Yesterday I read about Sim Sweatshop. I like a challenge. How would I do as a worker in a sweatshop–beyond that of my own making, of course? Not so well. The game is made to help you lose. That is the point. If you are a visual learner, try playing Sim Sweatshop. This is a digital art piece commissioned by a growing arts festival in Nottingham (England). At each difficult choice you have to make (Do I join a union? Do I buy shoes for my own child?), there is a background story from labor reports.
Put that together with an article on Wal-Mart this past week, and I’ve been grinding away on the idea of fair labor for the masses. Is it possible? Is fair labor clothing already available around the corner? Are Behind the Label and the Clean Clothes Campaign soon to be obsolete? Not so fast. Hold on to your greenback dollars if you plan to buy green.
Dave Robert’s article last week on TomPaine.org reported on the Wal-Mart CEO’s speech to employees last October on greening the company. Even the Rocky Mountain Institute is helping them green their trucking fleet.
One thing that bothered me about organic standards when I first joined the Organic Trade Association (OTA) was the lack of social standards to match the environmental standards of the USDA program. National Organic Program only covers food, though, and cotton is only certified organic under this program because cotton seeds and cottonseed oil are used in food products. Only on the level of agriculture is cotton currently certified organic.
There are several organic textile standards in the world that cover every stage from agriculture through processing, and discussions are advanced to adopt an international standard to harmonize all of the existing standards. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which will be adopted by OTA, will allow certified products to cross freely into markets around the world. The best thing about GOTS, as far as I am concerned, is the adoption of the adoption of the base code of conduct for trade.
Back to Wal-Mart. I already knew that Wal-Mart has become the biggest single buyer of organic cotton in the world, but I realized the Wal-Mart CEO isn’t a treehugger. I hadn’t read about the CEO-to-employee speech before, though, so I was curious to know what impact this commitment to organics would have on their notorious lack of concern for fair labor in production as well as in store.
It must have been interesting to employees to hear their big boss talk about all of the good Wal-Mart was doing in the world, anticipating what this would mean for them. Will they be paid a fair wage? Will they get health care? “Even slight overall adjustments to wages eliminate our thin profit margin.” Oh. So, is that a no?
How odd is that? If Wal-Mart’s clothing is to be certified under GOTS as it is adopted by the Organic Trade Association and other world certifying bodies, their agriculture and processing will have to follow GOTS minimum social criteria. Producers of Wal-Mart clothing will have the right to collective bargaining and living wages, among other promises. But the sales people in the store will still lack living wage and health care.
Where do you draw the boundaries of sustainability? If you are going to buy organic, make sure your whole supply chain is committed to the environmental and social standards that implies in at least a minimally convincing way. Better yet, by from the small stores committed to whole sustainable communities.