Black Friday, indeed

Consumers may struggle to make ethical purchases this Black Friday.

Brian Reinken

Last year, American consumers spent a record $59.1 billion on Black Friday weekend — well above the GDPs of Guatemala, Kenya, Yemen and dozens of other countries worldwide. Clearly, business is booming.

This year, ambitious consumers are already camping in front of their favorite stores, awaiting Black Friday deals. At this rate, our spending this year may be even higher than last year.

But where exactly does all that money go? Can consumers be sure their dollars are well spent? Corporations are rarely as rosy as they would like to appear.

The impropriety of major corporations falls into two broad categories: the socially unappealing and the socially unacceptable.

Unappealing retailers

The bulk of the socially unappealing category consists of corporations’ insensitive statements or merchandise. These issues are offensive and often receive a lot of attention from the media, but they aren’t severe enough to constitute major abuses of human rights.

For example, CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch Mike Jeffries has boasted that his company markets to only “thin and beautiful” people. In doing so, he attracted a storm of public outrage.

Ironically, a staunchly conservative CEO heads Urban Outfitters, a retailer that targets young, urban hipsters. His political views aren’t always in line with the company’s liberal and socially aware image. Accordingly, numerous activist groups representing women, homosexuals, Jewish people, Native Americans, etc. have accused Urban Outfitters of selling offensive merchandise.

Forever 21 received similar backlash after it released a line of T-shirts and jewelry decorated with words such as “Holy” and “God.” Customers also expressed confusion or annoyance over the store’s bags, which the retailer marks with a Bible verse encouraging shoppers to praise Jesus.

These practices range from annoying to offensive, but all are controversial, digestible stories that catch the public’s attention without demanding active participation. In other words, they’re putty for the media. But the second type of corporate offense — the socially unacceptable — represents a far more serious concern.

Unethical electronics

Few have heard of coltan. Short for columbite-tantalite, coltan is a metal that is crucial for creating the capacitors found in cellphones, computers and other electronics. It’s mined in Congo, where an ongoing war has contributed to the militarization of the coltan mining industry.

Whether inadvertently or otherwise, corporations looking for coltan have intensified the war in Congo, where the death toll has surpassed 5 million. There have also been reports of mass rape, cannibalism and the murder of child soldiers. Meanwhile, massive smuggling rings have sprung up in Congo and neighboring countries. It’s estimated that the Rwandan army has made more than $250 million by selling coltan, despite the fact that Rwanda doesn’t house a single mine. You’ve probably heard of blood diamonds. What about blood computers?

Sweatshops

Sweatshops have become a fact of international business. A recent International Textile Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation report revealed 60 brands that rely on sweatshop labor to manufacture their products.

These stores include J.C. Penney’s, Old Navy and Walmart. They also include Forever 21 and Abercrombie and Fitch, whose messages suddenly don’t seem so bad in comparison.

I have referred to these two strains of corporate misbehavior as “socially unappealing” and “socially unacceptable,” but I wonder whether it would be more appropriate to reverse the two. The protests and boycotts following a CEO’s ill-considered statement make more headlines than any indignation that arises over international labor disputes.

Disturbingly, we seem to have internalized sweatshops and foreign violence as necessary components to international business. We concede it’s perfectly reasonable for a company to brutalize its workers — just as long as that company doesn’t offend its customers.

But there’s far more at stake than a few consumers’ hurt feelings. Black Friday — and global capitalism in general — is built on the backs of foreign nationals. Realistically, there is little we as individuals can do to change this. Today, it’s practically impossible to make a purely “ethical” purchase. Nevertheless, while doing this season’s shopping, we would all do well to remember what kind of behavior made our holiday possible.