clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

5 products you probably buy that are quietly driving human rights abuses

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Being a consumer means participating in a vast, global system of supply chains, labor markets, and corporations, and almost all of it beyond the average person's visibility. It can be near-impossible to judge which products might be tied up in something nefarious or destructive.

Making this more difficult, there is no truly effective international authority to govern private corporations and guide consumers. The United Nations has tried, but of the world's roughly 80,000 multinational corporations, only 323 appear on a UN list of companies with stated human rights policies, according to GWU Professor Susan Ariel Aaronson and researcher Aaron Higham. Or those companies, Aaronson and Higham finds that only a fraction have policies that meet UN standards for corporate codes.

Here, then, as means of illustrating how the complicated webs of globalization can link innocuous-seeming products with far-away harm — and thus perhaps help perpetuate that harm — are five common consumer products that have demonstrated connections to serious human rights abuses. The intent isn't necessarily to call out these products or their producers as especially egregious — though some are — but to show just how common these practices have become in the global economy, and how difficult they are to stop.

Fried products at Burger King, McDonald's, Taco Bell, and KFC

burger king kathie lee fries

Celebrities eatin' Burger King. (Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire/Getty Images)

To fry their (delicious, delicious) french fries, Burger King uses something called palm oil. Palm oil is derived from the flesh of the oil palm tree's fruit, and it's very cheap to make and buy. As such, it's the world's most commonly used vegetable oil.

But the scale and manner of its production can be very bad for the world. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Calen May-Tobin, there are two main problems with palm oil production, which is mostly done in Indonesia and Malaysia.

First, climate change: tropical forests in those southeast Asian countries are being cut to the point of total destruction — a UN report indicates they'll be 98 percent gone by 2022. As if the habitat destruction were not bad enough in itself, according to May-Tobin, tropical deforestation already contributes about 10 percent of global carbon emissions. Moreover, planting new palm oil trees often involves draining peat soil, which stores huge amounts of carbon.

Second, human rights. A 2013 US Department of Labor study found clear evidence that the Indonesian palm oil industry has used child labor, and the Malaysian industry has used outright slaves.

Still, palm oil is used by Burger King to make its fries and is used for unspecific food products at McDonald's and stores under the Yum! Foods brand: Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut. It's not certain that all fried products at these stores use palm oil, but they are confirmed to make use of palm oil, so it stands to reason that french fries or other fried products could include the ingredient.

Now, it isn't inevitable that palm oil contributes to these problems. May-Tobin wrote in September that several companies — including Dunkin' Donuts and General Mills — have developed more environmentally friendly and ethical sourcing regimes to continue using palm oil in a way that doesn't cause these problems. Still, the fast food chains listed above — and surely many others — have not embraced such practices. According to May-Tobin, Burger King failed to deliver on a 2010 pledge to reform its palm oil sourcing.


Vietnamese shrimp processing factory

A Vietnamese shrimp processing factory in 2004. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

In June of 2014, the Guardian released a blockbuster report on shrimp production in Thailand. "Large numbers of men bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand are integral to the production of [shrimp] sold in leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco," Guardian reporters , and wrote, revealing a pattern of beatings, torture, and murder of slave workers on boats that supply Thailand's largest shrimp company.

The named companies responded by promising to reform their purchasing practices. But unless authorities in Thailand address the problem or the global shrimp market somehow develops an entirely new market, it's not clear that the problem is fully possible for buyers alone to solve.

Over 90 percent of shrimp purchased in the United States is imported. According to US government statistics, the bulk of that is farmed in South and Southeast Asia (there's a bit from Latin America as well). A massive Environmental Justice Foundation expose released in April 2014 found evidence of rampant human rights abuses in the South and Southeast Asian shrimp industries.

The EJF investigation found a staggering list of abuses associated with shrimp production: "illegal land seizure, false imprisonment, forced labour, summary expulsion, enforced resignation, intimidation, rape, violence, torture, and murder enacted on poor and vulnerable communities at the alleged behest of shrimp farming concerns, often with the apparent complicity of corrupt officials."

The problem, according to EJF, is that shrimp farming has grown too fast in the past few decades in countries that are too poor. Callous and occasionally violent groups have swooped into the markets in places like Thailand, India, Bangladesh, and Honduras, where they have captured markets and exploited them as criminal enterprises, and local governments are too weak or too corrupt to stop them.

The point isn't that all the shrimp that you consume is bad; there is some ethically produced shrimp. It's just that it's very difficult for consumers to separate out the bad from the good, and there appears to be an awful lot that is bad.

VF Corporation products

bangladesh hunger strike garment

A Bangladeshi garment worker on a hunger strike at a Tuba Group factory, which is not known to be linked to VF. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Enormous numbers of Bangladeshi garment sector employees work in unsafe sweatshop factories. These poorly inspected buildings are prone to deadly fires and wholesale collapses. The employees work long hours for very little pay. After about 1,100 people died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, this problem became impossible for the world to ignore.

Recently, a great deal of attention has focused on VF Corporation — the parent company of Nautica, North Face,  and other major brands, which contracts from 90-odd factories in Bangladesh. In June 2014, a fire broke out at a Medlar Apparels factory in Dhaka — which, according to customs data reviewed by the International Labor Rights Forum, is a longtime VF supplier. An activist organization, United Students Against Sweatshops, says that VF-linked factories have a lengthy history of fires and labor abuses.

VF is far from the only supplier to use Bangladeshi factories or fail to adhere to safety standards. But it's been singled out because, as of October, it has refused to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a corporate agreement to implement more robust safety inspectionsOver 150 brands have signed onto accord; VF and several dozen other companies (including WalMart) created an alternative agreement called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety that, per the New York Times, labor groups believe is insufficiently robust.

The corporations, naturally, dispute that characterization. "Since its inception in 2013, the Alliance has made significant progress in its mission to make factories and workers safer," Craig Hodges, the corporate communications director at VF, writes. VF has "invested more than $17 million to this effort and our work is far from done."

VF also says it has audited the Bangladeshi factories for safety. Ultimately, though, there's still a lot of unsafe sweatshop labor in Bangladesh — and disputes like the one over VF Corporation products make it hard to know what to do about it as a consumer.


Whatever your view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's very hard to argue with one basic point:  Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as they currently exist, really hurt Palestinians. Palestinians suffer through a system of checkpoints that choke off economic life in their community, live under a separate-and-unequal justice system from the rest of Israel, and are victims of a vigilante violence campaign designed to make it hard for Israel to ever withdraw from the West Bank.

This is why it's so problematic that SodaStream, the huge home seltzer company, has its largest factory in a West Bank settlement. The factory, which employs 1,100 workers, is in Ma'ale Adumim, a settlement just east of Jerusalem. Ma'ale Adumim isn't just any settlement: it's adjacent to a settlement area called E1 that, if expanded to link Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumim, would threaten to make the Palestinian West Bank non-contiguous. That would make Palestinian travel inside the West Bank far more difficult, and make it much tougher for the Palestinians to establish their own state. In other words, settlement construction in the area is a literal, physical barrier to peace.

By locating in Ma'ale Adumim, SodaStream grants legitimacy to — and, indeed, physically and economically entrenches — a settlement project that's widely considered illegal under international law. While a lot of the factory employees are Palestinian, SodaStream is an Israeli company that operates under Israeli law. The facility's presence normalizes the idea that Israeli companies should operate in the settlements; that is, treat those as if they're a permanent part of Israel. The more Israeli companies do that, the harder it will be to ever delineate Israel from Palestine along these borders, and thus to find peace through a two-state solution.

That's why the SodaStream's 2014 Super Bowl commercial with Scarlett Johansson (above) was so controversial. In September 2014, SodaStream announced that it was considering moving its plant out of the West Bank and into Israel proper. It insists the decision will be made on business grounds rather than a boycott campaign resulting from its West Bank factory.

Update: On October 29, after publication of this piece, SodaStream announced it would be closing the West Bank factory. According to Bloomberg, production would be relocated to Lehavim, an Israeli town in the Negev. SodaStream said the decision to relocate was "purely commercial."


cocoa cote d'ivoire

A man in Cote d'Ivoire sifts through cocoa beans for debris. (Jacob Silberberg/Getty Images)

In 2000, a BBC documentary on chocolate production called Slavery: A Global Investigation debuted to horrified global audiences. It alleged that hundreds of thousands of children were being forced into slave labor in Cote d'Iviore cocoa farms. According to Alexandra Clark and Hamish Gow, respectively a grad student and professor at Hamish University, this kicked off a decade of anti-child labor activism targeted at the chocolate and cocoa industry.

Today, over 70 percent of the world's chocolate comes from West Africa, with about a third from Cote d'Ivoire. While activists and legislators have put serious effort into addressing child labor issues since 2001, not all is well. In February 2014, CNN reported that there were still up to 800,000 children working on Cote d'Ivoire cocoa farms. Not all child workers are slaves, of course, but human rights groups agree that child slavery is still a major problem for the cocoa industry.

There are hopeful signs. In May 2014, 12 major chocolate and cocoa companies launched something called CocoaAction, an initiative to make cocoa farming more ethical or sustainable. " "The commitment of the industry to share strategy and objectives related to sustainable cocoa is a positive signal," Oxfam Novib policy analyst Frank Mechielsen said of CocoaAction. "Besides the productivity and quality agenda, attention is provided to community development and child labour remediation. It shows the sense of urgency the companies show to address the challenges and work on solutions together."

But this is still relatively new. We've got a long way to go before we can give the cocoa industry a clean bill of health.

Correction: An earlier version of this article discussed VF Corporation's contracted Bangladesh factories under the section header "Jansport backpacks and other VF Brands products" with a photo of a Jansport backpack. In fact, while VF Corporation does contract with Bangladeshi factories, it does not manufacture Jansport products there. Those references to Jansport have been removed. The article also misstated the name of VF Corporation as VF Brands, and mistakenly described Ma'ale Adumim as part of E1.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.