A word on buying ‘ethically’



As part of Gannon’s Tea and Conversation series, I found myself at The Knight Club Monday with some vanilla roobios tea and a concerned feeling brewing in my stomach.

Stephanie Barnhizer, an instructor in Gannon’s philosophy department, delivered a talk on the ethical question of the material in everyone’s smart phones.

Barnhizer talked about the horrific violence women and men endure in the Democratic Republic of Congo when rebel gangs arrive to mine coltan, one of the integral materials in the charger for smart phones.

Women are raped and abused by gang members and are often left to care for their children without access to emergency contraception. One woman told the story of a gang member cutting her leg off and dividing it into six pieces — one for each of her children. He then asked her kids to eat the portions of her leg.

The mining itself is usually done by children in dangerous conditions. About half of the world’s coltan is supplied by the Congo, and mega powers like Apple rely on it to power their products.

Heavy, I know. I covered the story on Page 1 if you want to learn more.

Barnhizer opened the talk up for discussion after playing some videos and talking about initiatives to improve working conditions in the Congo, like Project Enough and the Dodd-Frank Act, which states U.S. companies must ethically source their materials.

I had one question: What can I do? One of the professors said there’s not a cellphone company in existence that uses ethical materials right now.

And yes, my heart goes out to these women, but how is “ethical consumerism” going to fix a broken system?

That itself is an oxymoron. Consumerism, no matter how “pure” your product is, still is going to exploit something.

Mass production exploits artisans who are just as capable of making your coffee mug and knitting your sweaters. Eating pretty much anything — I don’t care if it’s plants or protein — exploited the earth somehow if you bought it anywhere besides a sustainable farm in Utopia.

But as ethical consumers, everything’s OK. As long as we buy things that were produced fairly, we’ve done our part.

Nevermind the fact we’re still buying into capitalism. And we should try to help the women in the Congo, especially when 1 in 5 women in the U.S. will be raped during her time at college. Why isn’t anyone at Gannon talking about that?

I’m not suggesting you give up on consuming things altogether, because it’s an inevitable part of life. And no, I don’t expect you to give up your cellphone as a protest against modern slavery.

It’s important to be an informed consumer, especially since you must participate. But I won’t stand for compensatory virtue disguised as social awareness. That wasn’t the intent of the talk, but I think it steered too close to the line.

What are you going to accomplish by making people feel guilt in their own existence? Not much. But hey, at least you’ve been an ethical consumer.

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