Consumers of the world, unite

By Wang Hong-zen 王宏仁  / 

Mon, Jun 17, 2013 - Page 8

The toxic flour scare has been a hot topic in the media. As always, all the large corporations involved have claimed that they are the victims and that smaller suppliers harmed them.

They have apologized and guaranteed that the same thing will never happen again. The response of the public has also been pretty much the same as with previous food scandals. After blaming the government for being incompetent and reducing their consumption of these products, the whole thing will be forgotten in a short while.

However, consumers should not be so passive. In today’s consumer society, apart from demanding that governments do a better job at monitoring corporations, people should learn how to stand up to unscrupulous companies by turning to ethical consumption.

Ethical consumption has been a way of life for many people around the globe for quite some time now.

For example, fair trade coffee and tea is about consumers being willing to purchase these products for a higher price to ensure that rainforests can be protected and producers in developing countries have a certain level of income.

People are now refusing to purchase cosmetics tested on animals because they believe non-essential products should not be manufactured at the expense of animals suffering.

Anti-sweatshop movements have demanded that technology companies such as Apple and HTC monitor their suppliers and make sure they do not exploit their employees, because people have become fed up with using mobile phones made by slave labor.

As certain species of shark are already on the brink of extinction, shark’s fin soup should also not be on menus.

Consumers in the Western world developed the concept of ethical consumption as a response to unscrupulous corporations.

Starting in the 1990s, many Western brand-driven enterprises moved their production bases to developing countries, but they totally ignored the exploitation of workers by the factories they contracted in these countries.

As a result, some consumers started a movement against sweatshop labor in which they demanded that the manufacturers of brand name sports shoes, such as Nike and Adidas, monitor the factories manufacturing their products for them, such as the Pou Chen Corp and its operations in China and India, lest consumers start to boycott their products.

In the beginning, these brands reacted the same way Taiwanese corporations have. They felt they were the victims and that the exploitation of workers had nothing to do with them.

However, under pressure from consumers, these brand-driven enterprises started to develop an upstream-downstream labor monitoring system, released the names of the factories that were manufacturing for them and periodically issued reports to allow consumers to get a full picture of their production and labor and what they were doing as companies to meet their corporate social responsibility.

Yet after the plasticizer scare in 2011, one large food company in Taiwan said that it had completed inspections on its products, ingredients and the supply chain, and that it would continue to monitor the process used in its supply chain in the future and work harder to ensure the safety of its products.

However, two years on, a similar scandal has emerged.

So what went wrong? The answer is simple.

These things keep happening because people keep purchasing the products of these companies.

Can this situation change?

There are two ways. First, people should demand brand-driven enterprises release information on their suppliers to let consumers know where the food they are eating comes from.

Second, in the same way each person has a vote to choose democracy, people can also choose to purchase products from companies that have shown themselves to be socially responsible.

According to the logic of capitalism, no company will be willing to pay out large sums of money and lose profit just to make society a safer place.

The Taiwanese businesses that are unwilling to increase salaries for their workers have shown this.

Unless the government steps in and sets a minimum wage, and the workers themselves come together, stop salaries will continue to decrease.

When consumers encounter companies that are unwilling to spend money to ensure the welfare of consumers, they can join together and take a more ethical approach to consumption.

This way they will fight the dirty and unscrupulous capital of those companies who talk about doing good while failing to do any.

Wang Hong-zen is a professor at the Graduate Institute of Sociology at National Sun Yat-sen University.

Translated by Drew Cameron