Slavery and Commodity Chains: Fighting the Globalization of Indifference

It is disturbing to learn that many of the objects we take for granted as part of our daily lives—clothes, chocolate, coffee–are frequently made under conditions that aren’t simply unjust, but that can only be described as slavery. Once thought to be a moral issue dealt with in the 19th century, slavery not only lingers into our time, it is increasing in the 21st century.

Should I feel guilty that the cotton in my clothes or the chocolate I eat might have been produced by enslaved children in Uzbekistan or West Africa? I certainly do. But it’s an odd sort of guilt. If I study the issues, I know that it is extremely likely that many of the products I consume are made in part with slave labor. I am literally profiting from other’s stolen freedom. The problem is that I never know for certain that slaves picked the cotton forthese jeans or harvested the cacao for this chocolate bar. Ultimately, I don’t know for certain how anything I consume was produced. As a result, my guilt remains vague. I keep consuming much the same.

Advertisement

Are We Indifferent?

This seems a perfect instance of what Pope Francis has challenged as the “globalization of indifference.”

Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us. Evangelii Gaudium, #54.

Ours is a complicated indifference. There is little doubt that few of us would ever consider enslaving another person for our own gain. If we even suspected that a local business enslaved its workers, we would refuse to shop there and instantly alert police. But with our global economy, we don’t see where and how our goods are made. We know in general that people are enslaved, but we never know specifically whether our goods result from such exploitation. We never know for certain that we are involved. As a result we continue our consumption as if nothing is amiss. We seem indifferent, but our indifference arises from an ignorance structured into our economic system.

As Francis said in his passionate homily at Lampedusa, “The globalization of indifference makes us all ‘unnamed’, responsible, yet nameless and faceless.”

There is much to learn here both about how we have constructed globalization in a way that encourages indifference and how we might fight moral issues tied to this global economy such as slavery.

The Structures of Indifference

The problem lies deep within the structures of our global economy. We experience much deeper relationship with the things we consume than with the people who produce them. That is not a result of our individual shallowness, but of how our economy is set up. This problem is not new. Karl Marx used the term “fetish” to describe this odd power of commodities two centuries ago. At the time “fetish” referred to the aura of power that surrounded religious objects. His term the “commodity fetish” describe the fact that our imaginary relationship with things was more important to consumers than their real relationship with the often-exploited workers who produced them. Commodities seem to show us all that we need to know, but in reality, they systematically hide their conditions of production, the people who make them. 

The intensity of our relationship with things has only grown since. Whereas once consumer choices were heavily influenced by the reputation of the producer – e.g., a certain butcher or baker; we have long since grown accustomed to letting consumer goods speak for themselves. This relationship is obvious in any walk through a grocery or department store. No sales clerk describes their desirability, the goods speak for themselves, calling out to us from the shelves to buy them and take them home. They say little, however, of how they were produced: bright sweaters tell us nothing of the well-lit garment factories or dark sweatshops where they were produced; the glistening steaks in the meat counter are silent about the open plains or cramped feedlots where the cattle from which they were butchered lived; our electronics are mum about whether the tantalum in their capacitors was mined in Australia or in a way that perpetuated violent conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The global reach of contemporary capitalism makes the problem worse. Not so long ago, anyone in an average city or even large town lived within miles of a factory and knew something about those who worked in them as well as the smoke and other pollution that they produced. Now most production takes place thousands of miles away from the consumers it serves. Thomas Princen has coined the term “commodity distancing” to describe how this deepens our ignorance of the goods we consume. As geographical distance increases, the amount of feedback that consumers receive regarding the consequences of their consumer choices decreases.

This Little Piggy went to Market

On my desk sits a small ingot of pig iron. Pig iron is one of the oldest and most basic commodities. This particular pig was smelted in an industrial park on the southern edge of Maraba, in the state of Para in Northeast Brazil. It made from ore mined farther west in Brazil at the Carajas mine—the largest iron mine in the world—a pit nearly 6 miles wide in the Amazon rainforest. Energy for mining operations is provided, in part, by the Tucurui dam, which required the flooding of more than a thousand square miles of rainforest and displaced 14,000-35,000 people, many of them indigenous rainforest dwellers. Brazil doesn’t have mineral coal in the north. Iron is thus made using millions of tons of charcoal produced by cutting down the rainforest. By one estimate more than 500 square miles of forest is consumed every year for this purpose. Charcoal is made deep in the forest; it is much cheaper to transport the finished project than the timber. Isolation provides cover not only for illegal logging, but also the enslavement of laborers as well. Workers are lured to remote sites with promises of good jobs and worked without pay, often to death, in charcoal kilns. Thus, slave labor enters the global trade in iron under the cover of the commodity veil. Steel producers buy pig iron on the global commodities market. It then enters our lives in countless ways: the pens in our hands, the screws in our phones, the chairs we sit upon, and the cars we drive.

This is not an exceptional story. Such a story could be told about every product in our lives. What is exceptional is that I know so much about one object. I can only tell this story because I picked the piece of iron up myself, from the side of the road in front of the plant where it was smelted, during a trip to Brazil to study CRS’s work to combat slave labor. There is nothing about the iron that is remarkable. It looks like any other lump of metal. Such lumps are in the computer I write on, the car I drive, and the chair I’m sitting on—as is the stolen freedom of the slaves who were forced to produce them.

Invisible Relationships

Consumption within a globalized economy brings us into relationships like this with workers across the globe. Yet these relationships are hidden from us. These are profoundly intimate relationships. We depend upon them for food, clothing, and the tools of modern life. Think of our clothes. They are the closest things to our bodies, yet we have no idea who made them. More intimate still, our bodies themselves—our muscles, bones, nerves—are nourished from around the globe. Even the neurotransmitters that flow between my brain synapses as I write and yours as you read depend on the workers around the world who harvest our food.

This is the architecture of indifference. Globalization brings the goods of the world into our lives, but in a way that systematically prevents us from knowing how they were produced. This system allows slavery and other abuses to flourish by providing a market that sells goods while hiding their origins. Our consumption implicates us in these injustices, but the connections remain hidden to us. 

How to Respond?

Seeing these structures and reflecting on how they form us helps us better understand our moral predicament and better respond to the injustices they foster. We can respond on three levels by: fighting their formation of our imagination, building structures of transparency to end the systematic hiding of the conditions of production of the goods we consume, and deepening these hidden relationships by acting in solidarity with those who produce them.

1. Fighting the Formation of our Imaginations

Our imagination is formed by the consumption of commodities with no knowledge of how they were produced. Think for a moment how many things you consume in an average day. I once counted fifty different products I use before leaving for work in the morning. I know the full story of exactly two. This is the true meaning of “mindless” consumption. We are endlessly trained to accept appearances, to ask no further. This allows injustice to flourish and encourages us to not get involved. We can fight this formation of our imaginations by changing our relationship with the goods we consume. 

Try this experiment. Choose one item that is important to you. Take time to try to find out where and how it was made. Are there any questionable raw materials in it? Where were those sourced? If so, how does the company make sure there is no slave labor in the supply chain? How much are the workers paid? Are they unionized? What are their working conditions? What is the environmental impact of the factory? Research online by searching for information on the company’s labor and environmental record. Look for charges of slavery in its supply chain. Make the effort to talk with people. Go to the store where you purchased it and ask the salesperson these questions. Call the company and ask them. What can they tell you? How does it feel to ask these questions? How are you treated when you ask these questions vs. when you were simply making a purchase? What does this experience tell you about how much information is available for the things you purchase?

Now you know what you can’t know. Can you feel the limits imposed by the commodity veil and by distancing? To know these limits is to begin to understand the relationships and responsibilities hidden beneath our commodities’ appealing self-presentation.

Another practice to challenge our formation in indifference involves seeking to purchase items that we know were produced in a just and sustainable manner. There are numerous slave free, fair trade and just clothing providers that sell products with carefully audited production chains. Commit to buying at least one of these regularly. 

This is, of course a good way to make consumption more moral. But consider it also as a way of forming your imagination against the commodity veil. Reflect on what it is like to consume something about which you know the entire story. How does a justly produced shirt in your closet affect the way you view the others? Do you feel the absence of knowledge that comes with the others? Does knowing that you don’t know spur your moral imagination?

2. Building Structures of Transparency so that Injustice Cannot Hide

There was a time when we lacked the ability to account for the origins of all the goods we traded. In our digital age, this information is easily tracked. Most large manufacturers and retailers have comprehensive knowledge of their supply chains. A malfunctioning part can be quickly traced not only to the factory where it was made, but even to the shift when it was produced. Retailers track sales in real time and adjust factory orders to match. The information exists, but it isn’t shared with consumers. Imagine if when you shopped for a shirt, you could know where the cotton was grown, what sort of factories milled, wove and assembled it. This would allow us to make our purchases true exercises of moral responsibility. 

Some producers from clothing manufacturers to fruit companies are pioneering this approach with coded labels that enable you to trace your product’s origins online. These are worth supporting.

A more comprehensive approach can be found in the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act. This law requires that large retailers and manufacturers doing business in California to publish an annual report of the steps they are taking to eradicate slavery and human trafficking within their production chains, including their suppliers. It specifically requires they disclose what 3rd party monitoring of their supply chains they use, whether they make unannounced audits of suppliers, and what steps they take to train relevant personnel in addressing slavery and trafficking. 

On September 25, 2012 (the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation), President Obama signed an Executive Order “Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking In Persons In Federal Contracts” which required similar disclosures and positive actions among any company serving as a Federal contractor or subcontractor.

These laws and regulations are important new tools that work on the structural level to bring the hidden aspects of our supply chains into the light so that consumers may be empowered to make purchases consistent with moral commitments. They also make a public statement that slavery in supply chains is a moral issue with which society as a whole must reckon.

3. Deepening Commodity Relations into Relationships of Solidarity

In a global economy, the things we consume bring us into invisible relationships with people around the world. Through them we are involved in slavery in South America and human trafficking in Asia. Whereas at one time the issue of slave labor in a foreign country might have been a matter of moral concern, it was not a matter of moral responsibility. It took place outside of our reach and outside of any direct connection to us. That tree cutters and charcoal workers are enslaved in the Brazilian rainforest might still seem a distant fact, outside of my moral world. But through their involvement in the global steel industry, it is as close as the steel in my pen, desk chair or car.

Even though these crimes take place outside of my political reach as a U.S. citizen, I’m still involved through economic connections. This highlights the moral narrowness of market relationships. Money and goods can be exchanged, but the depth of interaction required for a true human relationship is missing.

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict called attention to the new moral situation created by globalization. Economic activity increasingly takes place across and through national borders while “the authority of governments continues to be principally local.”(#37) Thus, the traditional model of political regulation of markets fails. We can no longer assume the market can be guided toward the national common good by national political consensus enacted through governments. Benedict called for two responses to address this crisis. First, he argued that this crisis required a radical rethinking of economic activity that could locate the virtues of charity and solidarity within market relationships themselves. (#36) Here Benedict challenges narrow economic relationships as an inadequate basis for human relationships. We are called to deeper engagement with others; globalization should result in a deepening of ties within the human family, not a reduction of more and more relationships to economic utility. Second, he called the creation of a global political authority so that “the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth”(#67). This would enable us to enact the kinds of moral regulation of the market that once took place within nations on a global scale.

While both of these are desirable, they will require major work to bring about. In the meantime, there is another path available to us: supplementing our shallow economic relationships with relationships of solidarity enacted through advocacy. If we are invisibly connected to child slaves in West Africa who harvest our cacao, and charcoal workers in Brazil who help make our steel, then we can chose to respond to this moral connection by advocating on their behalf. We can work through organizations such as Free the Slaves or Catholic Relief Services to pressure governments and corporations to adopt policies that address their plight by enforcing laws against slave labor, regulations aimed at eliminating it from supply chains, and corporate policies and procedures that commit to making sure slave labor is neither tolerated nor ignored. CRS has worked with the NGO Repórter Brasil to enact and enforce the Brazilian Pact to Eliminate Slave Labor. This law provides reporting standards and penalties aimed at eliminating slave labor from supply chains. Repórter Brasil offers a website to track companies compliance. We can pressure companies whose products we purchase to sign and enforce the Pact. We can also support the work of groups such as CRS and the Brazilian Church’s Pastoral Land Commission direct work to assist victims of slave labor and educate vulnerable populations to avoid the trap of slavery.

Our economic relationships tie us to some of the most vulnerable people on earth. Using our power as wealthy consumers and citizens of democratic nations, we can commit ourselves to working on their behalf. While it would be overwhelming to do this for every product we consume, we can maximize our impact by joining larger campaigns such as the examples given for charcoal and iron above. Similar campaigns exist for cottonchocolate and many other important products and commodities. They are easy to find on the internet. Commit to one that focuses on a product important to you.

Conclusion

Slavery flourishes in part because our global economic system makes it possible to sell its fruits to people without them knowing the evil that is being done. We are offered goods from around the world but are kept in the dark regarding the details of how they are made. In this context, we are connected to injustices we never see. We can fight this by struggling to know and make known the conditions of production of the goods upon which we all rely. We can deepen these shallow relationships into true human relationships of moral responsibility by seeking to advocate on behalf of the powerless workers with whom we are invisibly but really connected.

Vincent Miller is Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton. He is the author of Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture and is at work on a book on Christian discipleship and globalization. As a member of CRS’ Scholars in Global Solidarity, he visited Brazil in 2013 to work with CRS and its partners on the issue of slave labor.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Susan Francois, CSJP
3 years 10 months ago
Excellent analysis! The first step is recognizing how intimately we are connected to the systems that both create the demand for and support human trafficking. But then we can become paralyzed and wonder what we might possibly do. Your three pronged approach is an excellent framework for moving beyond the paralysis of indifference toward real action for justice.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 10 months ago
Thank you for this article. My first response is just to simplify my life to the point that I don't consume so much. And then I think, but I NEED food, I NEED clothing. It's a matter of making sure that those who provide it to me are well compensated in return for their labors.
J Cosgrove
3 years 10 months ago
NPR has had an interesting series over the past year on their Planet Money program. There are numerous article and podcasts that explore just how a simple thing like a T-shirt gets made as the NPR reporters go to Indonesia, Brazil, Bangladesh, Colombia and the US following the steps necessary to make a T-shirt. A fascinating series. Two links to several of the articles and podcasts are: http://www.npr.org/series/248799434/planet-moneys-t-shirt-project http://www.npr.org/search/index.php?searchinput=t-shirt

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

James Comey is perhaps a better Niebuhrian than Niebuhr himself.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.November 20, 2017
“Not everything that is technically possible or feasible is therefore ethically acceptable.”
Gerard O’ConnellNovember 20, 2017
I have been trying with all my heart—with all my mind, with all my soul, to live peaceably with a terror that has been grafted onto me.
Robert I. CraigNovember 20, 2017
Image: iStock, (CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA) Composite: America
What ought to be the Ignatian contribution to the fight for racial justice, given our mission and our values?
Bryan N. MassingaleNovember 20, 2017