolate industry would not be the $60 billion industry that it is. 

Rather, it seems we purchase products because they are a means to an end: I purchase a bag of assorted sweets because Halloween is approaching. There exists a void and a product to fill that void. In this vacuum of thought, elements of quality, price and brand billow, but questions like “from where and how?” are seldom found.

I don’t buy Disneyland tickets and think about how the father of Tomorrowland also begot the V-2 rocket used by the Nazis in World War II. I buy them to enjoy a fun outing with friends.

And I don’t purchase a MacBook or iPhone and think about how the minerals used to make them are mined in egregious conditions by children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I buy these products to access classes, talk with people from across the world and learn from the breadth of information found online.

My logic in purchasing these unethical products is not that deep: there is no ill intent, no yearning for the use of child labor and no call for more hazardous conditions. 

Just because people purchase items produced by unethical means doesn’t mean that they want to support the systems behind their creation — at least consciously.

And while the burden should be on the companies using dreadful practices, it must be said that as consumers, we have a hand in perpetuating the exploitation of poverty and letting producers know that what they’re doing — using child labor — is profitable. 

The unethical practices of these companies may not be entirely our fault, but at least we can do something to fix it. If companies are not going to, we must pick up the slack that their unethical practices leave behind.

Currently, there is no great push to go beyond being the means to my end type of consumer. So, let’s explore the better options we do have toward achieving some sort of ethical salvation when consuming these products.

Once more, ideally the companies that use these unethical practices would play the main role in fixing this situation. However, it is naive to say that these companies would be willing to drop their current system of production. Instead, I propose that government policies require labels detailing how products were sourced and made, similar to how labels are mandated on cigarette packs.

While some companies publish information on their practices on their websites, placing this information on packaging would be far more transparent. 

Apart from the companies themselves, some may say that consumers should think more critically about the choices in products they make — that they should precede each purchase with a thorough background check of the product in question. And if a hint of unethical practices is found, they should banish that item from their shopping list.

While a fantastic sentiment, such a practice is impractical. In many circumstances, determining whether or not a product is ethically produced requires information that does not exist, as is the case with figuring out whether or not the creation of a particular Nestlé chocolate bar involves child labor.

We could make conservative estimates and repudiate all products that carry any hint of being produced unethically, but then we’d be rejecting a handful of items which, especially in this pandemic, are deemed essential, including laptops and phones.

More realistically, there are some products that have little to no ethical alternatives (laptops and phones) and may be called necessary evils. But there are also products that do have accessible ethical alternatives (chocolate). Once we establish these two categories, we can accept the former and follow through on finding ethically sourced products for the latter. At least in the case of chocolate, when buying from more ethical brands, one is no longer sending signals to companies that their unethical practices are conducive to economic success. 

Once a consumer feels knowledgeable enough about a given product and its connection with unethical practices, that consumer should educate others in a manner that is not overbearing. One can simply suggest to others alternative, ethical brands or products that their friends often enjoy. Or, on a college campus, one can give out ethically sourced chocolates or products and mention in a few sentences why they are doing so.

As for laptops, phones and other devices which I deem necessary evils, perhaps consumers should think about what they use these devices for. As a student at Claremont McKenna College, I am surrounded by students with a diverse range of interests, many of which have to do with economics and government

These students use their laptops to attend Zoom classes to further their knowledge about fields of study, through which they can propose new policies and directly address the issues presented by this article. They can incite change — if not at the global level, then at the college and consortium levels.

From pushing to mandate labeling products created under dubious conditions to implementing more rigorous surveying of where products are coming from, there are multiple avenues for us to propose policies, spread awareness and finally hold unethical companies accountable for the shameless exploitation they refuse to admit to themselves.

At the very least, we can shop ethically when possible and be conscious about how products reach our hands. We can acknowledge, educate and ultimately make a difference — even if by means of laptops and phones.

Brian Lee CM ’24 is from Diamond Bar, California. He enjoys taking walks when it’s not 90 degrees and wearing Christmas sweaters out of season.

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