It’s no secret – almost all of the products Americans buy are produced by workers in developing countries; workers who often receive low pay, work long hours and live in questionable conditions.
87% of consumers say they’ll hold companies accountable for ensuring human rights in their supply chains. Yet, when it comes to our favorite brands, many of us are willing to look the other way. We explored this topic at Cone Communications’ #whatsinyourstuff event, and, even among a crowd of transparency enthusiasts, the majority admitted they own and would continue to purchase Apple products – regardless of the ethics behind their iPhones.
Like the meat eaters who don’t want to think about the history of their steak, we have a hard time remembering – dare I say caring – about the people behind the labels.
But when it comes to our shiny gadgets, the truth is getting hard for everyone to ignore.
Since January 1, dozens of Xbox workers threatened mass suicide, the California Transparency in the Supply Chain Act went into effect and Apple agreed to allow independent monitoring on working conditions for the first time. In many ways it is truly exciting – workers mobilizing, government driving change and a major corporation essentially admitting “silicon sweatshops” are often a harsh reality.
But will the energy last? Will other companies follow Apple? Will “developed world” consumers actually boycott the companies that manufacture their “bling and zing”? As companies come to grips with today’s new, naked reality, here are a few predictions to consider in 2012:
· Tech is Next: Supply chain transparency is an issue for every industry, but there are trends in who we choose to critique. First it was food (Dole, etc.), then it was apparel and footwear, but now the big brands are in tech. Apple may be the current target, but if you accept “the cult of Mac” has issues, you realize everyone else does, too. It only takes a glance at the back of insert any brand’s label for consumers to question everything. Reporters will too. Consumers will accept short-term set-backs if brands demonstrate a long-term commitment to change, but companies should work quickly to get their houses in order now.
· Occupy Shanghai: The 99 percent is even larger in China, and the population there is living a strange dichotomy. Companies are outsourcing to China on the one hand and targeting a new consumer base there on the other – but it’s hard to buy a product that literally includes your blood, sweat and tears. The activist buzz is “Arab spring, American autumn, Chinese winter,” and, in the past year, thousands of Chinese workers have gone on strike or staged protests, demanding more pay and compensation. Unrest isn’t good for business – watch for multinationals to champion, not challenge the legalization of international labor unions and push the central government to do the same.
· Strange Bedfellows: No one company can solve an issue as massive as human rights or change the system on its own. Look for competitors to partner and form coalitions to take on this issue as a group. In aggregate, they can wield their power – pressuring sketchy suppliers to comply with tougher codes of conduct, educating consumers on the sacrifices that support a lower price and engaging employees to create solutions from within.
· Consumer Demand for Cruelty Free: Consumers currently feel paralyzed by this issue – they question the ethics of a tag that reads “Made in India,” but they don’t know if that feeling is wrong or right. Social media and online apps like Good Guide have begun to open the flow of information, but expect “sweat shop free” or a spin on “cruelty-free” labeling to give shoppers the data they need to act. And don’t think consumers will shop silently. Watch for a rise in consumer awareness and connection to films, games and advocacy groups, like Slave Free, Slavery Footprint and Phone Story, that push the issue.
· Experience Transparency: NGOs and corporations will take on new and surprising tactics to get their messages out. Watch for bold and innovative actions as leading organizations – or social media activists – open the curtain for consumers to examine supply chains. Think video feeds in factories, photos of assembly line employees purposefully left on every iPhone and living-wage products that knowingly promote a higher price.
· Fill in the Blank: What do you think will happen (or needs to happen) to drive product transparency forward in 2012? We’d love to learn more about the trends you’re seeing in the marketplace and your predictions for transparency in the future.
To learn more, check out a video clip from Cone Communications’ recent #whatsinyourstuff event with Dara O’Rourke, founder of the GOOD GUIDE; Theo Forbath, the VP of Innovation Strategy at Frog Design; Julie Wittes Schlack, SVP of Innovation and Design at Communispace; and Beth Holzman from Timberland.
Jillian Wilson-Martin is a Senior Account Supervisor in Cone Communications’ Cause Branding group.