Sunday 5 March 2017

Shopping for human rights

Last updated 23/7/2018

Whenever we shop, we're buying things made by people.  Some of those people are treated well in the course of making our things; others are treated very badly.  The more people who buy things made by people with good jobs, the more good jobs there'll be.

How we buy creates the world in which our global neighbours live.

How can we buy things in a way that helps the poorest people in the world flourish? For Martin and I, we've decided to:
  1. Preferentially buy things produced in low income countries.  People in places like New Zealand have lots of job opportunities but people in places like Bangladesh have very few.  If something we need is available from both rich and Majority World countries, we will buy the one produced in a Majority World country in order to give the job to the person most likely to be left destitute otherwise.
  2. Buy things produced under the best labour conditions available - even if they're bad.  Many things produced in poor countries are produced in terrible conditions.  We try to look first for things that are produced under independently-verified good labour conditions.  But if no one is producing the thing we need under good labour conditions, we would rather buy items produced under terrible conditions than items produced here in New Zealand.  The workers subjecting themselves to those terrible conditions have freely chosen to be there: I trust their judgement that any alternatives available to them are worse and I will not force them into those worse conditions by boycotting the ones they have chosen.  I write more about this here.
  3. Do not buy things produced by child or forced labour.  The exception to point 2 is where some form of forced labour or coercion is involved.  Then the workers involved haven't chosen freely and may well have had better options if they hadn't been trafficked or indentured into their situation.  We will not support people who enslave others and, when we become aware of that happening, will preferentially buy things produced in rich countries if necessary.
Below is a printable summary of our buying policies (click here to download as a pdf), followed by more detail on the human rights issues involved in various categories goods we buy frequently and how we respond to them.

Table of Contents

Cocoa and chocolate
Clothing and textiles
Other durable goods


Cocoa and chocolate

There is a lot of both child labour and slavery in cocoa production, as well as agrochemicals being used in ways that are unsafe for the growers.  We avoid supporting slavery and expand the availability of good jobs in the cocoa industry primarily by buying products certified under one of the following schemes:

You can read more of our thinking here and find a list of cocoa products available in NZ certified under those schemes here.


Most coffee is grown on fairly small family farms where issues of slavery are much less prevalent.  However, the prices they get for their crop are often so low that farmer families can't get by without keeping their children out of school and having them work alongside them.  To buy coffee where the farmers have been paid a liveable wage and had the means to send their kids to school, look for the same three certification marks.

You should be able to find a wide range of coffee certified under one or other of these schemes in any supermarket in New Zealand.  The exceptions are instant and decaf.  For both of these, you need to go to Trade Aid (find your local store here or buy over the internet).


Unlike coffee, tea is generally grown on large plantations.  Neither child nor slave labour seems to be particularly common, but workers are often paid so little they are literally starving, fuelling the sale of children into slavery.

To support plantations that pay proper wages, we buy our tea from Dilmah.  This is available in every supermarket in New Zealand and comes in a wide range of varieties.

Dilmah claims to pay their workers well-above-average wages for Sri Lanka and to do a lot to ensure plantation workers' kids are able to get an education.  These claims aren't verified by a third-party certifier, but we think there's good reason to believe they're true.  Dilmah is such a global giant and makes these claims so forcefully that, were anything else to be the case, they would surely have been debunked by now.  I haven't found anyone arguing against their claims.  In addition, we like that Dilmah tea is processed and packaged in Sri Lanka, further helping their economy.

If you would prefer to buy tea backed by independently-verified fair trade claims, you can buy WFTO-certified tea from Trade Aid.  They stock English Breakfast, Earl Grey and Masala Chai black teas as well as green and roobois teas.  They do mail order, or you can find your local shop here.


Banana growers are often subjected to very unsafe working conditions, child labour is not uncommon, and banana plantation owners are notorious for squashing any efforts workers might make to organise and lobby for better working conditions.

In order to buy bananas produced under better labour conditions, look for the FLO trade-mark on your bananas: all the major NZ supermarket chains carry them, under several different brand names.


Our primary concerns in the sugar industry are:
  • guaranteed prices in some countries (meaning that producers in others are competing with artificially inflated prices, making it even harder for them to make a living and leading to child labour);
  • forced land child labour.
Sugar prices are artificially subsidised or guaranteed in China, the EU, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Thailand and the US.  The US Department of Labour reports that forced labour is used in the sugar industries of Brazil, Burma, Dominican Republic, Bolivia and Pakistan; and that child labour is used in the sugar industries of Turkey, Panama, Burma, Paraguay, Cambodia, Phillipines, Colombia, Thailand, Dominican Republic, Uganda, El Salvador, Vietnam, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Belize, Mexico, Boliva.

To avoid supporting child and slave labour, we now buy Countdown own-brand sugar, the only Bonsucro-certified sugar we are aware of in New Zealand.  Bonsucro sugar has to meet strong labour rights standards which are rigorously audited by third-parties who interview staff and visit both farms and mills.  With  one exception, no Bonsucro-certified farms are in high-income countries with a subsidised sugar industry.  The majority of Bonsucro-certified sugar comes from India and Brazil, although I expect Countdown's likely comes from Australia.

I wasn't previously familiar with Bonsucro certification, but it turns out it is widely used in Europe, especially for ethanol produced from sugarcane.  I couldn't find anyone complaining that it doesn't uphold the standards it claims; instead I found academics promoting it and encouraging NGOs to become involved with it.  Bonsucro is also a member of the ISEAL alliance.

Countdown don't do the more sophisticated varieties of sugar such as golden, muscovado and demerara.  For these you have two slave-free options.

Trade Aid sells golden sugar and muscovado sugar that is certified fair trade by the World Fair Trade Association - an excellent and widely-respected certification.

If you'd like to read more, I have a whole blog-post on sugar here.

Fish and other seafood

I've only recently really registered the allegations that slavery is widespread in both the fishing and seafood processing industries.  It is clear that terrible working conditions are common.

I am currently researching the New Zealand retail fish industry to see what I can buy without supporting such practises.  You can follow my progress here; I will update this post when I have something conclusive to say.

In the meantime, I am very confident that the entire Sealord range is child and forced labour free and that they strive to ensure workers are treated well throughout their supply chain.  For sardines and kippers, Brunswick is also child and slave labour free.

Clothing and textiles 

We see the key human rights issues in clothing and textiles as being:
  • widespread suicides and deaths from pesticide exposure in the cotton industry, primarily in South Asia.  These are exclusively associated with 'conventional' cotton;
  • unsafe working conditions in the garment-making industry across the board;
  • forced labour in the harvesting of Uzbek cotton, where a totalitarian government forces over a million people to leave their regular jobs and harvest cotton for a couple of months every year (!).  Uzbek cotton is exclusively 'conventional' (i.e. not 'organic').
In some cases, it is not possible to avoid supporting one or more of these abuses whilst still remaining decently covered!  So, rather than only buying clothing and textiles with particular endorsements and otherwise doing without, we buy products that fall as high as possible up the following hierarchy:
  1. Buy nothing - mend or find other ways to make do.  This obviously doesn't help people who depend on the clothing industry to survive.  However, it does minimise the significant environmental damage associated with fabric production, which itself has serious human rights consequences.  It also saves money, which helps make some of the more expensive options further down the hierarchy affordable!
  2. Second-hand.  Again, this doesn't directly help poor people involved in clothing production, but it does minimise the amount of precious farm land, water and air being poisoned, helping the vulnerable people who depend on those resources to flourish.  Due to concerns about microplastics, from 2018 we've stopped buying clothing made from petroleum-based fibres like polyester and polypropylene, however;
  3. Fair trade certified by WFTO or FLO.  Avoid clothing certified with the FTAANZ logo (the one with the cross through it below).  They do not appear to consider themselves certifiers and, instead, endorse the two other logos.  I am not sure why clothing is cropping up with their logo on it and when I asked them, one email address bounced and the other wasn't answered.  There are also a number of brands that claim to be fair trade/fairly traded without certification.  I wouldn't buy from these without checking if (and how) they verify the absence of the abuses mentioned above;
  4. Clothing made in the Majority World, so long as it's not made of conventional cotton (i.e. clothing made of either organic cotton or fibres other than cotton such as wool, cellulose-based synthetics like rayon or viscose etc. - we try to avoid petroleum-based synthetics where possible).  When purchasing organic cotton, look for GOTS certification (the green logo below).  That not only guarantees the workers weren't exposed to unsafe levels of pesticides; it also guarantees there was no child labour, forced labour or egregious working conditions both on the farm and during all processing steps until the fabric was completed.  It doesn't guarantee anything about conditions at the garment factory, though.  Note that FairTrade (FLO) actually certifies cotton products under two separate logos.  The plain FairTrade logo (above) is used for items produced solely under fair trade conditions; the FairTrade 'certified cotton' label (below) is used when the cotton was grown and turned into fabric under fair trade conditions but the final product was not produced under fair trade conditions.  FairTrade 'certified cotton' is thus significantly less careful of labour rights than plain FairTrade, so I put it at this level rather than amongst fully fair trade products.
  5. Clothing made in the Majority World, even if it is made of conventional cotton.  Where possible, we prefer brands that ranked highly on the Ethical Fashion Guide: a resource co-produced by the Baptist churches of Australia and TEARFund in New Zealand.  It examines a number of ethical criteria including whether brands have made a commitment not to buy cotton from Uzbekistan.
  6. Clothing manufactured in New Zealand or other rich countries.  Note that, some US clothing marketed as 'fair trade' unfortunately falls into this category.
I expand my reasoning for this ranking here.

We generally manage to obtain everything we need from the first three steps of this hierarchy, although we occasionally have to go as low as step 4.
  • We get second hand clothing from Savemart, op shops or TradeMe.
  • We buy fair trade T-shirts from Marketplacers or LiminalDirty White Gold is another option.  Note that the fair trade T-shirts stocked by Kathmandu are fair trade 'certified cotton' (i.e. the T-shirts themselves aren't manufactured under fair trade conditions).  They're still a much better option than fully uncertified T-shirts and we've bought a few of them.  If you want to buy these, check the label - only a small portion of Kathmandu's range is made from fair trade cotton.
  • We've imported fair trade underwear and socks from PACT in the US in the past but expect to patronise Tummah in the future as they're local so shipping should be cheaper.
  • You can buy fair trade shoes from Sole Rebels but we've never tried them.  My shoes come from Savemart and Martin, sadly, has only found the style he's comfortable in New Zealand made.
  • Some of the Ecobags range is fair trade certified.
  • Kowtow stocks some fairly up-market clothing made with fair trade cotton (although the garments themselves aren't fair trade).
  • I've bought a GOTS-certified nightie from Greenfibres in the UK recently.  The whole ALAS range is also GOTS-certified.

Other durable goods

Production of the goods we use often results in environmental damage that poisons the land and water on which the poorest of our global neighbours depend.

As for clothing, we use a hierarchy to minimise harm:
  1. Borrow it.  Many books we want are available at our local library, and books they don't already have they're often happy to buy in.  Websites such as Hire Things enable you to borrow many of the sorts of things you'll only use infrequently, anyway.  We've also found that, if we ask around, someone we know often already owns things we have a one-off need of.
  2. Buy second hand (or brand new that other people have bought and never used!).   We buy second-hand books through Get Textbooks and practically everything else from TradeMe.  I've just bought a little transistor radio from TradeMe that was brand new but had clearly been sitting around someone's house unused for quite some time :-)
  3. Buy fairly traded.  Outside of foodstuffs and clothing/textiles, very few things are certified under any fair trade scheme.  However, I am confident that goods purchased from Trade Aid, Loyal and Marketplacers will have been produced in factories with great working conditions.  They mostly stock goods at the 'decorative' rather than 'everyday' end of the market.  I have purchased jewellery, stationery and some crockery/servingware this way.
  4. Buy durable.  This means that fewer resources get used over time. When purchasing electronics, we also try to follow this guide from Greenpeace that ranks brands with regard to their environmental pollution.  It is, however, quite out of date now so is of limited use.  It doesn't include some brands that are now ubiquitous and the brands it does include may have changed their behaviour in the intervening 4+ years.

Click here to download the printable summary below - you could keep with your shopping list or store on your phone to access as you shop.

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