If you’re reading this, chances are you live in the Global North, which wouldn’t be able to exist the way it does without the Global South. That’s nothing new. It’s also nothing new that this dependency is based on working conditions that merit the term “slavery”.
Everyone knows that we shouldn’t really be buying that new dress from the mall, that we should actually say no to that steak and that the new ad (if you live in Vienna you know which company I’m talking about) about giving a gadget to someone who doesn’t want anything for Christmas should be ignored. But then Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Christmas roll around and you might find yourself surprised when looking at your bank account this week. That’s because the most harmful products both to the environment and to other people tend to also be the most convenient and we pay for them rather easily.
Online retailers and delivery services have had their fair share of scandals, only those of us who never open a newspaper (which is actually a shockingly big number of people) can believably say that they have never heard of the terribly low wages, long hours and job uncertainty in those sectors. But then why do so many people still use them?
Some might actually believe that we live in a meritocracy and that these workers “deserve what they get” (a belief that is as cruel as it is fascinating), some might believe that workers’ rights aren’t their responsibility, but I believe that the most fundamental problem is a general perceived disconnect of our actions from the circumstances of the world. The kind of thinking necessary to bridge this gap is – I would argue – not part of human history. It’s a rather new phenomenon that a regular person’s actions and consumption has huge effects largely on the other side of the world. For the largest part of history, humans ate, used and wore what came from the resources around them. Occasionally, some of them needed to wait for a merchant to purchase rare goods that had travelled for weeks, making this way of buying anything but habitual.
The first category of goods causing mass suffering on another continent while being bought by regular citizens in Europe was British cotton clothing made possible by slavery and colonialism. Interestingly, the clothing sector is till one of the biggest reasons for slave labor in the Global South. And it really still is slave labor – if you’re interested in more info, please follow the links here and here.
Most people living in Europe, Russia and Northern America didn’t choose this economic system, but we are responsible for its continued existence. This is the straightforward part: out coonsumption creates a demand for this unethical labor. Now for the tricky part: some people have no alternative to these products (due to their financial or geographical situation), so how is humanity ever going to overcome these circumstances?
I don’t have a simple answer. An economic system in which there are no working poor and where unskilled labor is actually acceptably compensated would certainly be a start. But it would be delusional to believe that the problem of global slavery would then go away. Fast fashion retailers are the main garment sellers in Europe and North America, and it’s not like the majority of their populations can’t thrift and/or pay just the relatively small extra sum of fewer, but fairer, clothes. And that brings me to the main problem: we buy too much, we don’t use what we have until it’s broken, we don’t repair things anymore and we’re removed from the circumstances of how what we consume is produced. And while the economic system definitely needs to be adapted, we can actually make an individual effort in every one of the above-mentioned areas. Still, this is hard to do because it demads a lot of time and effort (and often money). But the more people do it, the less time and effort will be needed because companies will start meeting the demand. Maybe I’m naive, but I really do believe this is possible.
Thankfully, there is a quiz you can take to find out how many slaves work for you. I believe that every one of us can do better in many areas of our lives. At the same time, many levels need to be tackled at once: we need proper classifications for the ethics of goods (if not a general ban on slave-made products altogether), we need to hold companies and politics accountable, and we need to hold ourselves accountable. Because it always starts with one person: you.