William S. Burroughs described the title of his book, Naked Lunch, as “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” In other words, there’s a moment when the implications of a choice you’ve made for yourself, and the impact of all the events leading up to and supporting that choice, become clear in your mind. As a result, you become aware of the butterfly effect of that choice on the world. These moments are often quite uncomfortable… I had one in my youth that led me to avoid consuming animal products for over a decade.
Due in large part to the long reach and rapid transmission of communications, consumers are facing a bit of a naked lunch moment about the products they buy. Whether we like it or not, we are learning of the deplorable conditions that some of our purchases are helping perpetuate. The pressure to keep margins high and prices low has pushed corporations to move operations into areas with little oversight that can take advantage of generally poor economic conditions and establish a workforce that can be exploited for a fraction of domestic resources. I’m not implying that companies are victims in this scenario, but they are just answering to their two masters: consumers (get it to me cheap) and the Street (sell it for way more than it costs to produce). Unfortunately, this gives companies an excuse to behave, at best, irresponsibly and in the worst cases, unethically.
The media published accounts of the terrible working conditions at Foxconn in relation to Apple’s supply chain. While Foxconn assembles products for many manufacturers, the news stuck to Apple because they have worked to make their brand stand for a certain lifestyle that seems antithetical to roach-infested dormitories full of students forced to assemble the latest, cool handset. There is also a disparity between Apple’s huge profits and the amount paid to those who assemble their products (in order to please both consumers and the street). The ensuing pressure forced Apple to take steps to improve working conditions, like engaging the Fair Labor Association. While the response came quickly, there are many who think that it’s not enough to really make a difference, and continued news didn’t seem to dampen sales of the iPhone 5. However, some of the new iMacs sport a label that announces that the machines were assembled in the USA, a move that is receiving positive reviews in the channels that discuss these things.
More recently, a pair of Walmart shorts was found at the site of a factory fire in Bangladesh that killed 112 people. Again, low oversight created a situation where adequate evacuation routes were not available in the name of providing cheap labor. The outcry caused Walmart to issue a statement assuring the public it was not them, but a subcontractor, that was producing goods in these conditions. Walmart sales are down in the aftermath. While other factors may be at play, some degree of decreased sales is due to dissatisfaction with the supply chain.
Bruce Sterling, in his brilliant essay Shaping Things, posited the idea of “spimes” – self-aware pieces of merchandise that stored the details of their journey through the supply chain. With a spime, it would be possible for a consumer to know where the components for a product came from, where they were assembled and by whom, how long the product had been around, and where the pieces of the product would end up once it had outlived its usefulness. It would be possible for consumers to make informed, ethical buying decisions with this degree of transparency in the supply chain. It would also be possible for a spime to tell you where each penny of the purchase price was going: how much the components cost, how much was paid to the assembler, how much went into shipping and warehousing the product, and how much the manufacturer was profiting. With these two streams of data in place, we would have an effective system of “checks and balances” on the dual pressures of high profits and low costs.
I’m not suggesting that everyone go vegan. I even went back to a non-vegetarian diet after a particularly painful breakup and I went on a meat bender. But, I am suggesting that we eat what’s at the end of our fork knowing what went into putting the food there. If we make our purchase decisions thoughtfully, we can create a marketplace that balances profitability with sound ethical behavior.