A partridge in a pear tree? But the Nahan’s Partridge of Africa is endangered, as are the Sichuan Partridge of China and the grey partridge of Britain. And why would you uproot a pear tree from its native habitat?
Chocolate Hannukah gelt? Not if that chocolate is from Cote d’Ivoire – the source of half the world’s chocolate – where young girls are forced to undergo genital mutilation.
On the other hand, coal in the Christmas stocking isn’t a great idea, either. Was the coal strip-mined by blasting the top off a mountain in Appalachia? Were any mine workers killed underground trying to dig it out?
Sigh. If you want to be an ethical gift-giver, it sometimes seems as if the only safe present is a tube of Tom’s of Maine peppermint toothpaste.
(Oops: Tom’s of Maine was bought by Colgate-Palmolive, so you would actually be giving your money to a big corporation that uses weird ingredients like PVM/MA copolymer and propylene glycol.)
Then factor in size, price, and whether the recipient would actually like the thing, and by any definition, it’s impossible to find the perfect gift.
But ‘tis the season. You have to try.
You can certainly read labels, consult “do not buy” lists, and seek out companies that fit your ethical standards. In fact, we at Beacon have compiled a comprehensive list of the major consumer, environmental, labor, animal-welfare, anti-sweatshop, and other “ethical” rankings:
If that seems too arduous, maybe you could look at gift-giving from a different direction. Instead of analyzing the labels, analyze the process. Here are some ideas:
Some companies are actually better than their reputation. Nike, for instance, has dramatically improved its monitoring of overseas suppliers and is considered a leader in ethical leather sourcing in the shoe industry. Nevertheless, it still has such a terrible image, stemming from its sweatshop horrors of the 1990s, that friends and relatives might be furious if you gave them a pair of Air Jordans. So for now, buy the shoes for yourself, and tell people why you did.
Other companies are worse than fans realize. Someone on your gift list might love a bag of Starbucks Via or a mermaid-logo mug, but you know that Starbucks tried to cheat the poor coffee farmers of Ethiopia, wrecks the environment by selling bottled water, and was cited by the National Labor Relations Board for illegal harassment of union organizers. Don’t buy that mug.
If a company takes some actions that really bother you, but overall it seems to be ethically operated, then go ahead and purchase its merchandise. But at the same time, make a donation to a cause that will help counteract the company’s misdeeds, and include the donation card with the gift. For instance: a contribution to PETA along with a set of leather Timberland boots, or a contribution to NOW with an American Apparel shirt.
Give alternative gifts. For the person who lives on Starbucks lattes, try a gift certificate to a local independent café. The Trader Joe’s addict? Some banana bread from the farmers’ market. Of course, the recipients may hate your gift; after all, there’s a reason they go to Starbucks five times a day. But they can always re-gift it.
In the end, there’s some truth to the cliché that it’s the thought that counts.
Sure, employees have filed at least 10 lawsuits against the founder
and chief executive of sexy-clothing-maker American Apparel, alleging sexual
harassment, bullying, violence, and illegal use of corporate money. His firm
went bankrupt once and has skirted the financial edge two more times.
The newest lawsuit—brought by the male manager of an
American Apparel outlet in uber-cool Malibu, California—claims, among other
things, that Charney spewed obscenities at him for poor sales, called him “a
fag” and “a f***ing Jew,” tried to squeeze and choke him, and then tried to rub
dirt in his face.
Actually, this is an improvement over some of the earlier legal
actions, in which Charney was accused of grabbing his penis in front of one
female worker and using company funds to buy sex videos for himself. At least
this time, he apparently is concerned about store sales.
Yet, the case against Charney is not that simple.
The same bravado and willingness to buck conventional wisdom
that allegedly produce the sexual filth, also propel Charney to open his big
mouth for unpopular causes of social justice.
While other U.S. companies hire undocumented foreign-born
workers mainly to cheat them out of wages and overtime, knowing that they don’t
dare complain, Charney champions their rights. He marches in Los Angeles’s
biggest Latino parade, donates money to immigrant rights’ groups, ran ads
supporting citizenship, and designed two special lines of T-shirts as
While other U.S. clothing-makers ship their production out
to sweatshops in places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Honduras, and China, seeking
the lowest wages possible, regardless of safety or health, Charney makes
everything in the U.S. At American Apparel’s airy, light-filled main factory,
workers can get subsidized health care, subsidized meals, free loaner bikes,
free massages, free English lessons, discount bus passes, and free international
calls back home (to all those countries they may have illegally come from).
Charney also vigorously opposed California’s Proposition 8,
which banned same-sex marriage.
In short, if you’re concerned about corporate ethics, those
two sides of Dov Charney can drive you crazy. Hate him or love him?
But there is a simple solution: Hate the man, love the
While Charney may be the drum major of the parade, the
qualities that make American Apparel an ethical business should be pretty well entrenched
throughout that factory by now. After 15 years, it would be hard to tear out the
sunny windows or yank away the health care and English lessons. Company
officials claim their “vertically
integrated” manufacturing platform has proved that making clothing in America is
Thus, the good parts should keep running even if Charney
By the same token, the harassment and abuse lawsuits are
only against Charney, personally, No other American Apparel executive has been
accused of talking and acting dirty. Get rid of Charney, and the harassment and
bullying should stop.
Charney probably owns too much of the company to be fired
outright, and anyway, it’s often his creative vision behind the popular
Instead, American Apparel should keep him locked up in a
tower with lots of porn videos, Hungry Man frozen dinners, consenting (and over
18) young women—and a laptop with a good graphics program. Every now and then,
a few upper-tier managers could come by to talk about plans for new hoodies or dresses.
But never, ever, ever let Dov Charney out.
least, before you pull out your wallet, think about the forced student
labor, the warlords who
benefit from mineral smuggling, the children exposed to toxic waste from old phones, and the pile of useless accessories you'll throw
With its constant pitching of the
newest cool thing to replace its previous newest cool thing, Apple has always been
one of the worst violators of the environmentalist credo “reduce, reuse,
recycle.” It barely gives customers a chance to use its toys, let alone reuse,
before making the toy obsolete and unfashionable.
But with the
iPhone 5, Apple has really outdone
instance, customers have recently become aware that iPhones and other Apple
gizmos are made in crowded and unsafe Chinese factories where people toil 15
hours a day for barely $50 a month. That’s
bad enough. Then, just a week before the iPhone 5 went on sale, it was revealed
that the factories had dragooned students onto the assembly lines in a rush to
get the phones made on time, threatening to kick them out of school if they
Nor has anything been done to ameliorate
the environmental problems. As with any product, making an iPhone uses up resources
for the components, ingredients, packaging, and marketing, and also uses fuel
and creates carbon emissions in the manufacturing and shipping processes. Again,
iPhones are worse than the average, because their components include dangerous
metals and ores like coltan, which is found only in endangered gorilla habitats
or in African war zones where the profits get siphoned by warlords.
Because Apple fans love their iProducts so ardently, they have often attributed to Steve Jobs and Apple almost every positive quality they want to see in a CEO and a company, whether deserved or not. Thus, they have assumed that Apple reduces its energy use, recycles its electronic waste, treats its workers well, and generally is a socially responsible corporation.
Toward the end of Jobs’ reign, fans gradually and grudgingly began to realize that their heroes didn’t deserve all those haloes.
Now, ironically, Jobs’ successor, Timothy Cook, may turn out to be the real hero of the myth.
This week marks one year since Jobs stepped down as CEO. He would die just six weeks later. During the transition to the Cook era, customers and investors have, understandably, focused on the products and stock price.
But quietly, Cook has made some important changes in the area of corporate social responsibility.
While he was still the heir-apparent, Cook visited the major Chinese factory that manufactures iPhones, iPads, and other devices, after a series of suicides there by workers protesting the long hours and low pay. Jobs never bothered to check in person. Early this year, Cook brought in an outside monitor to follow up on the complaints and again inspected the site himself.
Even more amazing, Cook publicly identified 156 Apple subcontractors and published the monitor’s report. This, from the company that never talks to the press?
True, Cook has continued the tradition of shunning reporters. However, he showed up at a big meeting to speak with financial analysts—which Jobs rarely did—and has schmoozed with members of Congress.
Such outreach is important, because social responsibility is simply impossible without open communication. Transparency enables customers, neighbors, suppliers, employees, investors, and social activists to see exactly what the company is doing and, in turn, push the company on their own goals.
And Apple employees have started to relax. It’s no longer the case—as Jeffrey S. Young and William L. Simon famously wrote in their 2005 book iCon—that “You didn’t want to encounter him [Jobs] in a hallway, because he might not like an answer you gave... And you sure as hell didn’t want to get trapped on an elevator with him, because by the time the doors opened, you might not have a job.”
The new CEO is—well—a normal person, not a demigod. He is private but not obsessive and mercurial.
Nor does the praise of Cook diminish Jobs’ incredible talents and achievements. Probably only an obsessive and mercurial creative genius could have had the vision and persistence to transform the floundering concept of a portable music player into the iPod or to revive a cartoon shop called Pixar—to name just two of Jobs’ successes.
Cook may never invent or inspire the invention of a better product.
But he may well reinvent Apple as a better corporate citizen.
Liberals seem to get all the attention for investing and shopping according to their ethical values, perhaps because the Civil Rights movement began with a boycott of the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. And since then, the most famous consumer actions have tended to tilt leftward—against Dow Chemical for making napalm during the Vietnam War, or against Nike and now Apple for dreadful working conditions at overseas factories.
So it’s only fair that it’s finally the conservatives’ turn.
Accordingly, gay rights groups have called for a boycott, while Christian conservatives promised to eat more chicken than ever and declared a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.” Conservative politicians like the former presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are leading the charge.
Rare though it might seem to be, Chick-fil-A isn’t the first right-wing consumer cause. For instance, there are socially responsible investment vehicles from all sides of the values spectrum. Some religious-based funds avoid companies in the business of selling alcohol, tobacco, and military equipment—seemingly liberal causes—but others shun anything to do with abortion or birth control. The Republican state treasurer of Missouri launched a “terror-free fund” a few years back, to bam companies that have a financial relationship with countries on the federal government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Years ago, Pepsi was known as the “Republican” cola, and Coke was the “Democratic” alternative, because of the political campaigns to which each manufacturer supposedly donated.
As it happens, I’ve never eaten at Chick-fil-A. Until this controversy, I was only vaguely aware of the company, and there are no outlets near me.
On the other hand, I also don’t live near any In-N-Out Burger sites—I’m in New York, and the chain is located only in the West—but my family makes a beeline whenever we are within 10 miles of an In-N-Out restaurant, because we love the high-quality beef and secret sauce. Never mind that this brand, too, could be considered a fundamentalist Christian company, because the late president, a born-again Christian, instituted a practice of referencing Biblical chapters and verses on its paper cups. (Who even looks at the bottom of the cups?)
It’s too soon to tell which side will win the current chicken war. As a liberal, of course I hope the pro-Chick-fil-A movement flounders. I am troubled by the intolerance—indeed, the avid and self-satisfied intolerance—of the chain’s owner. If I ever stumble across an outlet, I will stay away.
Yet in a weird way, I’m glad to see the concept of ethical shopping gaining favor among conservatives.
True, right-wing activism will probably lead to more union-busting or anti-gay bias in the short run, if consumers flock to companies that engage in those practices. Chick-fil-A would undoubtedly rake in less profit if people like Huckabee and Santorum weren’t making such a concerted effort to dine there.
However, in the longer run, this trend could mean a chance for dialogue. With both sides now talking the language of ethical consumption and activism, maybe we can change some minds or find common ground.
We all win when consumers realize that every dollar has a larger meaning.
New Trader Joe’s outlets have just opened in Lexington, KY, and West Seattle, and 18 more are scheduled soon across the U.S., from Medford, OR, to Sarasota, FL, to Albany, NY. That should certainly please fans like Jeff Pollard, 33, who lives near Albany and belongs to a group called “We Want Trader Joe’s in the Capital District” – the Capital District being the area around Albany, the capital of New York State.
Congratulations, Jeff. Enjoy the Formosa papaya and the Chicken Tikka Masala with Cumin-Flavored Basmati Rice.
Altogether, the new openings will mean approximately 400 Trader Joe’s stores in the U.S., which should make even more people happy (like Denice Rochelle in Seattle, who has blogged about that location). But this growth puts a real strain on the chain’s slogan: “Your neighborhood grocery store.”
Just whose neighborhood are they talking about?
The yuppie neighborhood near Manhattan’s “Silicon Square”? The middle-class family neighborhood in the Los Angeles exurb of Camarillo? The two neighborhoods in Atlanta?
Perhaps a surfer neighborhood in Hawaii? That would seem to be what the company wants shoppers to think, with all the surfboards, fake-bamboo, and garishly flowered shirts throughout the stores. However, there actually aren’t any Hawaii outlets.
True, each TJ site serves its own neighborhood, sometimes altering the product mix to appeal to the local demographic. Food shopping tends to be a neighborhood activity; we rarely drive 30 miles for a carton of milk. But in that case, Trader Joe’s is no more of a “neighborhood grocery store” than is Kroger, Safeway, Whole Foods, or any other supermarket chain-– many of which are smaller than Trader Joe’s.
So what difference does this make? Maybe none. The papaya and chicken taste the same, the staff is just as friendly, and the prices are just as low.
Yet the hidden billionaire ownership and the phony neighborliness matter, because they are part of a bigger misleading image-– along with a smattering of exotic veggies and cage-free eggs-- that makes people feel as if they’re somehow supporting a nice little health food coop when they shop at Trader Joe’s.
The truth is that Trader Joe’s is almost the complete opposite of that feel-good image.
As my new book Ethical Chic points out, it’s not merely the surfer-local image that’s false. For instance, only TJ-brand products are guaranteed to be free of trans fats, genetically modified organisms, artificial preservatives, and other yecchy stuff. The 20% of items that are not made specially for the chain can have any kind of ingredients, and that includes non-cage-free eggs from chickens kept in horrible battery cages. And think again about the pre-cooked, frozen Chicken Tikka Masala with Cumin-Flavored Basmati Rice. All the extra packaging? Ingredients shipped from India? That little meal violates some of the basic tenets of the organic and environmental movements, including “reduce packaging” and “buy local.”
I don’t want to be a grumpy, eat-your-tofu, enviro-extremist. Go to Trader Joe’s if you want, Jeff and Denice! It is fun to shop there (even if I think the hand-written signs are just too-too cute). All I’m saying is: Read the labels. Know what you’re buying-- and buy the product, not the image.
Consumers are told that when they put on an American Apparel t-shirt, leggings, jeans, gold bra, or other item, they look hot. Not only do they look good, but they can also feel good because they are helping US workers earn a decent wage (never mind that some of those female workers have accused their boss of sexual harassment). And when shoppers put on a pair of Timberlands, they feel fashionable and as green as the pine forest they might trek through-that is, until they're reminded that this green company is in the business of killing cows. But surely even the pickiest, most organic, most politically correct buyers can feel virtuous about purchasing a tube of Tom's toothpaste, right? After all, with its natural ingredients that have never been tested on animals, this company has a forty-year history of being run by a nice couple from Maine . . . well, ahem, until it was recently bought out by Colgate.
It's difficult to define what makes a company hip and also ethical, but some companies seem to have hit that magic bull's-eye. In this age of consumer activism, pinpoint marketing, and immediate information, consumers demand everything from the coffee, computer, or toothpaste they buy. They want an affordable, reliable product manufactured by a company that doesn't pollute, saves energy, treats its workers well, and doesn't hurt animals-oh, and that makes them feel cool when they use it. Companies would love to have that kind of reputation, and a handful seem to have achieved it. But do they deserve their haloes? Can a company make a profit doing so? And how can consumers avoid being tricked by phony marketing?
In Ethical Chic, award-winning author Fran Hawthorne uses her business-investigative skills to analyze six favorites:Apple, Starbucks, Trader Joe's, American Apparel, Timberland, and Tom's of Maine. She attends a Macworld conference and walks on the factory floors of American Apparel. She visits the wooded headquarters of Timberland, speaks to consumers who drive thirty miles to get their pretzels and plantains from Trader Joe's, and confronts the founders of Tom's of Maine. More than a how-to guide for daily dilemmas and ethical business practices, Ethical Chic is a blinders-off and nuanced look at the mixed bag of values on sale at companies that project a seemingly progressive image.
It's bad enough to walk into a library or bookstore and confront shelf after shelf of books with titles like True Green: 100 Everyday Ways You Can Contribute to a Healthier Planet. And The Little Green Book of Shopping: 250 Tips for an Eco Lifestyle. And 1001 Ways to Save the Earth.
I am immediately consumed with guilt. How can I possibly manage to do ONE HUNDRED things every day for the environment – let alone TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY or ONE THOUSAND AND ONE? My God, I'd better start immediately.
Still, I assume that each of those 100 or 250 or 1001 things are actions that a reasonable person could do one by one, if not en masse. Then I start reading the lists.
And I have to start wondering if the people who write these books actually live on the planet they claim to be saving.
This past week, Beacon authors have been very active out in the world, putting a human face on immigration and talking topics spanning a wide gamut of social justice issues, including: global population, feminism, consumer choices, education, and so much more. Visit our homepage to see the many books on immigrant rights that Beacon has published. And, if you're in or around Boston, learn more about the May Day March, which will begin on Boston Common at noon on Saturday.
WNBC New York talks to Stacy and Steve Trebing about their successful struggle to save their daughter with a "savoir sibling." The family's moving story is chronicled by author Beth Whitehouse in her new book The Match.
Author Bob Moses champions a constitutional amendment to guarantee quality education, the topic of his forthcoming book Quality Education as a Constitutional Right, in The Nationarticle about the 50th anniversary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Today marks the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Hear Dana Sachs talk about the nearly 3,000 "supposedly orphaned" children swept into "Operation Babylift" on NHPR's "Word of Mouth."
Let's say you try to eat food grown without chemical fertilizers, and you want to follow that principle in your investing as well. Consider Group Danone, the manufacturer of Dannon Yogurt. "Group Danone is the largest purveyor of organic dairy products in the world," according to Amy Domini, chief executive of Domini Social Investments, which runs the benchmark Domini 400 Social Index. So Group Danone is a buy?
Not so fast. Amy Domini also points out that "twenty percent of its business is bottled water, and about half of that is to people with potable water" – that is, Danone is wasting millions of barrels of petroleum to make plastic water bottles for Americans who could safely drink their own tap water. Furthermore, in 2007 the company bought a manufacturer of infant formula named Royal Numico, and remember the consumer uproar when Nestle tried to push its powdered infant formula in developing countries in the 1970s and 1980s?
For me, it happened when my four-year-old daughter returned from a weekend visitation with her father and announced, "At Daddy's house I get chocolate cereal."
For Louise Heit-Radwell, a vegetarian mom in New York City, it happened gradually after her daughter, Molly, entered first grade. Molly would say things like, "Oh, at school, those chicken fingers smelled so good…."
For all parents, it's only a matter of time. We try to feed our children healthful, nutritious foods without antibiotics, pesticides, and unpronounceable chemicals. (Some of us, in fact, begin buying organic only after we have kids, because it seems more important to protect their newly-forming bodies than our already-wrecked ones.) We include foods in our religious rituals. We plant gardens with our preschoolers. We take them apple-picking. All the while, we explain why we're doing this, why we don't want to poison the earth or eat animals.
I have to confess that I was kind of smug about my lifestyle before I started this book. I knew that I took a lot of steps to save energy, to support unions and small stores, and to put my money in mutual funds that invested in causes I believe in, and I was quite pleased with myself for all of that. I used cloth napkins instead of paper. I never crossed a picket line. I brought my own shopping bags to stores. I recycled nearly every scrap of paper, metal, glass, and plastic possible, and then I bought recycled paper, and . . . Well, I won't go through my whole self-satisfied list right here. (If you're interested, it's in the book.) Let's just say that every time I opted for the more expensive, no-antibiotics, no-added-hormones ground beef, I thought I was managing to live pretty much according to my liberal values.
Except that guilty reminders were always tapping at the edge of my brain. If I really were an ethical consumer, wouldn't I buy the beef at the farmers market and the food co-op, not the chain grocery store? In fact, wouldn't I avoid eating beef altogether? But if the ethical goal is to avoid eating beef, why was anyone bothering to make antibiotic-free beef, if not for people like me who care about animal welfare and the environment? Wasn't this better for the environment, or at least the cow? And if the grocery store I sometimes went to was, as it claimed, an "individually owned and operated," unionized member of a purchasing and distribution cooperative, was it really an evil Big Chain?