Imports at What Cost? Labour

The cost of cheap products is unfair labour

When we reach for cheap products, they don’t cost any less than the expensive products. They just externalize costs—that is, someone else pays the true cost of the product. When the factor that allows the cost to stay low is labour, the person who works in the field or in the factory for less than a fair wage is the one who pays. The real cost of goods includes the consequences of unpaid labor.

Give It To Me Quick

Outsourcing labour and importing cheap goods can mean that workers who produce those goods are not fairly paid. Those workers pay the real cost of cheap imports.

Labour Issues

Labour issues can range from workers fighting for a living wage and a degree of autonomy to the far other end with child labor and slave labor. When we don’t know the details, it’s easier to cover up the realities by calling this smart business, but you need to hear the details. The details will break your heart and change your shopping habits.

The Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) publishes a “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.” All products included on this list are documented to be made with child labor or forced labor. If you want to understand the consequences of worker exploitation in the name of cutting costs, skim this report.

Look at the labels on your child’s clothing. Are the clothes made in countries known to use slave labor or child labor? You will need to check in three places, because the list is broken down by different stages in the production cycle, such as agriculture or extraction (cotton), processing (textiles or fabric), and manufacturing (garments or clothing). In China, textiles can be produced by child labor, garments by forced labor, and cotton by both. In Egypt, cotton can be produced by child labor. In India, embroidered textiles can be produced by both, silk fabric and silk thread produced by child labor, and garments by both. In Pakistan, cotton can be produced by forced labor. Are your child’s clothes made in China, Egypt, India, or Pakistan?

It seems illogical that such labor abuses would be allowed, but you’ve probably heard the arguments for lowering costs by outsourcing. The global economic crisis contributes to this exploitation as companies look for ways to squeeze their costs and keep profits up. Desperate workers are exploited. Unfortunately, economic crisis also leads to cutting budgets for social protection mechanisms, so those who would normally prevent the exploitation do not. By raising public awareness, ILAB gives you the information you need to create pressure on manufacturers to stop exploitation.

The key is awareness—your awareness and my awareness as consumers.

Sometimes when we hear about working conditions in the factories where the products we buy are made, we are subject to a carefully controlled promotion of conditions—to propaganda. When we at ask hard-hitting questions about the China-made products that we carry, we hope that we are learning the truth. One benefit of buying closer to home is the trust we can build between producer and buyer. That trust relationship is interrupted or just broken when we import from factories we have not seen.

Product Focus: Candy

I am concerned that a lot of the countries where cloth diapers are being produced overseas then imported to North America are on the list of known labour abusers—China, Egypt, India, and Pakistan. I haven’t yet been able to trace any of these abuses through the supply chain, though, so I’m going to use a different product as an example of what can happen when we are not vigilant: candy.

This time of year, candy is likely on many parents’ minds. Think about this before you buy candy for Halloween. Over the past decade, the fact of slave labor and child labor in cocoa production in West Africa has been in the news consistently. Growing public awareness has meant pressure on mainstream chocolate producers to use only fair trade chocolate. Knowing that the dark side of cheap chocolate is child labour might make you hesitate to grab bags of miniature chocolate bars at the grocery store for treat-or-treaters.

Can you still buy ethical chocolate? Absolutely. There are quite a few small chocolate brands that use fair trade cocoa. In the mainstream, Cadbury and Nestle each produce one fair trade chocolate bar (for the UK market). Green & Blacks use only fair trade chocolate. Pressure on North American Hershey’s has intensified through sites like Raise the Bar Hershey. Just last week, Whole Foods dropped Hershey’s high-end chocolates because Hershey’s couldn’t assure them that the chocolate was free from slave-labour and child-labour.

The news for mainstream candy is not all bad. The same day their high-end chocolate was dumped by Whole Foods, Hershey’s announced their intention to source 100% certified cocoa by 2020. Their commitment is a step in the right direction. By the time your toddler is cruising the neighborhood alone on Halloween, you can pick up that bag of miniature chocolate bars and know that the cocoa your child will eat was not picked by another child forced into labour.

An Alternative: Fair Trade Candy

We don’t give our children a lot of sweets, but, when we do, we want to feel good about it. carries Glee Gum products, including the original chewing gum, which is Fairtrade certified, and their kits to make your own gum and make your own chocolate. We feel great about Glee Gum as a company. They are based in the U.S., and we love the educational materials they provide. When you buy Glee Gum, you are supporting a company that looks at the overall sustainability of the products.

Go-to Organizations

Many organizations are working internationally to reduce then eradicate labor abuse, to protect the most vulnerable people in our society. Among the organizations working on the larger issue of global labour abuse is the Worker Rights Consortium (worker focused). Global Exchange works on Fair Trade issues (product focused), educating the public to demand fair trade goods, including cocoa.

What You Can Do

Research the products you buy, share what you learn, and choose products wisely. Yes, it does sometimes cost more to buy Made in Canada and Made in USA goods, and, no, that is not always a guarantee of fair labour, but your choices and your voice do make a difference as you spread what you learn. Do a local search on Etsy. Buy at local craft shows and farmers’ markets. Learn the name of the person who made your stuff. Build that trust relationship. If you buy imported products, such as sweets like chocolate and gum, make sure they are fair trade certified.

One aspect of true, long-term sustainability must be a dignity and a living wage at every point along the supply chain. As long as we buy cheap products that externalize the real costs, we have not yet reached true sustainability.


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Image © Paul Prescott | Young textile worker in a small factory in Old Delh on February 26, 2008 in Delhi, India. Working age in this factory is from 16 to 71 years old.

Cheap Products – At What Cost?

Cheap products at what cost

We’ve been answering a lot of questions lately about why North American made products are important to us, why we try to avoid products made in China, and why we don’t carry a $5.00 pocket diaper. The full answers aren’t simple because we weigh a lot of issues as we choose products for our store.

Give It to Me Quick

Cheaper products sometimes carry hidden costs to labour, safety, quality, environment, and sustainability of your community.

High Quality and Good Value

Safe Family Promise

Every product we carry and every company we work with has to meet basic standards. Some meet even higher standards, which we mark with our Safe Family Promise. Meeting those higher standards of quality, ethics, and sustainability can sometimes mean products cost more. Sometimes, not always.

When I hear, “I’m so excited about the deal I got,” I wonder to myself, “At what cost?” Did someone else pay by not being compensated fairly for their labor? Will you pay when you have to buy a new product to replace this one? Will the farmer downstream and that farmer’s customers pay because of environmental violations? Will your baby pay if it turns out this product isn’t safe? What is the real cost of that cheap import? Some of these costs come back around later.

Every family I know works to keep their expenses low. At Eco Baby Steps, we write posts about DIY and saving money while keeping your family healthy and happy. We emphasize not buying all of the stuff of parenting that gets pushed on you but focusing on reusable, high quality products that will last. We are careful about what we buy for ourselves and what we promote to you. We understand the need to save money. We still find the price of buying ethical products worth it.

One of the ways we do our best to ensure that products meet high standards is by buying as close to home as possible where we can see who is making products and how.

China-made Products

China-made products have become a hot issue. We hear stories of violation of intellectual property, of international labor violations, and of low quality. We don’t assume that every product made in China has issues, and China-made is not the only issue that concerns us at all, but it has been talked about quite a bit in the juvenile products industry, so we remain concerned. does carry a handful of products made in China. This is often driven by consumer demand or a demand for lower pricing. If our customers can show us a better product they would buy instead, we will always consider this.

We look for local first, made in Canada next, and made in USA third as our order of values, when we search for new products. If we are unable to find a North American supplier for a product that is supportive of families, the environment, and a safer alternative than mainstream items, we will look at alternate suppliers.

We ask our suppliers a number of hard-hitting questions, and while we may not always like the answers, it’s important to us that we have these answers for our customers, so they can make the choices they are most comfortable with. When we consider new products that are made in China, sometimes by North-American based brands, these are a few of the questions we ask:

  • Do you own your own facility in China?
  • How much time have you spent in China at this facility, and how many times a year do you return?
  • Are you paying your foreign employees directly, or is the facility responsible for payment/treatment of workers?
  • What is the average pay of your employees working in China?
  • Are there other products being manufactured out of this facility, or only your product? Are the same employees responsible for manufacturing other products, and are they compensated for this fairly?
  • Are your products third-party tested for safety?
  • Are your products free from known toxins, such as BPA, PVC, phthalates, lead and other heavy metals, melamine, chemical flame retardants, parabens and other harsh chemicals?

The safety, quality and ethics behind the products we recommend are very important to our customers and our company, and we hope this is something our manufacturers have considered when developing their products. We prefer to work with manufacturers who have high standards. We may still choose to carry a line that is made overseas, but we hope that by asking the hard-hitting questions, those manufacturers realize these things matter to us.

Made Closer to Home

Would we prefer to carry only products that are made in Canada? Absolutely! Unfortunately, we have yet to find products like stainless steel and glass made in Canada, and the price for organic cotton products made in Canada has skyrocketed. A supplier of our hemp products has recently informed us that they will no longer be manufacturing because the cost is just too high. Some of our favourite North American-made products eventually take production overseas (as is the case with the fall Goodbyn production), and it doesn’t mean we will remove it from our product mix. We will, however, continue to look for and put emphasis on our North American products when we talk to customers in our store, or feature them on our website. (Shout out to Laptop Lunches for keeping production in the USA!)

We consider products on a case-by-case basis to ensure we’re meeting the needs of our customers and providing them with enough options that they can find what they’re looking for.

Know the Issues

We want you to understand the basic issues that concern us with production away from home, away from the consistent scrutiny of regulations intended to uphold basic standards of labour, safety, quality, and environmental responsibility. We want you to understand how we see these issues as connected to genuine sustainability.

Over the next month, we will post about one of these issues each week, giving you a quick run down on the issues, the consequences, who is working on the issue around the world, and where you can go for more information. We hope you will share what you know as well. We make choices for based on your needs.

More Info

Made in Canada means a product was manufactured or processed in Canada.

Product of Canada means a product was manufactured or processed in Canada AND all or virtually all of the ingredients or components are Canadian in origin.

Labelling is similar in the United States.

A recent consumer survey on “Made in USA” found that 83% of shoppers notice a “Made in USA” label and 3 of 4 say they are more likely to buy that product after they notice the label. 76% of those surveyed also noticed “Made in China” labels, but only 57% of them said they were less likely to buy after seeing the label because of safety and quality concerns. We don’t have similar data on consumer attitudes toward “Made in Canada” labelling, but it appears that country of origin does matter to a majority of shoppers.

“2012 Survey Results: Made in the USA Matters to Shoppers,” Perception Research Services, September 12, 2012.

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