The Myth of the Ethical Shopper


Not so long ago, the laborers in Brazil who made pig-iron, an essential ingredient in stainless steel, lived in hopelessly grim conditions. They would set up in a clearing in the Amazonian rainforest, burn the trees to charcoal, sell it to smelters, then move to another clearing and start over. They tended 1000-degree furnaces barefoot, earning wages just low enough to keep them trapped in a cycle of debt to their employer or a labor broker. The furnaces were small-scale, informal, everywhere. A Brazilian labor inspector told a researcher in 2004, “I saw cattle living in better conditions than the workers.”
Penalizing the furnaces wasn’t an option: Brazil produced millions of tons of pig iron every year like this. Busting a single operator, or even dozens, would only add fines to the cost of doing business.
Instead, the inspectors got creative. Working with public prosecutors, they unearthed an obscure judicial statement that prohibited companies from outsourcing their “core” activities. They told the smelters, the ones buying the charcoal, that from now on it was their responsibility to make sure furnaces weren’t employing forced labor.

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