Looking Behind the Label and Reforming Global Industry

The recent essay series organized by Jennifer Hadden on climate change mobilization raises larger questions mobilization scholars should be asking: How can we collectively address complex global social problems, such as climate change, which are embedded in our systems of production and everyday habits? How can we build coalitions among movements, organizations, the state, and other players, to create effective reform programs?

Next we need to ask the even more challenging question of how do we successfully implement and regulate reform programs on the ground?

According to Looking behind the Label: Global Industries and the Conscientious Consumer, a new book out this week by Tim Bartley and his colleagues, reforming our system of production is possible, but incredibly complex and difficult to implement in a consistent, cohesive manner. Using a combination of survey data on ethical or politically motived “conscientious” consumption and case studies of certification and regulation programs for different products (timber, food, clothing, and electronics), they examine the effects of certification programs on how individuals shop and on global commodity chain production.

How much does buying fair trade or other certified products matter? Can we really change the world by voting with our dollars? What are limitations to individualistic tactics such as boycotting (avoiding consumption of certain products for political or ethical reasons), or buycotting products (deliberately buying products for political or ethical reasons)? How much can a combination of certification programs and conscientious consumerism do to address the social and environmental costs of mass consumption and production via global supply chains? They answer all these questions in the course of the book.

Their results first suggest location matters a great deal in one’s odds of being a conscientious consumer. Scandanavians, for example, were more likely to buycott (about 50%) or boycott (about 30%) a product at least once in the past year, than Americans (at about 25% and 20% respectively). Bartley and his colleagues argue people are more likely to buy certified products if they live near economic opportunity structures which enable them to easily to do so. Living in an affluent country or having access to ethical products through large supermarkets and other high volume chain stores, makes one more likely to buy ethical products.

In the second part of the book, drawing on their own ethnographic data, the authors walk the reader through four case studies examining how ethical certified products really are. What do we learn from these cases? We learn that even in the best of circumstances where certification and auditing systems exist to monitor production processes, they often fall terribly short.

These case studies of the lumber, clothing, food, and electronics industries showcase how complex production is, and how many structural and contextual factors need to be taken into account to understand how global production can be improved. The case of lumber certification reveals, for example, that even in the best of circumstances, such as when various state, private, and non-profit organizations collaborate to form a certification program to create a more sustainable lumber industry, underlying problems may remain. Even with a fairly successful lumber certification program, with certified lumber at stores such as Home Depot and Lowes, deforestation of old wood forests continues to occur at an accelerated rate – due to other industries which cut down trees, such as the cattle and soy industries in South American and palm oil plantations in Indonesia.

Bartley et al. additionally show how when prominent members of an industry, such as the electronics industry, choose to institute self-auditing programs, they often fail to enforce regulations. Thus they gain the ability to market their attempts at ethical production without being held accountable to actual results. Ultimately the electronics industry case shows how due to the underlying structure of the industry itself – in which tech companies undergo rapid cycles of innovation, production, and sales – it is unlikely that human rights issues and labor abuses, such as overwork and lacking job security, will be addressed any time soon. Companies fear slowing down production will hamper their ability to compete and turn the most profit possible on goods with short life cycles.

Despite these problems, buying some certified products certainly should be part of the solution.  However, it is incredibly difficult and time-consuming to investigate which products are worth it.  The authors’ case studies provide us with some hints toward what certified products might be worth buying.  For example, they suggest that buying fair trade products from farm cooperatives can be beneficial.  Buying fair trade products can support small-scale farmers in collectively organizing to counteract corporate agricultural blocs. It also helps produce funds for the cooperatives to help their farmers develop and modernize production.

In conclusion, the authors suggest that although conscientious consumption and the emergence of certification and auditing programs are important avenues to addressing human rights and environmental problems in our production systems, they are far from a sufficient solution. Given the companies’ lack of commitment to enacting deep structural change, the complex structure of global commodity chains, and the relatively weak role of many developing countries in protecting their workers, to even have a chance to truly reform production systems, a combination of social movements to raise awareness of human rights violations and environmental problems endemic in our global system of production and a collective commitment to deep structural change (e.g. increased governmental regulation, reforming structures of production) will be needed.

I used the book in my global social problems course this past semester and the students found it very insightful. Ultimately, the book moves readers away from individualistic stances on saving the world through buying “socially responsible” products, to a much more critical sociological perspective by forcing us to look at how our political and economic structures can be the deepest source of international human rights violations and environmental degradation.  The book helped the students understand at a much deeper level how challenging it is to enact collective change at a global level. It showed them how many factors one needs to take into account in addressing global production problems — such as varying global supply chain structures in different industries, local and national economic structures, state regulation, movement and NGO mobilization, and collaborations between the many interested players. Yet, even if a certification program and production reform are successfully implemented in a single industry, other industries can still exacerbate underlying social problems.  This complexity was eye-opening to them and provided many important lessons to take away.

I think the book would also work well in a social movement course. It adds a useful perspective on how movements need to work with powerful institutions such as businesses and the state, yet also warns of the limitations of mobilization for social change within business and the broader capitalist system without outside movements or organizations to maintain accountability to improved outcomes.

1 Comment

Filed under Daily Disruption, Great Books for Summer Reading, Great Books for Summer Reading 2015

One response to “Looking Behind the Label and Reforming Global Industry

  1. Pingback: Who is an Activist? On the Blurred Boundaries of Activism | Mobilizing Ideas

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