The Consumer Imaginary: Labor Rights, Human Rights, and Citizen-Consumers in the Global Supply Chain

By Kolben, Kevin | Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, October 2019 | Go to article overview

The Consumer Imaginary: Labor Rights, Human Rights, and Citizen-Consumers in the Global Supply Chain


Kolben, Kevin, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law


TABLE OF CONTENTS    I. INTRODUCTION                               840  II. THE SUPPLY CHAIN ECONOMY                   845      A. Economic Unbundling                     845      B. Firms                                   848      C. The Fissured Workplace                  851 III. THE CONSUMER STRIKES BACK                  852      A. The Demand for Social Governance        853      B. Labor Governance Deficits               855      C. Consumer Mobilization: TLANS            858      D. Corporate Supply Chain Compliance       859  IV. COSMOPOLITAN CONSUMER CITIZENSHIP          861      A. From Traditional Citizenship            861      B. ... To Consumer Citizenship             864      C. Empirics: To What Degree do Consumers   869         Care?         1. Survey Research                      870         2. Experimental Research                872   V. THE CONSUMER IMAGINARY                     876      A. Social Distance in the Supply Chain         Economy                                 876      B. Introducing the Consumer Imaginary      879      C. The Consumer Imaginary in Action:        Social Labels                            882  VI. CONSUMER CITIZENSHIP IN PUBLIC LAW         886      A. Trade Law                               887      B. Transparency Laws                       892      C. How to Improve?                         895         1. Trade and Labor Provisions           895         2. Domestic Transparency Laws ...       896 VII. CONCLUSION                                 898 

I. INTRODUCTION

Imagine, if you will, the person who sewed the zipper onto your favorite jacket. Have you ever met this person, or anyone who has worked in a garment factory? If not, how do you imagine him or, most likely, her? What is her name? Is she married? Is she a mother? What kind of home does she sleep in at night? What does her workplace look like? Smell like?

Now think a moment about the cup of coffee that you drank this morning. Picture the landscape of the plantation on which the coffee bushes grew. In your mind, form an image of the faces and the hands of the people who picked the raw coffee beans that eventually made it into your mug. What do you think were the working conditions of those people whom you now have a mental image of?

If you "played along" in the exercise above, you have just engaged in what this Article terms the "consumer imaginary." That is, you created for yourself a narrative and mental image of the producers and origins of two distinct products that are staples for hundreds of millions of people. Yet it is highly likely that you have neither worked on a coffee farm nor in a garment factory; and it is also likely that you have not had significant social contact with anyone who has. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that your consumption choices are, or could be, affected by the ways in which you imagine, or are made to imagine, (1) the context in which the goods you consume were produced, and (2) the degree to which you feel a bond with the producers of those goods.

This Article argues that the law should motivate citizen-consumers to improve labor conditions and human rights compliance in the global supply chain by triggering the consumer imaginary. Two brief examples illustrate this idea. In 1996, reports emerged that workers making Nike sneakers in Indonesia were being paid below subsistence wages in violation of Indonesian law and working in highly abusive conditions. (1) As a result, labor activists pressured Nike to make a change, and Nike saw drops in its share price and revenue that likely had at least some connection with the negative coverage. (2) The reputational pressure, along with other fiscal pressures that Nike was concurrently facing, led Nike CEO Phil Knight to rue the fact that the Nike swoosh, which many consumers closely identified with, had come to symbolize slave-like labor conditions and abuse, and he acknowledged that "the American consumer does not want to buy products made in abusive conditions. …

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