Thursday, February 16, 2012

Break the Chains - Part 1: Follow the Money

AOTOS has taken a bit of a serious turn this month. This is due to the current projects I've been working on that, for the most part, are tackling very serious issues. These issues become more prominent when you travel on the fringe of the well-beaten path, and so they do deserve more attention than they're getting. We'll hit some lighter subjects in March. I promise.

Over the last couple of weeks I've been working with a church in Seoul, Korea on an ambitious project to tackle human trafficking in Korea and around the world. Now, before the anti-religious camp starts crying foul, understand that this is not a religious issue. At all. It's a human rights issue. People are standing up and fighting this issue from so many different levels, and seeing that happen has given me hope that, if we put our religious differences aside, people can truly make a difference in this world.

So what's the big issue? Well, for those who don't know what human trafficking is, the definition from the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, Punish Trafficking in Persons defines human trafficking as:
(The) recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.
In short, it's the exploitation of people. Most people tend to associate human trafficking with prostitution (about 80% of reported cases of trafficking are sexual in nature) but it applies to a whole range of people that are exploited for a multitude of reasons. One of the unfortunate side effects that come with traveling is you do see the faces of human trafficking face-to-face. You can see how broken and downtrodden the exploited are, and I couldn't call myself a decent human being if I didn't try to do something about it.

Now why should you care? Well take a look at the definition again and see for yourself. This is the modern day form of slavery. Yes, that thing we abolished a couple hundred years ago. That thing that was so terrible that we purposefully keep it out of history books that our founding fathers had hundreds of slaves. In the world today, there are an estimated 27,000,000 people slaves. That number is a conservative estimate, as it is impossible to get a concrete number because of the illegal nature of this crime. Oh yea...and about half of those people that are trafficked are under 18.

That's a small overview of the issue at hand here. If you want more information, check out this group from San Francisco called Not For Sale. There, you can learn more about human trafficking in its modern form with more concrete research and data. Also, you can learn more about what you can do and, if you're so inclined, even intern with them and make a physical contribution to their cause. I also like and respect this organization on the basis that, of the $1.2million in funds they brought in, only $100,000 went to funding their staff and administration. That's dedication, and Non-Profits like this should be celebrated.

One of the facets of Not For Sale's campaign is something called smart activism. If you know me and you've talked with me in the past 4 years or so, you know I talk about what it means to be an 'activist' all the time. A big problem that my generation faces is what I like to call 'slack-tivism'. Tackling issues becomes something of a trend rather than an effort from the heart. It's cool to protest Wall Street corruption or march for cancer. People may know a lot about the cause that they are fighting for, but often use that knowledge to 'raise their voice' and not really do anything substantial after that.

Slack-tivism comes in other forms too. One of my favorites that I like to talk to people about is TOMS Shoes. Many college students have heard of this program: buy one pair of shoes, and TOMS will donate a pair to a child in need. Sounds good, right? And, as a slack-tivist, I can buy a pair and 'know' that I helped another person and satisfy my soul for the time being. I can tell my friends that I helped a child in need.

There are 3 issues with this model:
  1. Who makes the shoes? TOMS Shoes are made in China, using business practices that are common with our industrialized world today. That means there are people who are living in poverty making shoes for other people living in poverty without really helping their own situation substantially.
  2. What does it help? If you've been to Africa, you know how important shoes are. You also know how shoes will wear and tear in time. Kids without shoes isn't the problem. It's a symptom. The problem is poverty, and TOMS doesn't fight poverty. It's like the 'give a man a fish' story. If you give a man a fish, he'll need another fish tomorrow. If you teach a man to fish, he can provide for himself for a lifetime.
  3. It promotes slack-tivism. Young people will buy a pair of shoes and have the misconception that they fought poverty. That's the only step they will take to make a difference on this issue.
Now, it sounds like I'm bashing TOMS (and to a degree, I am). TOMS does something wonderful that shouldn't go unnoticed: it makes people think. If every person that buys a pair of TOMS is thinking about poverty, there are bound to be solutions that come out of an awareness of that magnitude.

What I'm saying, and what Not For Sale is saying about smart activism, is to tackle an issue with as much knowledge as you can get. Yes, that require research and time. But right now, if you're reading this, that means you have the time and the resources (the internet) to educate yourself before deciding to act.

And now we've come to the 'act' part. How can you help fight human trafficking? In the next few posts, I'm going to give you some ways you can help break the chains that shackle millions around the world. Today's theme:

Follow the Money

I want you to think about the things that you buy, in particular the brands that you purchase. Shoes, computers, even food. Think about each company that you give your money to. Now, do you know much about that company? Do you buy for the brand name or for the price? What motivates you to buy one product over another?

Here's a fine example: I like Adidas products. I grew up playing soccer, and we bought solely Adidas footwear, jerseys, and protective gear. I have a loyalty to them because they make a quality product. Sometimes it might be more expensive to buy, but the quality makes that extra couple of bucks worth it.

Unfortunately, Adidas hasn't been known for their ethical treatment of workers. Many people remember back in 2005 concerning the reports of the inhumane conditions at their factories. Since then, however, they have made a conscious effort to clean up their company. Adidas since then has been producing much higher quality products and are more transparent in their business practices. Their factories have been revamped and their employees are being compensated fair wages again, and in 2011 made the list of "World's Most Ethical Companies" published by Ethisphere.

Another company is Apple computers. If you've tuned into the news anytime in the past month or so, you've probably heard about Foxconn and the slew of issues that Apple has in the manufacturing of its iPad.

As a media professional, I love Apple products. I love the quality they provide. Ethically, however, I don't think I can support a company that puts profits over human rights. Apple has a phenomenal amount of money. They can make the iPad very profitable, affordable, and manufacture it in a way that doesn't hurt the people that are working at these factories.

Unfortunately, most of the electronics we purchase today are manufactured by people who are financially bound to work in these horrible conditions. This is financial exploitation not just by the companies, but by us as consumers. When we purchase these products, we are promoting these business practices. We are dependent on these products now too. The electronics industry will need some creative thinkers to help solve the problems that they face. As of now, groups like Texas Instruments and Microsoft are the only ones taking a stand. Support them!

Here are some actions that you can take on a daily basis that will, over time, make a difference in the lives of the people that are exploited financially around the world:
  1. Buy quality products. Believe it or not, many of the quality products out there are actually made very ethically. One of my favorite products is Merrell footwear. Their shoes are phenomenal, and their Barefoot shoes are some of the best shoes I've ever worn. After 8 months of heavy use, they still are in pristine shape. They cost more, yes, with an average pair costing about $80. But they will last me much longer than other shoes and I can safely say that their parent company, Wolverine World Wide, produces those shoes at an ethical factory in China. You don't have to buy the cheapest thing to save money. 
  2. Reward ethical companies without boycotting unethical ones. You can boycott if you want, but it's much easier to reward those companies that are known for their high ethical standards. Forbes did you the favor and outlined some of the most ethical companies of 2011.
  3. Know what your buying. Not For Sale makes this easy for you too, with a group called Free2Work. Their job is to grade companies on an A-F scale based on criteria that includes wages, employee conditions, and transparency. If you want to buy a child a present, consider Lego (which got a B+) over Matell products (which got a D). 
  4. If you buy something regularly, find out where your money ends up going to. I buy New Zealand Kiwis because I know that the Kiwis picked in New Zealand are often picked by backpackers traveling. Often, it's as easy as looking at the sticker. 
If we continue to reward ethical companies, more companies will strive to emulate them to chase down those profits. It's already working too! In the graph on the right, you can see that it does pay to be ethical. The black is the returns for the S&P 500, and the green is for the World's Most Ethical Companies.

Doing the research and taking small steps to change the way you make an impact on the world is what smart activism is all about. Look at the word itself! You're actively doing something that can positively affect the world around you. It's smart because you aren't devoting all your resources to a cause. You don't have to be protesting on the street or working at a non-profit to make a difference. Every little step we take in changing these behaviors that indirectly exploit an individual on the other side of the globe will bring us closer to ending human trafficking. 

You have the power. You have the technology. And I know you have the time. We all do. Don't make excuses and consciously change how you consume. It benefits you too. 


  1. I can't imagine there is an "anti-religious camp" that would be against a goal as worth as stopping human trafficking.

  2. I hate to say it...but religion does play a role in issues like this. I've already had people dismiss this cause because I was filming interviews associated with a religious institution. Good thing is, that percentage of people that just can't cooperate with one another is pretty small. There are plenty of people who are up to the task and they toss any prejudices they have aside in order to accomplish a goal like abolishing human trafficking.