Our one Earth is currently supporting seven billion people. Goods that we desire and need come at a cost, not only financially but also to the environment and to the humans who harvest the raw materials and convert them into goods. The industrial revolution started in England in the second half of the 18th century and this heralded an age marked with marvelous inventions, innovations and human suffrage. Over time though, it seems we have lost our way and our world is now full of practices that simply abuse the basics of human rights and the protection of limited raw materials.
Only 20% of diamonds are used to produce jewelry. There are many industrial applications that couldn’t exist without diamonds, such as laser optics, electronics, telecommunications, and specialized healthcare. The process to remove these diamonds from igneous rock involves underground, marine and alluvial digging and drilling that is fraught with danger for miners.
Small-scale operations in Africa are run badly and unsafely. Communities are removed from their land, miners’ earnings are below the extreme poverty line, workers die in unnecessary accidents, child labor is rife, and some corrupt countries sell their diamonds to fund civil and other wars (i.e. blood/conflict diamonds). Unfortunately, there is no way of ensuring that we are buying non-conflict gems other than by asking the merchant for a written guarantee.
If you want to avoid buying unethical diamonds, consider man-made diamonds, which are manufactured within 10 weeks, for both the jewelry and industrial sectors. They have the same composition as natural gems and cost up to 30% less.
Scents and Sensibility
The most expensive wood in the world is Agarwood – a.k.a. Oud – which is a result of a disease response in Aquilaria trees that grow mainly in south and south-east Asia. When the tree is damaged, it exudes a resin to stop or slow down a resultant fungal infection. An infected tree may appear completely normal as the resin is inside the tree. The resin creates a much darker, fragrant wood which is used for incense, exotic perfumes and traditional Asian medicines.
Supplies of the raw materials meet only 40% of demand and this has led to people damaging healthy trees to induce fungal infections, poaching within forests where healthy trees are chopped down in attempt to find the resin, the killing of poachers and the murder of guards who protect the trees.
A 200-year-old Aquilaria tree in Cambodia is under 24-hour military protection because people think it MIGHT contain Agarwood. A group of investors once offered the government $23 million for the tree but this offer was turned down.
It is hard to fathom man’s lust for the absurd.
Slaves to Fashion
If we thought that slavery within the cotton-picking industry ended after the American War of Independence, we were wrong. Both forced and child labor are being used in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Threatened with the loss of jobs and governments benefits, even teachers and doctors find themselves being forced to participate in harvests.
It doesn’t end with the raw materials in the fields. Child labor is rife within the clothing industry where cotton is used, as are building fires and collapses that have killed and severely injured hundreds of underpaid workers who operate daily in sweatshop conditions. Cheap clothing is a result of cheap labor, but even some well-known brands have been found guilty of using sweatshops to maximize their profits. The factory bosses consider their workers’ lives as cheap. With high rates of unemployment is Asian countries, it’s easy to replace workers.
Initiatives exist that highlight buying clothing from companies that don’t use cheap labor or unsafe working conditions. These include Fair Trade and Clothing with a Conscience.
The chemical compound lithium cobalt oxide is used to create positive electrodes in the lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones, laptops and battery-operated cars. More than half the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Some of the cobalt is mined by small-scale operators that hire children, in addition to men, and all are paid a pittance. Tunnels are dug by hand and cave-ins are a constant danger as no supports are installed in the tunnels. In addition to the danger of being crushed, miners can develop the fatal Hard Metal Lung Disease by inhaling cobalt dust.
Cellphone manufacturers say they are unable to trace all batteries back to their cobalt source. This doesn’t absolve them; they should make it the battery producers’ duty to ensure that the materials are sourced responsibly. More must also be done, for example, by the government in the DRC to check all small-scale operations, insist on them abiding by health and safety guidelines, ensure that children are not employed, and give miners a decent wage.
Not So Sweet Indulgence
Cacao, the beans from which cocoa powder is produced, is grown in a narrow belt around the equator. In addition to using the bean for chocolate and chocolate-flavored drinks, condiments and foodstuffs, the husk and pulp around the bean are also used for a variety of other applications.
Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire produce more than 70% of the world’s cacao. There are, of course, ethical producers but the unethical one’s pay less than $2 a day, include children under the age of 16 in their workforce, and have these young children using machetes and power saws. There are even reports that poor parents sell their children to these unethical producers. Again, the governments turn a blind eye to these acts of human rights violations.
Raw Materials…In the End…
…it’s up to us, as consumers, to ensure we buy goods that aren’t tainted by the suffering of others, regardless of their desirability. Failure to do so makes us lose our humanity.
“Human rights are not a privilege granted by the few, they are a liberty entitled to all, and human rights, by definition, include the rights of all humans, those in the dawn of life, the dusk of life, or the shadows of life.” – Kay Granger, Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Texas.