Ethical Christmas buying

By Catherine Woulfe In Current Affairs

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Nichola with husband Koos and children

Koos Turenhout and Nichola Meyer with Adam and Isobella, who is holding a Christmas wreath she made using flowers and shells, photo David White.

In 2010, Nichola Meyer and husband Koos Turenhout sat their children down and told them Christmas as they knew it was over. “They had become immune to both the quality and quantity of the gifts,” Meyer says, “and our Christmas gift budget was hovering on the $1500 mark for a family of four. Finances aren’t the issue for us, but what was problematic was the increasing sense that we were rearing two spoilt children.”

Isobella (then 9) and Adam (then 5) were accustomed to stockings stuffed with $2 Shop toys. They didn’t get the gadgetry other kids clamour for – in the US, Nielsen research shows iPads and iPods topping children’s wish lists – but they were given “big gifts” of puzzles, books and the latest Lego sets. Their parents, meanwhile, were finding “the whole frenzied gift buying was becoming like a quiet depression, a dread”.

Under the new regime, the children would get only one gift each and it would cost less than $20. Their reaction? “Immense disappointment and anger,” Meyer says. But after their parents pointed out that all the stuff they were given wasn’t making them happy – that it was just gathering dust in their bedrooms – the kids slowly came around.

Last Christmas, for the first time, they went to see the lights on Auckland’s Franklin Rd, and to Christmas in the Park, “because it’s about something bigger, it’s about community”. They established small rituals such as baking together, and holding special family dinners with candles and pretty desserts. That’s what the children are looking forward to this year, Meyer says. They don’t miss the extravagant gift giving, although Meyer is sure they will deeply appreciate the special gifts she found for them at the Titirangi market.

Even in the off season, the “small is beautiful” philosophy is becoming a central part of the family routine. Meyer says they are trying to instil a sense of awareness in the children, so they consider where everything they want to buy comes from and then decide whether it’s really worth it. “In terms of renovating, and buying and upgrading, we keep stopping ourselves and saying ‘no’. One family at a time has to say, ‘No, we can’t do this.’”


China probably churned out most of the shiny stuff on your pine tree – and the presents under it. It is estimated that more than 100 million Chinese work in factories. The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights (IGLHR, formerly the National Labour Committee) has compiled detailed reports on a handful of these factories, which highlight alarming – and illegal – conditions. Charles Kernaghan heads the institute and is widely considered the world’s foremost anti-sweatshop campaigner. Noam Chomsky has credited him with sparking student activism on this issue similar in some ways to South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. The New York Times once called him “the labour movement’s mouse that roared”, saying he has “almost single-handedly pushed the old problem of sweatshops into the public eye”.

Working with a small team to target and document specific factories, Kernaghan travels the world’s sweatshop capitals. The organisation’s reports include interviews with workers and extensive details of contracts, regulations and conditions. They name factories and the companies using them, including several toy superpowers, and often include covert photographs of specific products and smuggled company documents.

When we talk, Kernaghan has just arrived home in Pittsburgh after nearly two weeks in Bangladesh at the ruins of the Tazreen Fashion factory. A fire destroyed the factory on November 24. At least 112 workers, mostly young women, were killed in the fire or jumped to their deaths. Kernaghan is jet-lagged and despondent. He says survivors told him and the team that when smoke alarms went off, management forced them to keep working. When they tried to escape, managers padlocked them inside. “They were racing and racing to get garments out for Christmas. They were flat out.”

Kernaghan sighs. He says the fire will change nothing for Bangladesh’s sweatshop workers. He believes lies are being told: that only 112 people died (Kernaghan insists the toll is more than twice that); that sabotage – rather than poor safety standards – was to blame (“completely ridiculous. They say this every time – it’s like a broken record”); that Walmart had no idea its products were being made in illegal, unsafe, inhumane conditions (ditto). He says the Bangladeshi Government, which made the sabotage claim, is in an invidious position, dependent on the money garment manufacturing is bringing in, and therefore desperate to please the huge companies its women are sewing for. “They’ll grind these women up,” he says. “They’ll grind them to nothing, just so that they have some currency to buy the oil and things that they don’t have.”


Charles Kernaghan

Charles Kernaghan in a garment worker slum neighbourhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2006.

The IGLHR has just released its 2012 Christmas report. It focuses on Zhengrun Toys, which is owned by one of the world’s largest soft toy manufacturers. Zhengrun runs four factories in China’s Guangdong province, employing more than 2000 workers, mostly women aged 30-40. They reportedly make toys for such US buyers as Disney, Kmart, Universal City Studios, Build-A-Bear Workshop and Costco.

The report claims the Christmas rush at Zhengrun starts in October, with the women spending three months routinely working 17-hour shifts, starting at 7.30am and ending at 12.30am, six days a week. Some also work 12 hours on Sundays. The report says all overtime is compulsory, with no sick leave or maternity leave allowed. Fire exits are allegedly blocked with boxes of soft toys, the air is thick with dust and workers are only occasionally given masks. Managers allegedly yell and scream at the women.

The women get one toilet break every four hours. Talking is prohibited. They are paid NZ$13.50 a day and receive small portions of “awful” food at work, usually two greens and two other vegetables. In the factory’s five dormitories the women allegedly sleep in bunk beds, eight to each “filthy” room. They wash in buckets.

In sweatshops across the world, child labour and safety standards are often ignored. The Tazreen factory was six storeys higher than was legal, and Kernaghan says it had too few fire extinguishers to cope with even a small blaze. A 2007 YouTube video shot in China’s Huanya factory shows workers spraying toxic paint onto Christmas decorations, wearing T-shirts and no masks, and children sitting among crates of decorations, tying wires onto baubles.

What about those iPads, Kindles and Samsung gadgets at the top of many wish lists? For two years, the media focus has been on China’s Foxconn factories, which make products for Apple, Amazon and other big electronics companies. There, in 2010, 12 workers died after jumping off rooftops. The Economist reports that in the same year, two other people were injured, and the company averted another 20 suicide attempts. Apple has since allowed the Fair Labor Association to inspect the factories, and the FLA reports a drop in overtime, increased pay and much better working conditions.

Samsung’s factories are now in the spotlight after an extensive August report from New York-based China Labor Watch made allegations of under-age workers, verbal and physical abuse, a lack of worker safety, low salaries and soaring overtime. Follow-up visits by the CLW in October and November found a list of persistent problems, the worst of which was “abusive” overtime three to six times above the legal monthly limit of 36 hours. In response, Samsung sent 121 auditors into 105 supplier factories in September. The company says it found no child labour, but has promised to abolish a penalty system for worker lateness or absence, lift safety standards, improve hiring and training procedures and, in the long term, cut down on illegal overtime. The company is auditing a further 144 factories and from 2013 will allow its Chinese factories to be independently audited.


So, what advice would Kernaghan give a New Zealand consumer standing in a department store trying to make an ethical choice? “Well, I think they’d be in a spot, because if New Zealand’s sort of like the United States, almost everything’s from China. Certainly toys and sporting goods. “We’ve gone into [US] stores and tried to speak to people about the conditions under which these toys or Christmas lights are made. People seem angry and shocked, but they still buy their Christmas baubles and they still buy their ornaments. And, frankly, it’s not their fault. If you didn’t buy ornaments made in China, what would you buy? Maybe there’d be some ornaments from Denmark, where you’d pay $30 or $40, but most people can’t afford that.”

Kernaghan says if enough consumers shunned goods made in sweatshops, the companies would panic. “It’s just that it doesn’t really happen.” The Fairtrade movement is wonderful, he says, but peanuts in comparison with the giant conventional companies. “It’s not going to change the world … The vast majority of people are so poor and they don’t know what to do; they end up buying the same sweatshop clothing over and over and over again. “Nothing, absolutely nothing is going to change until there are enforceable laws.”

Specifically, Kernaghan believes consumer countries must ban imports of anything produced under conditions that do not meet the International Labour Organisation’s minimum standards. This is basic stuff – no forced labour, no child labour, freedom of association, the right to organise, the right to a safe working environment – although minimum wages would still be set by the individual manufacturing countries.

In 2006, the IGLHR drew up a bill along these lines, called the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act. In 2007, it was endorsed by 26 senators, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, and by about 175 members of the House of Representatives. Kernaghan started to hope. “And that’s when the corporations came down and crushed the whole thing.” That was the IGLHR’s best chance at change, Kernaghan says, and it missed it. He thinks another country might be able to set an example. In the meantime, he is resolved to continue documenting conditions at individual factories. “If there’s hope, it’s going to be with the younger people.”

In the US, United Students Against Sweatshops is actively campaigning for the rights of overseas factory workers who make their university-branded garments. In the UK, young people have been holding regular passive protests at Topshop stores, to call attention to tax issues and the use of sweatshop labour.


Oxfam ethical-gift promotion

Oxfam ethical-gift promotion

Oxfam New Zealand executive director Barry Coates urges consumers to ask shop assistants for assurances about how their goods are made. Coates says this is much more powerful than simply not buying: “It doesn’t take a whole lot of people [asking] before that starts to register on the shop manager’s radar, and up to corporate headquarters.” He also warns against the assumption that more expensive goods must be ethically made. Coates believes New Zealand is reaching a tipping point where the increasing availability of alternatives to sweatshop goods will make the ethical-buying trend much more visible.

He says it’s important to reassure people that they don’t have to be 100% ethically pure. “Don’t get really anxious and do it once … Do what feels right and then next time, do a little bit more. Take into account your own sustainability of doing these things over time.”

Dozens of New Zealand families have told the Listener about their new fairer approach to Christmas. They try to buy gifts certified as having been made fairly, and when they can’t, they try to operate fairly themselves – handmaking gifts, openly re-gifting or donating. “We don’t like to have lots of crap, basically,” says James Kilbride, a Fairtrade believer whose wife, Nicole, used to volunteer at Trade Aid. The Paekakariki couple’s two-year-old daughter, Aneke, gets one present from her parents each year, and the extended family have a system where each person gives and receives only one gift, either handmade or with a $20 limit.

For Kilbride, the most important thing is time with family – making more of an effort than the token dash-in dash-out visit. Recently he overheard someone his parents’ age say, “A while ago people used to finish work a bit before Christmas and chill out, relax in the lead-up to it all, and it was a lot more social and fun. Nowadays, while it’s still social, it seems everyone is insanely busy. It’s like, ‘Oh, my God, Christmas, and work stuff to do, and this and that …’”

Melissa Spargo, a Te Puke mother of a teen and a tween, says, “The hair on the back of my neck stands on end when I think about going into a shopping mall over Christmas.” This was not always the way. Spargo, 41, has vivid memories of Christmases past: doing the mall thing, then turning up at her parents’ house and tipping bags of gifts out onto the floor. “I remember my parents looking at all this stuff and I know what they would have been thinking – ‘what a waste of money’, and ‘the kids are spoiled and they don’t need it’. And it’s true.”

At that point, she was working for a national bookshop chain, which contributed to her growing unease about the way her family celebrated Christmas. Particularly at this time of year, she felt pushed to make people buy things they didn’t want. “We’d have little charts out the back and if you sold so many of this product then you got a little mention in the staff newsletter. “It just went against my grain, [especially with] little old people who were coming into the shop and just bought one little magazine because they were on the pension …”

Two years ago she quit. Now the family rely on her husband’s salary. But Spargo has plenty of time, so she is crafting gifts from things she finds in second-hand shops, will take the kids to midnight Mass and plans to start a Christmas Day tradition of volunteering as a family. She thinks the rise of social media has helped push her in this direction – being able to bounce around craft ideas and source materials online makes it much easier. And although she’s shunning malls, she still feels part of a certain crowd. “I think there’s a generational trend with young people being really interested in making ethical choices. By that I mean young couples with young children, so mainly between the ages of thirty and forty. “It’s fantastic.”

Buying fairly

Buying Fairtrade is a way for consumers to combat poverty in developing countries, and to be sure their purchases are not supporting child or sweatshop labour. The scheme guarantees growers and producers a fair minimum price – which acts as a safety net if the market crashes – and a “premium” payment for their community, which decides democratically how it is used. It goes towards such things as education, health and long-term improvements to farms and processing facilities. Note the capital F and lack of gap between “fair” and “trade”.

This means the product is certified by Fairtrade International (FLO) – its scheme is the only one of this type that uses independent third-party auditors. Fairtrade products display an emblem, for which a licence fee is paid. Twenty-four countries are on board, buying from 63 developing countries and overseen by 19 branches of FLO – ours is Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand (Fanz). See for a full list of companies and products.

Coffee, tea and chocolate dominate the Fairtrade scene here, but there are a couple of clothing stores – Kowtow and Micah Clothing, which also sells bags and sports balls – as well as Trade Aid. One company – All Good Bananas – sells fresh Fairtrade produce and one – Nice Blocks – sells Fairtrade dessert.

As with the organics system, beware of greenwashing: when All Good Bananas landed in supermarkets, Dole started using an “ethical choice” sticker on its fruit. It was warned by the Commerce Commission in June but kept using the stickers. Fanz has opposed Dole’s bid to trademark the phrase “ethical choice”. Dole must file a counter-statement by December 29 or abandon the trademark.

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