Wednesday, April 4, 2012

An Idea That Kept Me Awake At Night

This post is about the beginning of a movement I think anyone can get on board with. Actually, it's an idea that kept me up into the wee hours the night it came to me. It's something that could change the world. I feel like we have a real opportunity here--and either we could totally blow it--or we could start a revolution ... I say "we" because I know I'm not the only one starting to think in this direction--and because this is not about "my idea" to change the world--it's something that could be much, much bigger ...

Last month I read an article titled "I Was A Warehouse Wage Slave" by Mac McClelland, a journalist who "went undercover" as a temporary warehouse worker for a major online retailer. The article describes how poorly the company treats the employees--though without breaking any labor laws. McClelland's biggest complaint was that it's a very high pressure job--supervisors demand that everyone work as fast as they possibly can--indeed, faster than they possibly can--in order to meet personal production quotas that are set unreasonably high.

The most disturbing thing, though, is that the book section of the warehouse is charged with a shocking amount of static electricity--so, every time an employee retrieves a book from the shelf, he or she is given a painful electric jolt.

I found this article troubling because I love; it's my favorite place to shop. But I really don't like the idea that every time I order a book, some poor warehouse worker has to suffer an electric shock. And I don't like the idea that my patronage supports a miserable workplace environment.

I think a lot of people who read the article probably just shrugged and thought things like, "it's really not that bad," and "in this economy, those people should be grateful to have jobs, at all." And I think that is a sad, sad sign that so many people have a hard time imagining a better world, and believing things don't have to be the way they are now.

But change is a not a fantasy; it's a fact. The world is always changing--sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. And it's not at all silly to think that ordinary people can influence how their society changes. Popular movements have changed the world.

And there is a movement that could address McClelland's complaints which, really, has already started, but needs to gain a much wider scope: it's a movement of consumer awareness and responsibility. It's started with things like boycotts against companies that are mistreating their workers; and the creation of a market for organic and free-range agricultural products; and the popularity of "fair trade" wares; and companies like Target or Whole Foods or Starbucks advertising their responsible/ethical business practices.

Those things are great, of course, but what I would like to see, and what I am willing to try to make a reality, is for the basic idea to be expanded--so, for example, I would like to see all kinds of companies evaluated by an independent, third party organization, so that, as a consumer, I can easily find out which companies are practicing significant corporate responsiblity, and which are not, and spend my money accordingly.

It's not so far fetched--we already have the Charity Navigator, the organic certification system, the Ethisphere rankings of most ethical companies--and it's really easy to start fleshing the idea out--there are all kinds of things consumers like me would really like to know about companies--e.g. do they provide health benefits to their employees, how much do they pollute and what kind of plan do they have for going green, do they give their employees stock options, what percentage of their profits are donated to charities, what companies do they contract with, etc.? Research on these questions could be made public on a website with a nice, user-friendly design (we'll just get some of those Google geniuses to work on it ... ).

If people actually used a website of the kind I am imagining when deciding where to shop, and if Amazon got a lower score than Target in "employee treatment" and "workplace environment" because they use temporary workers and treat them like crap, then perhaps Amazon would decide it was worthwhile to spend the money on hiring more workers (the solution McClelland suggests) so they could bring their scores up.

Anyway, I am very excited about this idea because ... well, as I said, I know I'm not the only one who hates being part of an economic system that is exploiting vulnerable people and destroying the earth. I know that, as an American middle-class consumer, I am part of the problem, and this seems like a way to become part of a real solution. It even transcends the conservative-liberal divide, since it is libertarian in approach, but with a goal of social justice. Well ... time to start talking it up with everyone I can think of who might possibly be on board! (Please comment if you are!)

1 comment:

Jaime said...

I'm on board! Where do we get started?