At Foreign Policy, Michael Hobbes writes,
…In the early days, the ‘90s, when advocacy organizations were chasing down Nike in Indonesia and Shell in Nigeria, the relationship between NGOs and multinational corporations was adversarial, zero-sum, ranks of cavalry lined up waiting to charge.
Globalization was still new — in 1992, half the clothing sold in the United States was made there; by 1999, just 12 percent of it was1 — and Western consumers were still capable of being shocked by the conditions under which their shoes and their cars and their Coke were produced.
1For example, in 1992, nearly half (49 percent) of all retail apparel sold in the United States was made in the US, but by 1999, just seven years later, the proportion of domestically produced retail apparel had fallen to 12 percent (Rabon 2001 cf. UNIDO Report 2003:7). By 2003, developing countries accounted for nearly three quarters of the export flows in apparel which constituted more that half (57%) of the $408 billion in global textile and apparel trade that year.
Source: The Role of Price And Cost Competitiveness in Apparel Exports, Post-MFA: A Review, Meenu Tewari, November 2005
So NGOs told them. The boycott campaigns and protest signs almost wrote themselves. Just juxtapose a company’s gleaming marketing message — Just Do It, Can’t Beat The Real Thing, Have You Had Your Break Today? — with images of the stone-faced workers suffering behind it.
“It’s not the wrongdoing,” your old boss used to say. “It’s the hypocrisy.”
AS THE CAMPAIGNS PILED UP, THE CORPORATIONS STARTED DOING WHAT THE PROTESTERS DEMANDED. CLOTHING COMPANIES ADOPTED CODES OF CONDUCT, OIL COMPANIES TRAINED THEIR MANAGERS, BEVERAGE BRANDS INSPECTED THEIR FARMS.
As the campaigns piled up, the corporations started doing what the protesters demanded. Clothing companies adopted codes of conduct, oil companies trained their managers, beverage brands inspected their farms. They looked for things like child labor and human trafficking in their supply chains and, when they found them, made their contractors prove that they wouldn’t happen again. Entire sectors started implementing the same environmental standards in Cambodia that they followed in Cleveland.
After a decade of this, an industry formed to help the growing number of companies making human rights commitments. Fair trade certifications, “socially responsible investment” criteria, human rights impact assessments — all of a sudden, it was easy to feel like companies and NGOs were playing for the same team. Local activists started receiving invitations to audit factories. Charities brokered meetings between corporations and their own workers. The researchers who used to investigate companies were hired by them, paid to provide them with an inside look at their own weaknesses.
…You are part of this ecosystem, a consultant at a think tank dedicated to preventing the private sector from violating human rights. Companies come to you and they tell you that their suppliers won’t stop hiring children, that government inspectors have been asking for bribes, that their factory managers slap employees for showing up late. You sign a non-disclosure agreement. You bill them 18 months of your salary for a 4-page memo telling them how to fix it.
…Across from you is the head of sustainability for the company with its name on the building. His suit fits him perfectly. You reach for the croissants before he does.
You are here to tell him about all issues he should care about — forced labor in his factories, corruption in his suppliers, HIV in his dormitories. As you speak, you watch him separate them into two categories: Breaking the Law, and We Should Look Into That.
We’ve received reports that workers in your factories may be inhaling chemicals, you tell him. Without masks and respiratory tests, they might be subject to health problems five, ten years down the line. He nods sympathetically, his pen untouched next to his glass of fizzy water. You can almost mouth the words along with him: “We should look into that.”
We’ve also heard reports, you tell him, that workers at your Vietnamese factories are regularly working up to 60 hours a week without overtime pay. He reaches for his pen; he knows where you’re going with this. According to Vietnamese law, employees can’t work more than 48 hours per week without overtime pay. Plus, Vietnamese law requires a 24-hour rest period between shifts.
He looks up from writing: “So you’re saying that’s a compliance issue,” he says. Compliance is the polite way of saying that his company might be breaking the law. You nod solemnly, victory yours.
None of the old tactics work anymore. Consumers have heard the sweatshop story too many times to find it galvanizing of much more than a few Facebook shares. Supply chains have stretched too far, with too many zig-zags, to trace transgressions back to a single company. The worst violations — slavery, human trafficking — are too intertwined with the economies and the policies of the places where they happen to find a villain behind them. You have stopped demanding changes because you do not know what to demand anymore.
Take child labor. Solving it sounds simple, as straightforward as the catchphrase on one of your advocacy campaigns: Stop hiring children. In reality, however, it is a process that can take years. Employees show up with forged birth certificates. Suppliers lie about how many sites they have. Auditors sign off on factories without visiting them. Even when a company finds 15-year-olds working at its conveyor belts, what is it supposed to do, fire them? A lot of those kids are from rural areas, districts where there’s no school past eighth grade. Pushing them out of that factory means, in practice, sending them back to a place where there is nothing else for them to do.
…The way companies do it is, they create a department in charge of “sustainability” — or human rights, or corporate citizenship, or social responsibility, pick your buzzword — whose job is to keep the NGOs at bay. That’s who hires you, asks you for help, sends you to their factories in dictatorships. The 15 other departments of the company, meanwhile, do exactly what they always did. Only now, they’ve got a guy whose job is to dress it all up as “sustainability” and sell it to consumers.
Steven does something for the U.N., you’re not quite sure, and he’s answering the question you just asked him, the one you’re asking everyone: Are we winning?
“We don’t have the information,” he says. “Are there fewer sweatshops now than 15 years ago? Are there more land grabs by mining companies? Nobody has any idea.”
There are only two kinds of U.N. employees: Kool-Aid Drinkers, and Get Me Outta Heres. Steven appears to be one of the latter. He added you on LinkedIn three days ago, about 15 minutes after you met him.
“Without information,” he says, “we resort to narratives. There’s the hopeful narrative and there’s the cynical one.”
“Give me hopeful first,” you say.
“Since the Industrial Revolution,” he says, “companies have been held responsible for an expanding circle of impacts. Child labor, worker housing, environmental pollution, health and safety, overseas corruption, they’re all things that companies used to say weren’t their problem. And now they are.”
The circle keeps expanding. Soda companies are the target of campaigns to tax their products and pay for anti-obesity programs. Apparel companies, now that they’ve started auditing their factories and reporting their supply chains, are under pressure to buy cotton from countries without child labor. Jewelry companies and cellphone manufacturers have to certify that their raw materials don’t come from conflict zones. Yesterday you traded business cards with a guy who works for a big pension fund in Northern Europe. His job is to check their investments to make sure they’re “climate-sensitive.”
“Every time the circle expands,” Steven says, “the world gets a little bit better.”
“What’s the cynical narrative?”
“But as soon as one of these companies stops making the world a shittier place,” Steven says, “three others start.”
…“The biggest companies now,” Steven says, “are based in Brazil or China or South Africa. And there’s nothing we can do about them.”