Was Polluting Factory a “Gap Factory” and Does it Matter?

From the Times Online: Gap factory danger to African children

A factory that makes jeans for Gap and Levi Strauss is illegally dumping chemical waste in a river and two unsecured tips where it poses a hazard to children.

The scandal was uncovered by a Sunday Times investigation into pollution caused by a plant in Lesotho, southern Africa, which supplies denim to the two companies. Dark blue effluent from the factory of Nien Hsing, a Taiwanese firm, was pouring into a river from which people draw water for cooking and bathing….

We should being by saying, yes, this is a bad thing. Polluting water that people need to survive is generally wrong. In some cases, it seems justifiable for developing nations to choose lower environmental standards in exchange for economic development, but I doubt that argument applies very well to this particular case.

But it’s worth noting that the headline for this story is misleading. The factory in question isn’t a “Gap factory”. It’s the factory of a company that supplies denim to the Gap. That might not seem like a huge distinction in an era in which large companies are regularly held responsible (and increasingly accept responsibility) for the actions of their suppliers. But it does matter. The headline is importantly misleading, for two reasons.

First, there’s a moral difference between me doing X, and someone who sells me things doing X. To begin, I can normally only bear any responsibility if I know (or should know) what the person selling things to me has done. It’s good that, in 2010, it’s harder for big companies to turn a blind eye to wrongs done solely in order to meet their demands. But that’s different from saying that we ought to lob an accusation — an accusation of hurting children, in this case — as soon as there’s any slippage in a company’s supply chain.

Second, if consumers see this headline and think they can save children in Africa by avoiding Gap jeans, they’re wrong. For starters, the story (for those who get that far) actually supplies 2 companies: The Gap and Levi Strauss. But beyond that, if you actually were going to make a decision about what jeans to wear based on the environmental and labour conditions under which they were made, you need to know about the product as a whole, and the company’s production processes over all. Indeed, what you really need is comparative information, not just information about one company.

I can understand why activists like to single out big companies for special attention. Yelling “Gap hurts children!” gets more attention than “wholesaler you’ve never heard of hurts children.” But those of us focused on understanding problems (including newspapers like The Times) should hold themselves to a different standard.

—-
(Thanks to LK for this story.)

4 comments so far

  1. Lisa on

    Chris,
    Thanks for posting some important clarifications, headlines are often less about precision and than generating enough interest for a reader to pause and attend to the rest of the article.
    I have some concerns about your musings though.
    “First, there’s a moral difference between me doing X, and someone who sells me things doing X. To begin, I can normally only bear any responsibility if I know (or should know) what the person selling things to me has done.”
    Though there may be a moral difference between the two (and I’m interested in how you think about this difference) there is certainly a connection between the two. Namely, your decisions to buy X should, if you are aiming to be a morally conscious consumer, be informed by the various impacts (socially, environmentally, and so on) of buying X. This requires awareness of social and ecological harms attached to the purchasing of X. If there is slippage in a supply chain, it isn’t an unjustified accusation to identify it and inform consumers…it is correct and important information (your worries about the misleading title of the article aside).
    “Second, if consumers see this headline and think they can save children in Africa by avoiding Gap jeans, they’re wrong.”
    Of course there are better ways to go about helping…for example, identify a viable source of foreign aid and contributing to it. Consumer purchases of often unnecessary goods is not the most direct way to help anyone – but being ethically informed about the impacts of purchases ensures your hard earned dollars won’t be feeding into socially and ecologically harmful institutions and industries.
    “But beyond that, if you actually were going to make a decision about what jeans to wear based on the environmental and labour conditions under which they were made, you need to know about the product as a whole, and the company’s production processes over all. Indeed, what you really need is comparative information, not just information about one company.”
    Sounds ideal! But, in this imperfect world, such information isn’t usually available. I’m all for transparency, and work towards more thoughtful/informed methods of purchasing goods with my work at the EAC on the Goods Miles Project. That being said, I’m worried some might read you as pointing a finger at imperfect knowledge as a reason for not trying to utilize the knowledge we do have access to (i.e. the article we are discussing).

    Thanks for the Blogging Chris!
    Lisa Kretz

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Just a couple of points:

    On your first comment: you’re right that (when information is available) A can bear some responsibility for what she buys from B. But that doesn’t make *B’s* wrong *A’s* wrong. There’s a morally significant difference there. The headline is inaccurate.

    As for incomplete information: Yes, of course. Information is never complete, and waiting for complete information is a recipe for paralysis. But when information is *radically* incomplete, acting on it can itself be irresponsible. If someone reads this story and says “Ewww, Gap is evil!” and rushes off to buy Wrangler jeans or Diesel jeans instead, utterly ignorant of the environmental & labour practices of those companies (and their suppliers) they could be making things worse, rather than better.

    Chris.

  3. Mark Edwards on

    Interesting topic Chris and it is true that supply chain ethics is a very complex area but I would like the focus of our analyses of such things to sometimes take a different path to that which you offer here.

    Instead of analysing the case in terms of moral complexities, I think it can also be very useful (and even perhaps moreso) to look at the problem as one of how to take action rather than how to think about all the moral fineries invovled. You seem to think “the activists” hold to a different standard to the moral philosopher. I don’t think taht need be the way we see these kinds of issues. Rather than reflecting on the difficulties of coming to a conclusion about the moral questions involved, what about simply asking this question – given that these supply chain problems are occuring, what can I/consumers do about it? How can we act? The complexity approach to analysing these terrible incidents too often turns our outrage over such things into very good reasons for doing very little (except perhaps ruminate on the moral complexities).

    Might it not be that we also analyse such areas as supply chain ethics in terms of taking action and expressing our ethical concerns rather than coming to some conclusion on the moral complexities. Perhaps consumers who are concerned could develop ways of expressing their concerns to retailers, asking questions of their local shop owners, talk to friends and family about the issues and see if these things are of concern to others, find out what some cutting-edge organisations are doing about supply chain ethics, write a letter to a progressive company congratulating them on their supply-chain policies.

    There are many many ways of expressing our concerns about supply chain ethics that do not requier us to solve the moral complexities invovled or to keep to some high standard of philosophical analysis. Perhaps teaching ethics could also be about how best we can take action and become “activists” as well as how we can perform more conceptual forms of analysis.

  4. Chris MacDonald on

    Mark:

    I agree…there’s nothing wrong with acting on incomplete information, if the “acting” involved means gathering more information.

    My worry is that, too often, headlines like this simply inspire people to knee-jerk reactions.

    Chris.


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