President Obama Signed a Ban on Imports of Slavery-Produced Goods. But Why Was It Necessary?


Yesterday, President Barak Obama signed into law a bill that prohibits American importation of goods produced by child or slave labor.  That's awesome, right?  What negative angle could possibly exist in this situation?

Well, it is awesome.  Undoubtedly.  And it's yet another example of why I have sincere respect for our President and his desire to help people, despite the fact that we hold differing views on issues like abortion.  I believe you can find and respect the Good and True in a person with whom you disagree.  (Hold me to that if Trump gets elected.)

The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act that the President signed yesterday is a legal way to enforce a ban that was actually instituted in 1930, known as The Tariff Act of 1930.  So just to clarify, our nation should have had our hands clean of slavery-produced goods for the past 86 years.  But that hasn't been the case.  Why?

Because of "consumptive demand".

If consumer demand for a product exceeded the supply produced slavery-free, then the product could be imported regardless of the working conditions involved.

Translation: if Americans want it badly enough, we should be able to get it.  No matter who it crushes.

I live in Iowa and can barely even imagine the ocean right now, through this haze of February snow. But I have created a world in which I can walk right in to Red Lobster, have a plate of fried shrimp shoved under my nose in 15 minutes, and never once wonder where it came from.  Meanwhile, there is a mother in Thailand crying herself to sleep every night because her oldest boy was taken to work on a shrimp boat three years ago and she hasn't seen him since.

Too bad, mama.  'Muricans gotta eat.

Of course, most of us don't know these things and we would be horrified if we really did.  The problem isn't that we are evil people living evil lifestyles: we're not.  But we are accustomed to getting whatever we want, when we want it.  We are comfortable within a culture that never asks how things are made or where they come from.

This bill that was passed might end up inconveniencing us.  It might spoil some great dinner plans or result in a wedding band that is less than exactly what you wanted.  But in doing so, it might also mean unjust systems are forced to be reconfigured on Thailand's shores or Ghana's mines.  I'm hoping we'd all say it's worth it.

The unsettling thing about all of this is that this loophole has existed since the oldest of us toddled the earth, and we knew nothing about it.  It's not that we were eager to reinforce the institution of slavery, it's that we didn't stop consuming long enough to ask questions.  And this new ban only pertains to slavery and child labor; it does nothing yet to address unsafe working conditions or unfair wages.  Think of how many human beings will remain unaffected, but at severe risk.

The idea of knowing exactly where all of our purchases are made, and under what conditions they are produced, is a revolutionary one to most of us.  But more and more, with headlines like these, we are seeing that it's a necessary revolution.

Our family has wrestled with this issue for years and in some ways we are doing much better than when we started out on the journey, but in some ways we are doing worse.  We all have some hard work to do.  But the more we discuss it and hold each other accountable to the resolves that we make, the closer we will creep to a more just world.


If you're interested in taking tangible steps towards a more ethical presence in the world, here are some small suggestions:

  • plant a garden and eat everything that you grow
  • buy food at local co-ops, farmers markets, or directly from farms 
  • if that's not possible (and it's not financially for us) buy food that is in season in your area. Many grocery stores are starting to advertise which of their products are local.  Keep an eye out.
  • purchase clothing and home goods from companies that are explicit in their ethical standards
  • buy clothing secondhand
  • buy anything secondhand!
  • buy furniture and big-ticket items that have been made in America
  • do with less
  • do with less
  • do with less
  • curb your cravings. Remind yourself that you are not entitled to everything you decide you want.
  • watch The True Cost documentary
  • pay attention to your own consumerism, recognizing the emotions that are often behind it
You might also be interested in these related blog posts I've written in the past:

Why I Won't Use Stitch Fix (some commenters had helpful caveats in that one!)

Your turn.  What are some other tangible things you have done or have thought about?  Let's inspire one another!

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Someday, the light will shine like a sun through my skin & they will say, 'what have you done with your life?' & though there are many moments I think I'll remember, in the end, I will be proud to say, I was one of us.

(Brian Andreas, Storypeople)