It’s hard for consumers to easily get good information about particular brands and companies, and the information available will also depend on what matters to you. CHOICE regularly researches issues of ethical consumption, particularly in relation to environmental impact (for example, choosing green power products , and how to make your home carbon-neutral.
General advice includes:
- Buy secondhand goods.
- Buy fewer goods.
- Replace goods only when necessary — repair when possible and don’t upgrade on a whim.
Fairtrade Australia has information about Fairtrade products (mainly coffee and chocolate) and links to suppliers.
The UK’s Ethical Consumer magazine has information on a wide range of products.
Etiko sells fair trade footballs and sports wear.
FairWear has a list of clothing manufacturers and retailers on its website who’ve agreed to produce clothing ethically.
Oxfam offers shop-based and online shopping for fair trade products, including food, toys, clothing, cards and homewares.
Laws aren't enough
International Consumer Research and Testing (ICRT), of which CHOICE is a member, conducted research into working conditions in Asian factories where mobile phones and laptop computers were made. One finding was that ultimately it was the country where products were made, rather than the brand, that determined the working conditions.
Factories in China were worse for working conditions than similar factories in Thailand and the Philippines. The research found workers in China doing 12 hours a day or longer (sometimes more than 400 hours a month), a lot of unpaid overtime, and people working in dangerous conditions without protective equipment or adequate training. In one such factory, they interviewed a man who’d lost his hand in an industrial accident, and was forced to pay his own medical expenses. In some cases women were dismissed for becoming pregnant.
These and many other negative findings were in contravention of Chinese labour laws, which are in some ways not bad. For example, the legal maximum for working hours per month is about 200 hours, women are entitled to 90 days’ paid maternity leave and companies are required to provide ‘social insurance’, which covers accidents, medical insurance and a pension. The problem lies in poor auditing of workplaces and enforcement of labour laws.
Such working conditions have been well-documented by human and labour rights NGOs (and not just in electronics factories — see our article on toys) over the last decade or so, and the general perception of a clear majority of consumers in our survey was that working conditions in China (76%), India (75%), Vietnam (71%) and Thailand (71%) are poor. Almost half of the people surveyed thought the working conditions of the people who make electronic goods are ‘quite’ or ‘very’ important when choosing a hi-tech product, and 4% considered working conditions in their top three criteria.