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The Perfect Product and Its Troubling Origins

(Right: A photo from the LA Times series shows teenage migrant farm workers picking tomatoes in Sinaloa, Mexico.)

Earlier this month the Los Angeles Times ran a series of articles—heartbreaking exposes, actually—about working conditions and employment practices in large-scale Mexican agribusinesses that supply fresh fruits and vegetables to us here in the United States. I consider myself well-educated and sensitive to issues of exploitation and inequality, but, even now, days later as I write this blog, my hands are shaking and my eyes are filling with tears.

The series of articles describes in vivid detail the plight of Mexican farmworkers who live in squalid and filthy shacks and who are forced to work like prisoners or slaves. One worker noted that the food is treated better than the people.

I know that many of us strive to be conscious consumers. Personally, I read the articles and, wracked with guilt, went straight to our refrigerator dreading what I would find. It turns out that our out-of-season tomatoes come from a company that sources from worker-owned cooperatives in the Baja peninsula: Whew!

But wait just a minute.Would I have bought the tomatoes had I known they came from one of these mega-agribusinesses? I might have. I might have rationalized or deliberately compartmentalized. Or I might have had a sense of entitlement or felt that I just “needed” to have fresh tomatoes this week. I can imagine a twinge of guilt over the fact that tomatoes are decidedly not in season in Seattle, but I’m not sure I would have immediately questioned the conditions under which the tomatoes are raised.

These responses are explainable, and by and large acceptable, within the context of our dominant culture. We are a culture of profit maximizers. We believe the best solutions to our problems and challenges come from markets and competition, and we have become capitalist fundamentalists in our devotion to wealth accumulation. Our “personal” consumer desires are conditioned and developed by this money-making culture. Thus, we rationalize wanting and acquiring that which can be bought at a good price, and we tend to see our choices as limited to those which the market offers. This is the system that has emerged and thrived during our lifetimes.

No matter how compassionate and holistic we strive to be as individuals, most corporate executives consider it their duty and right to maximize profits, and there is a general consensus and expectation in society that successful companies are those that generate the most profit. Thus, in a highly competitive consumer market, businesses try to please their customers by meeting their every desire, while simultaneously trying to lower their costs as much as possible. If customers in New York City or Seattle want tomatoes in December, then, by God, you get them tomatoes in December! And if they refuse to pay any more than they pay when the tomatoes are in season in their home region, you figure out how to get cheaper tomatoes.

And so there we are in the supermarket, with whatever compassionate intentions we might have, confronted by a perfectly ripe and innocent-looking bunch of tomatoes. So what are we going to do? We would like to believe that companies can act ethically and responsibly while meeting our every desire, and companies devote considerable effort to preparing and presenting their annual corporate responsibility reports.

The US retailers mentioned as major buyers in the Los Angeles Times series – Safeway, Whole Foods, and Walmart – all elaborate eloquently on the selected good works they do, the values they espouse, and the efforts they make to be good corporate citizens. Unfortunately, they almost always use wholesalers and distributors to procure their products. They may have written codes of conduct and standards for their suppliers, but they rarely have direct, personal relationships with them. When confronted with stories like those of the Los Angeles Times, they tend to deny knowledge and vow to look into the matter, all in retrospect after they have been caught.

The first priority of publicly traded companies as well as most large privately held companies is to make money—not just some money, or enough money, but as much as they possibly can. That means they will generally not look harder than they have to at where their products or resources are coming from. So it’s up to us to know what we’re buying, where it came from, who produced it and how they are treated, and what resources have been used. Only then can we make sound decisions.

The same is true of our investments. When I’m presented with an investment opportunity that promises “market” rate returns, the first questions I always ask are, “How are returns generated?” and “Who and/or what is getting hurt?” Remember, market rate returns are those generated by Safeway, Whole Foods, and Wal-Mart, and we have just taken a deeper look into how those returns are made. If you are promised high returns on your financial capital and if you know there are human efforts and natural resources required to generate these returns, the questions should be: Who is making the effort and how much are they being paid? Do they have an opportunity to share in the profits? What about nature? Does she have a voice? What about the seventh generation?

As we end a year in which the US stock market has reached record high levels, it’s tempting to revel in the gains without considering the sacrifices made by the tomato workers and the seamstresses and the salesclerks. To remind ourselves to look beyond the numbers, I invite each of us to make 2015 the Year of the Onion. Onions, like investment returns, have many layers that must be peeled away to reach their core. And just as we have a right and a responsibility to know where our food comes from, so do we have a right and a responsibility to know where our investment returns come from and whether or not we ought to be accepting them.

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