What perhaps started out as a trendy idea for coffee snobs—making sure the beans in your grinder were raised and harvested by fairly paid coffee farmers—has suddenly become a corporate imperative across a growing number of industries. More consumers are at least asking about, if not outright demanding, that retailers offer products that have been manufactured in humane conditions by workers paid fairly for their labors. This is a good thing.
The collapse of a clothing plant (though “sweatshop” is probably a more accurate term) in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 people has only accelerated a trend that has been fed by consumer demand, enhanced by social media. Within two weeks of the Bangladesh disaster, major retailers in both Europe and the US are at least discussing signing on to support new safety initiatives for factories in Bangladesh and other developing nations.
Up until this point, “fair trade” (fill in the blank) has been more expensive than other traditionally manufactured goods, and some surveys have indicated that some Americans are willing to pay more if they know that T-shirt wasn’t sewed by a 12-year-old earning $1.50 a day. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in the long term. The pressure to keep prices low, especially for retailers like Wal-Mart, is intense and never goes away. On the other hand, the pressure from consumers can be equally intense—if it remains a top-of-mind issue in the long term. American consumers have a long and not so proud history of being easily distracted.
In the meantime, corporations need to consider adding to their communications messages about the conditions under which their products are made. In what may be a small blow in favor of improving humanity, Americans at least seem to be starting to care about working conditions in the rest of the world.