The following column originally appeared in the Davidsonian in the fall of 2011. I have since used it as a writing sample for a number of job applications.
What We Buy Matters
What we buy matters—and not just to us. It’s a simple premise, but one not often considered. A purchase is a transaction: there are two parties, or more, and there are always effects on both sides. Production and consumption are two sides of one coin, and both the act of making a product and the act of enjoying its use can have repercussions throughout broader society.
Food consumption is one area in which this campus is already making great strides in terms of taking into account the effects of its purchasing. Discussions about the food system often revolve around questions of environment—for example, whether local foods, by virtue of traveling shorter distances from farm to plate, save greenhouse gases. However, a recent panel event on chocolate points the discussion in a different, but equally important, direction, in which considerations of worker’s conditions are emphasized.
The event—titled Chocolate: A Bittersweet Story—emphasized that buying certain brands of chocolate implicitly supports slave labor, which is used illegally on some of the cacao farms in Africa that the chocolate companies buy their raw ingredients from. None of us would say that slavery is okay; this event advocates bringing one’s consumer practices into accord with one’s beliefs.
It would be easy for us to think that this is an isolated instance, something restricted to one particular item or company that we can easily avoid. In fact, however, this decision—whether to consider social responsibility in our consumer practices—is pervasive and powerful. The core principle of what I am saying is then thus: consumption is political.
By educating ourselves about where products come from, we can in effect give ourselves a vote on many world issues, from worker’s rights to sustainability practices and on. In fact, through education we may learn that our purchases have political repercussions even deeper than we realize, as corporations may take your hard-earned dollars, turn around, and donate them to political causes that are in their own interests (but not necessarily yours).
I’d like to suggest that the college—which has already amended its chocolate-buying practices in light of work by International Justice Mission and related groups—should conduct an extensive review of its purchasing practices. This review should encompass everything from food (are the oranges we buy coming from companies employing modern-day slaves in Florida?) to merchandise (are the shirts we sell in the Bookstore sewn by laborers with fair wages?), taking into account the fundamental question: does Davidson College, guided by its Honor Code and statement of purpose, support the way this product is made?
A tall task, to be sure. Luckily, there are significant guidelines already in place, not least among them the considerable work done by the Workers Rights Consortium and Students Against Sweatshops. But I think we are—if you’ll excuse me—honor-bound. If we are to be moral leaders, we must look after our own house.