The Conscious Consumer

Aug 15, 2016

Part one of this three-part series on conscious capitalism examines the role of the conscious consumer. In this episode, hear the story of a victim of capitalism at its worst--and how one shopper is helping him tell his story. We also explore if and how consumers can use purchasing power to influence corporations' behavior.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: You're listening to Impact from the Carnegie Council. I'm Julia Taylor Kennedy.

STEPHANIE WILSON: It's so important that people are aware of the people behind the products that they buy in the stores. I think it's really, really important that this story gets told.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Impact is entering its final three episodes, and we're closing this marathon with a sprint, posting a new episode each week. This last series is all about consciousness in capitalism: how to raise it, and what to do with that consciousness once it's up. Over the course of this series, we'll consider consciousness in capitalism from three different angles: consumer, company, and investor. We'll hear the story of a victim of capitalism at its worst, and how he's gone from victim to activist, using his experience to drive change, and raise the consciousness of others.

Meet our first consumer, a New Yorker working for a non-profit.

STEPHANIE WILSON: My name's Stephanie Wilson, and I'm a senior program manager at Social Accountability International.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: As you can probably tell, Stephanie is a New York transplant from Australia and like many newbies, Manhattan's fall weather catches her off guard.

STEPHANIE WILSON: All my shoes were getting wet by the rain because I didn't have any rain boots. I've never needed rain boots in Australia.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: So, on one particularly rainy afternoon, she makes an impulse buy.

STEPHANIE WILSON: I headed to Saks on Fifth Avenue to go pick up some rain boots. I was in and out of the shop in—I want to say—like five minutes. I didn't try them on, nothing. Just went in, picked them up, and walked out.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Pretty standard experience. What happens next, though, is anything but ordinary. Stephanie gets home, takes out her shiny new rainboots, and rummages around the bottom of the bag for her receipt.

STEPHANIE WILSON: I saw a little piece of paper that was sticking up at the bottom of the shopping bag. So I opened it up. I saw that it was this handwritten letter, and it was accompanied by a passport-size photograph of a man.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Heart racing, she reads the letter.

STEPHANIE WILSON: I remember distinctly the top said, "Help. Help. Help." I froze, as I think anyone would do when they see that at the top of a letter.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Stephanie takes a deep breath, and continues reading.

STEPHANIE WILSON: He was a Cameroonian man, he is working in a prison factory producing these shopping bags, is being abused and tortured, working 15 hours a day, I believe, and was looking for whoever received the letter to help him. He actually asked that I would go to the United Nations and show them the letter, and do something to help him.

TOHNAIN EMMANUEL NJONG: The treatment there was really horrible.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: You are hearing the voice of Tohnain Emmanuel Njong, author of the letter Stephanie found.

We had a really tough international cell phone connection, and one of our producers overdubbed Tohnain's eloquent words so you could better understand them through the rest of the piece.

Tohnain is originally from Cameroon, but he migrated to China, taught English classes for a few months, and was arrested and convicted for committing fraud, which he says he didn't commit—and that he was convicted without a chance to defend himself against the charges. After years of torture and malnourishment, without any contact with his family or the outside world, Tohnain looked for a way to communicate. At the time, he was working 15 hours a day at a factory on the prison grounds, producing paper shopping bags.

TOHNAIN EMMANUEL NJONG: I started thinking about how I'm going to get a pen, how I'm going to get a piece of paper, to write my story. I discovered on some of the bags there were some strange English and German writings on the paper bags so I discovered that these papers were exported from China.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: At the end of each day, the prison requires Tohnain to give a count of how many bags he made—using a pen and paper. One day, he finds a way to sneak the pen and paper back to his cell.

TOHNAIN EMMANUEL NJONG: Where we sleep there are cameras, because our supervisors have to monitor each activity that is going on inside the jail room. I knew that I had to take it under my bed cover. I put it there and would write at night, because the lights are never turned off, they are always on.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Tohnain ducks under his covers to avoid the cameras, and he writes letters asking for help.

TOHNAIN EMMANUEL NJONG: I knew the consequences if I were caught. I exercised a lot of caution and finally succeeded in getting my papers into the paper bags.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Tohnain is worried that if he gets caught, he'll be put in solitary confinement, which is known for extreme torture and light and food deprivation techniques.

TOHNAIN EMMANUEL NJONG: Some were going there and after a few months they come back looking like skeletons.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Afraid of those consequences, Tohnain keeps his letter-writing as low-profile as possible.

TOHNAIN EMMANUEL NJONG: It took me almost a month to put to paper the letter that I intended to write. It was gradually and gradually, and I finally did it.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: He writes five letters—two in French and three in English. He never hears anything. He has no idea that one of the letters is slowly making its way to Stephanie in New York.

STEPHANIE WILSON: I just remember feeling completely shocked, overwhelmed, pretty confused. For maybe 10 minutes I was like, "Is this real?" You hear about these kind of stories about people getting emails asking them to wire money because there's all these problems—he wasn't asking for money or anything like that. All he wanted was for me to go to the United Nations.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: After a moment's pause, Stephanie snaps into action.

STEPHANIE WILSON: I've got to do something. I can't just throw this in the bin, or I can't pretend that I never saw this.

I remember thinking, at that moment, "Oh my gosh. Where is this guy? What is he going through right now? Could he even imagine that I've just found his letter?" I wanted that immediate connection with him. I wish that I could have called him up or something and told him straight away, "I found your letter. I'm going to come help you."

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Perhaps the luckiest stroke—Stephanie works for an international organization that focuses on labor rights. So her colleagues are quickly able to connect Stephanie to an activist who had served time in a Chinese prison very similar to the one where Tohnain had written the letter.

STEPHANIE WILSON: I was really naive, actually, at the beginning. I was like, "I've got this letter. Within a week, he's going to be out of there." Did not happen that way.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Stephanie gets a report 10 months later from the activist about conditions in the prison. But according to that report, Tohnain has already been released for good behavior. Finally, a journalist writing an article about Stephanie's Saks bag discovery tracks down Tohnain in the United Arab Emirates, where he had since emigrated to find more work. After the reporter publishes her story, she connects Stephanie to Tohnain.

STEPHANIE WILSON: It was really emotional, of course. I'm amazed by this guy. He is so articulate, and he's very, very intelligent. He shared so much about his story, even in that first conversation, and talked me through what he risked to write the letter and what went into him smuggling the pen and the paper from the factory floor into his bedroom, and having the covers over his head to write the letter.

It was amazing to be put in touch with him. It was kind of surreal, really surreal.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Stephanie and Tohnain have stayed in touch. They've told their story in The New Yorker and other major media outlets.

TOHNAIN EMMANUEL NJONG: There are many points of time that I don't even want to think about that horrible experience that I went through and what people are still going through now, but it keeps coming and is something that has become a part of my life.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: As painful as his memories of his three years in the prison camp remain, Tohnain is committed to sharing his experience with others.

TOHNAIN EMMANUEL NJONG: Nobody was born in prison, it doesn't really matter what brings somebody back behind bars and it is really unfair for people to be taking advantage of the misfortune of others. It's something that is a money-making machine, while they are undergoing a kind of distress in their life and people produce goods under this kind of distress. People exploit their labor and then they take it for granted.

STEPHANIE WILSON: For Tohnain, and for this story, it was a paper bag manufacturer. No one is thinking about where your paper bags are getting made. Or I always think about my plastic fork that I eat my lunch with. Who's thinking about where that's getting made?

It does impact the way that I shop, but one thing I can say is it's hard. It's hard to be an ethical consumer. It really, really is difficult.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Stephanie was already aware of some of the injustices that go on in the production of the goods she consumes. But she's not shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue anymore. And Stephanie and Tohnain are working together to raise more awareness of just how bad the conditions get in supply chains for consumer goods.

But even Stephanie isn't sure what to do as a conscious consumer. You'd think, given our history in the U.S., we'd have figured this out by now.

LAWRENCE GLICKMAN: I trace the first act of consumer activism to before there was a United States, to the Boston Tea Party, of late 1773, one of the important founding moments in our political history and also in the history of consumer activism.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: That's Lawrence Glickman, a historian at Cornell University. He wrote a book called Buying Power about the history of consumer activism in the United States. He found the colonists were already playing around with their power as consumers before Adam Smith had even written about them as the ultimate cause of capitalist activity. Here's a quick primer on where that Boston Tea Party came from:

LAWRENCE GLICKMAN: The British had governed fairly benignly for a long time and then, beginning with the debts that they had from fighting the Seven Years' War with the French, they began to say, "Hey, the colonists in North America would be a good source of income," and plus, when the British were deployed to the North American colonies in the 1760s, they observed that the colonists seemed to live pretty darn well. So the soldiers came back and said "This is a group that you can certainly tax a little bit more."

The colonists claim this was a misunderstanding, but nonetheless, the British decided to try to do that. So they began to raise taxes on a series of goods and, for various reasons, tea emerged as the one that became politicized, partly because, I think, it was seen as a distinctly British good and a luxury good, and something that, in the interests of virtue, should be given up, even though people quite enjoyed it, that in this context of unfair taxation without representation, that tea was a symbolic good.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: And so it became very unfashionable to serve tea in the American colonies. Fifty years later, as abolitionists started agitating for the end of slavery, another wave of consumer activism hit the United States. Abolitionists started arguing against buying goods produced by slaves.

LAWRENCE GLICKMAN: By buying slave-made sugar, you were in effect employing a slave to make that. You were responsible for the whipping of that slave, you were responsible for the treatment of that slave.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Abolitionists even set up shops that sold ethical alternatives to sugar and cotton from plantations. Sort of a pre-fair-trade model called "free produce."

LAWRENCE GLICKMAN: They truly believed that these stores would eventually become so popular that any rational slaveowner would switch over to free labor because if—they believed that if plantation owners and slaveowners saw that there was a market for free labor goods and that more people wanted to buy that than slave labor goods, that they would make the shift.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: A nice idea, right?

LAWRENCE GLICKMAN: Of course, none of that happened at all, free produce stores were few and far between. Consumers who shopped there complained about how shoddy the goods were, and even many abolitionists never really took part in that particular movement. On the one hand, you could say that the free produce movement of abolitionists of the 1820s through the Civil War was a failure, and that's how many people at the time looked at it, but one of the advantages of being a historian is that we can look at success and failure in much more long-term ways.

I would argue that they were very successful in starting a new pattern of political protest in America and in encouraging a particular view of consumption that never became dominant, but certainly became an important way in which many Americans felt that shopping was a moral act, and an ethical act, and that shopping had political consequences.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: The daughter of one of these abolitionists, in fact, was Florence Kelley. She grew up to be central to the U.S.'s next wave of consumer activism: the Progressive Movement.

SALLY GREENBERG: Florence Kelley came from an abolitionist family. They didn't wear cotton. They didn't wear wool or anything that might have involved slave labor in the making of the product.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: You're hearing the voice of Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League. She's talking about Florence Kelley, who's one of the women who founded the National Consumers League with famed progressive activist Jane Addams in 1899.

SALLY GREENBERG: She really started the National Consumers League to eradicate child labor in the United States and to focus on these terrible working conditions that she saw all around her.

The National Consumers League, wasn't about, when you buy things, you should be getting the value of what you pay. It was, "We want to raise awareness among consumers about the conditions under which the products they're buying are made."

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: The progressive movement was, in many ways helped by reporters like Upton Sinclair, who wrote a best-selling book called The Jungle about meatpacking in Chicago. The movement resulted in significant legislation to prevent child labor and other inhumane labor practices, as well as policies to protect nutritious food production.

So consumer activism had a few waves of activity over the course of the 20th century. In the 1990s, with the increase of globalization and outsourcing, much of the focus turned from U.S. regulation to contending with the implications of different legal frameworks in developing countries, where labor protections were less sophisticated. Human rights activists spread the word about Nike's factory suppliers for example, that employed children, and organized widespread boycotts, taking Florence Kelley's approach global.

MICHAEL HOBBES: I think the boycott wave of the '90s was fabulously effective.

I'm Michael Hobbes, I'm a human rights consultant and journalist based in Berlin.

Every reputationally vulnerable company is terrified of the power of consumers, and that is a huge victory.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: In other words, Hobbes thinks that thanks to boycotts and awareness campaigns in the 1990s, big brands now have to be really careful about their supply chains.

MICHAEL HOBBES: I genuinely think we have a lot to be proud of, and the fact that there are first-tier suppliers in these huge apparel supply chains that have better conditions than they did 25 years ago is a huge victory.

When you look at the stuff that Nike is doing, it's so cool: Nike is organizing people in their factories into teams, they're doing all these hotlines where people can call in and report bad working conditions, and you're like, "Yeah, go Nike." The branded companies, they're not perfect, obviously, but they are doing some genuinely innovative stuff.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: But Hobbes is far from optimistic about U.S. consumers' ability to use boycotts to prevent human rights abuses in the production of goods going forward. In fact, he recently wrote a long-form article for the Huffington Post entitled "The Myth of the Ethical Shopper." So, if the 1990s boycotts were so effective, if the big brands have cleaned up their act, why the concern?

MICHAEL HOBBES: Well, right now, the World Bank says that Western consumers, basically from OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, make up 64 percent of global consumption, but by 2030, we're only going to make up 30 percent of global consumption, and you're already seeing the center of gravity moving toward places like China and India where there's this huge middle class that's arriving and they want to be buying stuff. What you don't have there, yet, is you don't really have any kind of infrastructure for "ethical consumption."

There really haven't been consumer movements there.They're not as concerned with the conditions of production like we are, so you don't really have these boycott movements there. Basically, as we've gotten better and better conditions in Western-based companies, those companies are controlling a shrinking part of global consumption, so eventually, we'll have really, really good conditions in a very, very small part of the global marketplace.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: So more of the companies producing consumer goods—and shoppers consuming them—are based outside of the U.S. and Europe. These new companies are also exporting goods to the developed markets—sometimes they're sold in discount stores, and some of them are even resold to big brands.

MICHAEL HOBBES: You can't boycott a company if you don't know that that company is making your clothes. What we've seen in the last 10 or 20 years is the rise of these so-called mega suppliers, or at least what I'm calling mega suppliers, that, kind of like Foxconn, in electronics. A lot of us know about Foxconn now, that Foxconn is this supplier that makes the parts for your iPhone and your Huawei and everything. It's the same thing in apparel, that these—there's these mega suppliers that are supplying to Nike and Adidas and Patagonia, and everybody. When those companies have really bad working conditions, there's no way that you can boycott them because their name isn't on the label. So basically, we don't know the conditions that our clothes are being produced in, and in many cases, the companies themselves don't know the conditions that their clothes are being produced in.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: When a consumer make a purchase that feels ethical, Hobbes says, that consumer ignores the underlying systemic and market forces that that purchase—or even a larger boycott—just can't fix.

MICHAEL HOBBES: It feels to me, anecdotally, that people that are kind of buying fair trade coffee or they're buying fair trade t-shirts, they kind of see that as, "I've done my thing today. I don't need to think more broadly about these issues," or "I don't need to write my congressman, I don't need to do these other things because I've bought my correct t-shirt."

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: That's why Hobbes has stopped trying to shop ethically. To him, it feels too inconsequential.

MICHAEL HOBBES: I'm no closer, after 10 years in this field, I'm no closer to knowing which brands or which clothes I should buy. It's—it's just a conundrum.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Pretty depressing words. Is he right?

SALLY GREENBERG: I'm a glass half-full person. I think, for companies, it really does make a difference if the public looks upon them in a positive way because they've taken a lead in these areas. I do not ever step into a Walmart or Sam's Club because of their reputation in treating their workers. They do some very good things environmentally. They've provided low-cost prescriptions, etc., but we're keenly aware of their policies on how employees are treated. They're fighting against unions. As a result, I've made a buying decision there.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Instead, Greenberg shops with competitors who are actively looking to support fair labor.

SALLY GREENBERG: GoodWeave is an organization that was formed to fight child labor in the rug and carpet industry. They have a very robust oversight and certification process. They make unannounced visits to factories that want to be part of their network.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: To endorse that approach, Target is selling only GoodWeave carpets and rugs at its stores.

SALLY GREENBERG: So, Target's selling only GoodWeave products, in terms of carpets and rugs, really makes a difference because everybody wants to be sold at Target, right? So more and more merchants who are in the carpet business will want to comply with GoodWeave's structure to make sure that there's no forced labor, no child labor, in any of the factories that make those products and are sold in Target.

MICHAEL HOBBES: Most of the sort of consumer, ethical consumption websites say, "Look into the backstory of the things that you're buying." That's bullshit. I don't have enough time to do that. In the same way, I hate the fact that I have to read the label on every single thing that I buy at the grocery store to make sure they're not sneaking sugar into it. That's not my responsibility. That's why we have regulators.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: If Hobbes is right, the conscious consumer has far less power than just 20 years ago, even when following Greenberg's suggestion of supporting responsible companies and brands. It's really challenging to be a conscious consumer, understanding that people like Tohnain are out there. After all, one could buy a fair trade item at a department store, and unwittingly support slave labor by taking the free shopping bag.

MICHAEL HOBBES: None of these violations take place in a vacuum. The only thing that we can do to systematically improve those conditions is to work politically. That would be something like trade deals. The Dominican Republic, where a condition of accessing the U.S. market, was increasing the strength and size of their labor inspectorate. It used to be really corrupt because people were just kind of walking around, getting bribes from whichever factory they wanted to, and then all of a sudden they required a law degree to be an inspector, they boosted the salaries, and all of a sudden these guys are doing really, really interesting work. That's not in very many bilateral trade agreements, but it's something that the AFL-CIO and other domestic labor rights organizations have really been pushing for.

That stuff is really boring, it's really political, it's very technical, it's slow, it's policy, but it's much more effective than buying a t-shirt that has a fair trade label on it because you don't know what the conditions of production were even if it has that sticker on it, and neither does the company, most of the time.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: In our next episode, we'll explore what it's like to be a conscious company, in an era when companies themselves have trouble tracing their own supply chains.

Thanks for listening to Impact from the Carnegie Council. A special thanks to our production team, Amber Kiwan, Terence Hurley, Deborah Carroll, Alex Woodson, Matthew Sacco, and Tariq Kenney-Shawa.

I'm Julia Taylor Kennedy. You can find out more about this podcast at

You can also find us on iTunes, or wherever you download your podcasts.

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