• If you stop to reflect on where they came from and how they were made, it seems every purchase is fraught with moral and ethical implications. (AAP)Source: AAP
If a bargain seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Sunil Badami discovers the exploitation behind a lot of the cheaper items sold nationwide and wonders if struggling families in Australia should pay more for ethically produced goods?
Sunil Badami

5 Dec 2016 - 3:34 PM  UPDATED 5 Dec 2016 - 3:51 PM

It seemed too good to be true. Browsing for pavers, it turned out that Himalayan sandstone was as cheap as less appealing concrete and terracotta varieties.

Not only was it cheap, it tied together two parts of my identity: where my parents came from – India – and where my family and I have lived for our children’s entire lives – Balmain, a suburb in Sydney’s Inner West, famous for its sandstone.

A few months after these pavers had been laid, and we’d enjoyed our beautiful new backyard, I discovered our serendipitous bargain was too good to be true.

A shocking report released last year reveals how over a third of children in Indian quarries work long hours in often dangerous conditions in unsafe and poorly regulated quarries for pittances. What was most shocking was that The Guardian had also reported on slavery, child labour and other abuses in the quarry industry in 2007 and earlier in 2015.

But it seems that everything we buy or own today is tainted by a human toll...

In Australia, the fashion industry was rightly condemned for allowing their supply chains to be stocked by often unethical contractors who underpaid and mistreated their workers in dangerous sweatshops, culminating in the horrific building collapse in Bangladesh, which resulted in 1129 people being killed and injured.

Fresh calls have also been made for major retailers to investigate and prove their products aren’t the result of exploitation, even as years later, many major fashion brands and retailers have done little or nothing to improve the calamitous circumstances of these most vulnerable workers.

But it seems that everything we buy or own today is tainted by a human toll: from our smartphones made with near-slave labour by exhausted, suicidal workers to the rare earths in their components extracted by violence and slavery. The cheap milk sending dairy farmers to the wall; the fruit picked that we eat and the groceries shelved by underpaid immigrants, backpackers and school leavers — even the charitable donations we make to desperate young people being humiliated and broken by unscrupulous “marketing agencies.”

It’s hard, especially now in Australia, where wages have not kept pace with the ever rising cost of living: one in four of us are rightly and deeply worried about how we’ll make ends meet.

But what is the real price of that $5 t-shirt or those cheap pavers?

If you’re a decent, compassionate human being, it’s hard to reconcile that the luxuries and necessities of life are the product of suffering. And yet, if you stop to reflect on where they came from and how they were made, it seems every purchase is fraught with moral and ethical implications. 

Out of sight, out of mind?

Of course, as those two Guardian reports, published nearly a decade apart, prove that these ethical concerns aren’t important to many people, especially those who manufacture such items.Out of mind, out of sight? And besides, aren’t we providing employment and income by manufacturing and buying these things? 

Besides, what can we do, given how long-standing, widespread and pervasive the problem is? But even then, such considerations are fraught with moral and ethical quandaries: if the world came together and banned slavery and child labour, and demanded a basic, living wage for workers, what would happen to the prices of the many often everyday items we buy?

Would resulting price rises cause local industries to collapse?

And, more importantly, how would many children, often the only breadwinners in their family, avoid starvation if they weren’t allowed to work? Or being forced into worse occupations, like prostitution or crime?

Some might say that spending the time to research the things we buy, by, say, consulting the Australian Fashion Report into manufacturers’ supply chains, is too time consuming — and besides, and how do we even know if the information is true?

How hard is it, really, to shop ethically?

The fact is, we make a number of ethical purchases all the time, perhaps without investing too much time into researching our decision – from ensuring our eggs and bacon are free-range and choosing free-trade chocolate and coffee, to making sure our paper is recycled or our food isn’t made with palm oil.

And for many of us, checking the ingredients list of many products to ensure they don’t contain nuts or gluten takes as little time and effort.

So how can we shop ethically, without breaking the bank or our hearts?

”It’s hard,” says Dr Simon Longstaff, Executive Director of the Ethics Centre in Sydney.

"It starts with us, caring about it, and being prepared to make some kind of sacrifice for our values and principles. I’d love to say that everything produced ethically is going to be cheaper, but if it reflects its true value, it probably isn’t.

“But even if you care about it, it’s still very hard to find out the truth behind the things you buy. You do have to look for reliable certification schemes like Fairtrade Australia New Zealand – even if you don’t, like lots of people do, actually visit the supply chain to see for yourself.”

Of course, he says, because ethically produced goods can be more expensive, it does often come down to price.

“You may not be able to afford the most ethically made item, and no-one should feel guilty about not being able to always afford them.

“What matters is that if you do care about human rights or the environment, is that you try to buy those things you can afford as often as possible.

"The world changes for the better not only because of a few selfless heroes but because a lot of people just fall on the right side of the question, and the more of us that do can help make things better, even little things. And the more of us who do purchase ethically produced products will ensure that more manufacturers will start making ethically produced products, like fair-trade chocolate or coffee or free range poultry and pork.”

“What matters is that if you do care about human rights or the environment, is that you try to buy those things you can afford as often as possible."

Dr Longstaff believes there’s still a cost to shopping if you don’t consider the ethics involved in each purchase. He says if manufacturers can produce things more cheaply overseas, jobs may be  lost here, and conditions and benefits may also potentially be reduced as a result.

"But ultimately, you have ask: is this the kind of world I want my children to live in?

“Just because other people don’t care doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. And even taking the “least bad option” can hopefully make things better. And the more we let manufacturers know we won’t accept it and choosing those manufacturers who do do the right thing can do just that — we just have to be committed and conscientious. You can’t underestimate the benefit of knowing you’ve done the right thing.”

Seeing my children playing in the backyard, I couldn’t help but thinking of the countless young children like them who have suffered to make the things that we enjoy.

I can’t afford to dig up the pavers just yet but until then, I’ll donate to charities like Two Young to Work or End Slavery Now that aim to help children in India and around the developing world to return to school, and make their lives and communities better without exploitation.

It might not be much, but it might just be the best money I’ll have spent on the reno’s.

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