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CB2: GSA, Human Rights, and Nestle Quik

“Think of the message that would be sent if GSA took iPads off schedule until working conditions improved in China.”

On the drive back from Miami to St. Pete last night, my fiancé was helping me pass the time by reading “The Awful Truth Behind 5 Items Probably On Your Grocery List” on her new iPhone. The article tells of how foods such as Nestle Quik source their cocoa from children and slaves in the Ivory Coast before ending up in our pantry, adorned with the cute Nesquik bunny. Like Food, Inc., it reminds us of the crazy back-stories behind products we consume every day.

Fast forward slightly to this morning where the tech headlines read “Apple report reveals grim truths behind gadgets” and “Apple’s child labour issues worsen,” covering this week’s release of Apple’s Supplier Responsibility 2011 Progress Report. If you haven’t been following the issue, 13 workers at Apple supplier Foxconn in Shenzhen, China committed or attempted to commit suicide in a five month period. The first victim worked 286 hours the month leading up to his death, with 112 overtime hours for around $1 an hour. That’s not even enough to buy a 32GB iPhone 4. Add to this the story of another Apple supplier, Wintek, where workers were made extremely ill following exposure to the cleaning chemical n-hexane. Top it off with 91 children under the age of 16 were discovered working last year in ten suppliers and my iPhone is starting to look a lot more like a pair of Nikes.

The upside of the story is that the report cites many new measures put in place to improve human rights and working conditions – but it didn’t appear come to until the media attention started threatening Apple’s image.

Why are these stories important and what do they have to do with the GSA? The more you buy, the more influence you have over your suppliers, and the government is no exception. Just think, if Wal-Mart wants Sony to put an RFID chip in every DVD player to better track it or Whole Foods will only buy conflict-free bananas, they’re going to get what they want. By that logic, shouldn’t our government exert its buying power to promote human rights? Think of the message that would be sent if GSA took iPads off schedule until working conditions improved in China.

I’m not suggesting that GSA is condoning poor working conditions or somehow failing by not getting involved, but in a technology age where Buy American is not always possible, perhaps they can lead the charge by helping agencies Buy Responsibly. This could involve small steps such as highlighting human rights issues circling products frequently purchased by government, to scoring products or vendors on their level of social responsibility, to holding companies like Apple accountable during situations like today’s. Heck, we’re doing these things now for “green” products, and I think we can all agree that child labor and unsafe working conditions deserve the same level of attention.

I’d like to hear what GovLoop readers think about this. Does your agency make any special efforts to Buy Responsibly? Should the government use the power of their checkbook to force greater human rights?

Read Last Week’s CB2: NYC BigApps – Cast Your Vote

About Chris Bennett (Jump to Online Resume)

Chris Bennett is a emergency management innovator who is trying to make government better by improving citizen preparedness and crisis communications. He’s a graduate of Wharton with a master’s from Harvard with in “Technology, Innovation, Education.” His portfolio of companies and former projects include OneStorm Hurricane Preparedness, ReadyTown, GovLive, TexasPrepares and America’s Emergency Network. Chris was the recipient of FL Governor Crist’s 2008 Public Information Award. He lives in St. Petersburg, FL, loves to fish, and has been spotted sharing a pint with GovLoop Founder Steve Ressler in Tampa.

What does CB2 Mean? “Chris Bennett’s Crisis Blog.” It was originally CB Squared but the superscript 2 never took, so now we’re rocking the big 2.

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Adriel Hampton

Great post. Chris. At this point, human rights standards are the only thing that stand between us and an extreme race to the bottom economically. City of SF has many “buy responsible” provisions in its contracts, but they could stand some updates and revisions that address more of the current challenges.

Jeff Ribeira

Very thought-provoking post, Chris. It’s pretty crazy what consumers will ignore for the sake of low costs and convenience. Awareness, as is the case with any human rights or other issue, is definitely the first step so props for even posting about this. While I think it’s a bit unreasonable to think these issues will just disappear overnight, I believe governments are definitely in a unique position to increase awareness and spark the process of change. I, too, would be interested to hear more agency specific examples of this happening.

Sam Allgood

Rather eye-opening. Is there a site that identifies specific products and the conditions under which they are produced? If not, there should be.

Candace Riddle

First off thanks for posting. I stumbled on another article in Mens Health, of all places, and wrote and op-ed about harnessing the public dollar to do “sustainable purchasing”. In other words, encompassing the factors that you mention: economic, social, and environmental.

Here is a link to the Men’s Health Article. Ummmm…hello….did you realize how many U.S. dairy cows were devoted to the production of mozzerella cheese for the world’s largest pizza giants?

I’m really glad that all of these issues are beginning to take shape in the public’s eye. More importantly is leveraging the buying power of the government to drive new policy!

Chris Bennett

Thank you all for your positive comments. Since posting I stumbled across SourceWatch.org, a project from the Center for Media and Democracy, which covers a lot of what we’re looking for in a wiki format. Take a look at their Nestle page for example.

Candace Riddle

Chris…thanks for the Sourcewatch link. Excellent. I’m stealing the link with a link to this blog post for my M.A. class in Diplomacy. We’re discussing the effects of Web 2.0 on major corporations’ images.