Thursday, November 22, 2007

Turnabout is Fair Trade for Christmas Catalogs

Many thanks to guest blogger, Tereza Coraggio for this excellent article about her experiences asking catalog companies about the stories behind their products. Her experiences reminded me of Sara Bongiorni's response when asked by a reporter what she learned during A Year Without Made in China. "What do the US regulated labeling standards tell us?," the reporter inquired. Her reply, "Not much."

On to Tereza:

For those who see the people behind the products, Black Friday is aptly named, and not for the "in the black" of retail sales. The chocolate holidays – Halloween, Valentine's, Easter - are occasion enough for mourning, but Black Friday ushers in a season of darkness. Every year, I'm caught between loving the festivity, the excitement of the kids, and the warm generosity of family and community, and feeling a terrible sadness over the invisible workers, their lives squandered in making tokens of our affection. Although my kids no longer think elves supply the Disney channel, few know the full reality. This year, I decided to do something constructive with my conflict. I decided to turn the tables.

In September, the Center for a New American Dream sponsored a Carbon Conscious Consumer (C3) campaign called Junk Your Junkmail. For a $41 fee, of which 1/3rd was donated to nonprofits, I hired a business called to get me off the direct mail lists and cancel my catalogs. Named for the 41 pounds of unsightly paper fat your mailbox consumes per year, they guaranteed an 80% reduced-carbonhydrate mail diet.

Looking at the pre-season glut, though, I started calling my own Christmas catalogs. I begin by finding something to praise – something I like that they're doing or an interesting product. Then I ask how they make sure that there's no child labor or sweatshop labor involved in making their products. Do they do unannounced factory inspections, or have an outside agency that certifies? What about their supply chain – how do they verify that the cocoa or cotton used isn't harvested by children, or that the mines producing the metals aren't hazardous to workers or the environment?

I ask them to pass my questions on to whoever can get back to me, and I give them my contact information. In the meantime, however, I request that they remove me from their mailing list. Their products are eye-catching, and I don't want the temptation, for me or my kids. I say that I can't blame the mess the world is in on anyone, if I don't care what I'm buying. When I can maintain a Zen humility, as a fellow-muddler slogging through life, the responses I get back are gratifying. These are some...

At Limited Too I talked to a black woman from Texas who politely agreed to pass my comments up the chain. Before hanging up, though, she said it was funny that I called just then. She’d seen a special on the Gap last night and thought to herself, "I used to shop there." She was happy to tell management that people cared, because we all have to stick together.
Unfortunately, the call to get off their mailing list put me onto their automated telemarketing. It's annoying that they can call you, but you don't have an option to talk back. To find a real person, I went to their website, which told me "all our jeans are made with love." Happy to hear this, I clicked to find out more. Up popped a window with stitching details. Where's the love? I googled an article called "Justice for All" on their new Justice brand name signaling a change in strategy. Hurray! That must mean fair wages and labor practices. No, it means prices that are 20% cheaper. Where's the justice? I'll tell you when I get hold of a real person to find out.

At Plow and Hearth, the rep listened thoughtfully, and said that I was the first person who’d asked these questions. I told him that over 20% of consumers now base their decisions on ethical concerns, according to Co-op America. So I was unlikely to be the last.

At Williams Sonoma, a mom who's homeschooled five kids mentioned a wooden shelf which brought jobs to an impoverished area. I said, yes, but...most manufacturing is done in impoverished areas. Are the jobs fair? She didn't know, but respected me for asking and would relay my concerns. I also found out that her teenage son bakes bread to surprise her when she comes home from work – just the kind of guy I wish my teenage daughter could meet.

I still wanted to try Williams-Sonoma's peppermint marshmallows that take 3 days to make. Besides their own line, they carry Rubicon Bakeries' from Richmond, CA. Looking them up on the web, I found they were started in 1973 by people concerned about the closures of state psychiatric hospitals. Their jobs provide training, housing, employment, and services to the homeless and mentally disabled, and they've recently opened a new bakery in Berkeley. With all this, I was holding my breath when I called to ask the million-dollar question. How do they know if there's child labor or slaves harvesting their cocoa beans? Fair Trade Chocolate! Hallelujah! I'm placing my Christmas orders now.

At Explorations, a catalog of New Age spirituality, I talked to a woman named Trinidad. She’s certain that the owners would NEVER source from anyone who wasn’t ethical, but she wasn't sure how they verify it. However, they’re going to get back to me on a few specifics – an orthopedic neck rest, a Zen alarm clock, and a statue of Gaia. She agreed that it would be spiritually disconcerting to meditate with products made in sweatshops. To my surprise, James Young emailed me, a product specialist from Gaiam. I hadn't noticed that Explorations was theirs. The first two products were made in China, and Gaia was of unknown origin (created or evolved?). Although he handled organic certification, he didn't know who certified their manufacturing standards.

Curiously, some user comments on Junk Your Junkmail were about Gaiam's excessive cataloging and selling of their lists. I asked James if he knew how many they sent out, and who they sold their list to. He thought I should call corporate, where decisions were made, instead of customer service. When I did, the receptionist first sent me to customer service, and then back to James. Hopefully, this isn't an infinite loop.

Title Nine Sports was also certain that everything was ethically made, but didn’t have any details. Their products were made all over the world according to different standards. So, I asked, Title Nine doesn’t have any standards of their own? No, she was certain they did, but she didn’t know them. If she was a customer, she’d want to know the same things, she said. But as a CS rep, didn’t she want to know? We agreed that Title Nine was marketing to young, socially-conscious consumers and I wasn’t the first to ask. She would pass on my concern. Since then, I read at that Orvis and Title Nine topped the list of junk mail last month. I hope they left some trees to photograph with their outdoorsy sports line.

A surprising number of the people I talked to have said they agree with my concerns. The rest have taken my questions seriously and have been respectful. The Noble Collection was an exception. They specialize in upscale movie-theme paraphernalia billed as "Exclusive Treasures at Uncompromising Value." I asked what their uncompromising labor standards were for manufacturing. For a specific example, I chose the $650 18-karat One Ring for control of Middle Earth. "Made in the U.S.!", she said. "Do you know where the gold comes from?" I asked. "How do you know it's not the U.S.-owned Peruvian mine that's killed union organizers and sent death threats to the priest who represents the workers?" I mentioned that all of these movies are about the battle between good and evil – Narnia, Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code. Wouldn't it be contradictory to wear an icon for the 'good side' that paid money to kill union leaders and priests? Or that stunted children's growth from lead in the water? As she fumbled to transfer me, I could hear snickering in the background, and an incredulous, "She wants to know where the gold comes from?!!" The supervisor was curt in relaying my request to the product manager, but warmed to the task of taking me off their mailing list.

If you would like to join Accountability Anonymous, call your own catalogs and send the results to Be polite. Evil may exist, but no one you'll talk to makes enough money. Don't forget to laugh, and remember that it's getting better. A very literate receptionist called my question arcane – by which she meant no insult, just that no one had asked it before. We can't blame the companies if we're not asking. And finally...may your days be jolly and bright, and the rest of black Fridays be white.

1 comment:

Marty Wrin said...

Great post!

I've been approaching the catalogs one-at-a-time for the last year and have almost eliminated my catalog mail.

I have not been as diligent with determining the sourcing of some of the products so this served as a reminder for me!

I've been focusing on food as I determine location of production, farming-methods used and fair wage providers when making buying decisions.

I'd love to see a follow-up with details of how your efforts go!