Simplicity and Our Complex Economy

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Photo by Rob Pierson. Airport corridor.Simplicity runs in opposition to modern life.  Thousands of people, and potentially hundreds of companies, are involved in the production, distribution, and sale of something as simple as a pencil or a cup of coffee – to say nothing of a pair of sneakers, a movie, or a car, or providing a service like a mutual fund or a night in a hotel room. 

Every benefit has a cost. Smartphones promise to reduce the number of devices we need and to bring all our information together, and new kinds of transportation claim to allow us to go farther using fewer resources.  Yet even the makers of these dazzlingly complex products do not know where all the materials in them come from; andmany manufacturers resist disclosing the factories where they are produced, thus preventing independent monitors from checking on working conditions there.  Webcams and computer networking systems aim to bring us closer to the people we love, but they also allow unknown individuals, companies, and government agencies to snoop on our intimate moments.  New medicines hold out hope of cures for deadly illnesses, but information is lacking on how they are tested, where, and on whom. Whether these medicines will be made available to all who need them, regardless of ability to pay, is also unclear. Prices for staples from food to clothing have fallen drastically in recent decades for consumers in the United States – but only by relying on tangled webs of suppliers who use petrochemicals to grow our produce and who hire workers to stich our garments in death traps like Rana Plaza in Bangladesh.

I help illuminate many of these relationships and impacts professionally, as Research Director for Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (www.business-humanrights.org).  We are a human rights non-profit that, as its name suggests, tracks companies’ impacts on a wide range of human rights issues – from discrimination to environmental health, from displacement of communities to climate impacts, from complicity with government surveillance, censorship and torture, to violence against trade unionists and other protesters.  We also feature collections of tools developed by a range of organizations, from progressive business groups to the United Nations, which conscientious business managers can use to improve their impacts.  And when companies take positive actions to avoid harm or help to meet basic human needs, we highlight those actions as well.  To protect our objectivity, we have always followed a strict rule against taking funds from businesses themselves or from the senior executives of major companies – even though these companies use the information that we gather and have offered to pay us for it. Finally, we have always disclosed every donor who supports our work.

I have worked with this organization since its infancy ten years ago, and helped to grow it into a global organization with a small, dedicated team of researchers based in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.  Many of the worst abuses occur in these regions, and it is very hard to get information out of countries in these regions to the global public, or to hold companies working in them accountable for their actions.  Similarly, in the United States and other rich countries, too many companies are able to misuse their close ties to governments – to pollute, spy, and otherwise misbehave with impunity.  The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is working to create a transparent record of companies’ impacts on workers and the communities where they operate, which everyone can consult, including investors, companies, and academics.

Unfortunately, I cannot insist that my work will be useful to you, because of the overwhelming complexity of the webs and chains of sourcing, production, and distribution that we confront today. Even I don’t consult our online library of thousands of links to articles and reports every time I need to buy a shirt or a music player, much less a banana or a pound of sugar.  My family buys from farmers’ markets and participates in community-supported agriculture as much as we can; we try to shop with merchants we know personally.  But we own and use computers and smartphones; we don’t hesitate to buy new clothes or furniture or kitchenware when our family needs them.  We certainly don’t know where all of our food comes from.

In addition to being inevitable, though, it is not necessarily a bad thing to buy products from factories and fields around the world. Although we should never be persuaded that any sweatshop is justified, neither should we strive to unplug entirely from the global economy and return purely to local suppliers. For workers internationally, a job in a factory that supplies multinationals is often a small step up from deep poverty. At the same time, we should not be misled by arguments that falsely propose a dichotomy between abusive supply chains and overpriced consumer goods. We should keep trying to do better. Healthy international trade does not require collapsing buildings with locked exits, mandatory pregnancy tests that often lead to firings, or palm oil plantations that displace entire towns.

For me, the Quaker testimony of simplicity helps me to navigate through this world of complexity, which is so dizzying that I am tempted sometimes to stop even trying to understand it

First, simplicity means knowing something about the companies and products where I spend the most money.  Big companies like Gap, H&M, Ikea, and Nike employ entire departments to monitor and manage working conditions in their supply chains, and they regularly communicate that information to the public. Internationally, industry-wide commitments to comply with enforceable codes of conduct and transparency are works-in-progress, with European companies generally more willing to provide better protections for workers’ rights than their US-based counterparts, who are more reluctant because, they say, they fear frivolous litigation and runaway liability. 

A label like “fair trade” or “organic” is no panacea, but it does say something about a product I might buy. “Fair trade” tells me that the growers received a better price than they generally would have without it. “Organic” tells me that workers and communities were not exposed to artificial pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, and mono-cropping that leaves soil depleted. 

Smaller distributors, like local coffee roasters, may be able to tell you exactly where their products came from and how much they paid. They may have traveled to meet the producers if they are deeply passionate about their goods.  Knowing these companies, large or small, can help reduce the sense that we are engaged with anonymous and unaccountable systems and institutions, or that we are abandoning people and relationships.

When I get to know a company, I try to let them know what I see.  When a company we patronize takes some action that makes us wince, we can write them a letter.  And if a company we patronize is doing good, we can write them about that, too. No one is more important to a company than its consumers – that means you and me. Every progressive person I know who is working in big business says that the best possible allies for the change they are trying to make are consumers or other outside stakeholders writing to the company and saying that they are watching, and that they are taking its record into account in their purchasing.

Second, the testimony of simplicity helps me try to balance my family’s need to save money against the effects of low prices on producers and workers.  Thrift is a virtue, but not if it means that laborers must work sixteen-hour shifts.  As much as I love a quick supermarket chocolate fix, it tastes bitter when I know that low market prices reflect cacao plantations in West Africa using forced child labor. The simple step of admitting this truth dissolves any uncertainty I might feel over whether or not to buy cheap chocolate.

Third, to live simply means to act according to a single standard of truth – judging our actions to shape complex social systems by the same standards that we apply to our actions as individuals. Fortunately, many resources are available to make sure that, when we make collective choices as investors, we stay true to values of human rights, environmental stewardship, and advocacy for peace.  Many Friends’ Meetings already use Friends Fiduciary to manage their assets.  Friends can also learn about how to invest and vote their consciences from groups like the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (Friends Fiduciary is a member), and participate in socially responsible funds managed by groups like Calvert and Domini. The point of these investments, in many cases, is not simply to screen bad companies out of the pool, but to engage with companies as shareholders, to push them to change from the unique “inside” perch that only shareholders have, by filing resolutions and speaking at annual general meetings. First Affirmative Financial Network has advisors across the United States who can also be helpful to socially responsible investors.

We must also take steps in the public sphere to improve corporate behavior. Corporate governance must be made more transparent and democratized, to give voice to all stakeholders, not just investors and management.  And companies’ influence on government must be limited, following the disastrous Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United and McCutcheon. 

None of this is meant to detract from the necessary work being done to create a hoped-for “circular economy” of zero waste.  As individuals and families, of course, we should reuse products, buy second-hand, buy local, compost our kitchen scraps, and use as little energy as we can. And we should support the companies that are leading the way in helping us convert to a zero-waste economy. But the choice is not between taking those steps and doing nothing. For many, those steps are difficult to pursue. Further, those individual actions are not sufficient to meet our goal of building a global economy that is just and healthy for all.

So, I’ve said we can all do some things that may seem daunting.  I came to Quakerism as an adult; while the message of simplicity appealed to me, I soon found that the demands of living in line with Quaker values often required me to make new commitments that added complexity to my life, rather than simplifying it. At the same time, Quaker values did not show me clearly what complexity my family could trim from our daily life. But eventually, grappling with the Quaker testimony of simplicity has led me to develop my own understanding of “simplicity.” For me, simplicity in our complex world means, in part, having a human connection with the people who make the things and provide the services that I buy and use.  A personal relationship with most of these people is no longer possible, if it ever was. But understanding as much as I can about how our goods are made, and acting on that knowledge, is my way of being a consumer and investor who uses what power I have for peace and justice. ~~~

Greg Regaignon is Research Director at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, and attends Claremont Monthly Meeting in Claremont, California.  This article is written in his personal capacity.