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Is it ethical to buy from China?

By Lauren | February 9, 2012

This week, my friends at TheStreet.com invited me to write an article on where the four Republican Presidential candidates stand on China. It was interesting to research, and something of an eye-opener for me. Somehow, I would have thought that China is important enough as an economic and military power that the candidates would have well-considered and clearly-articulated ideas about how the United States should interact with Beijing. I was very much surprised to discover that only Mitt Romney has a lot to say on the subject, and even he isn’t especially specific about how he thinks our government should react to China’s manipulation of the yen and mistreatment of political dissenters.

China drew pretty significant headlines last month when employees at Foxconn, China’s largest manufacturer of computer parts and microchips, threatened mass suicide when their employer refused to pay promised compensation. Still, I doubt the U.S. media would have paid much attention were it not for the fact that Apple and other major U.S. corporations buy from Foxconn. (Is there anything more fun for a reporter than exposing the clay feet of companies that try to maintain a positive public image?) And it’s worth pointing out that Foxconn’s treatment of its employees is hardly unique in China. From what I’ve been able to find out, China’s burgeoning economy has created a sweatshop-and-company-town culture very much like ours was during the Industrial Age. Labor is cheap, profits are king, and employees brave miserable working conditions while being paid a pittance because they lack any meaningful alternatives.

So while the Republican candidates are sorting out their own positions, I’m wondering if it’s ethical for consumers to buy Chinese products, knowing how badly the workers in China are often treated. This may be little more than a rhetorical question, since it’s almost impossible these days to buy consumer goods that aren’t made in China. Then again, if we’re really serious about boosting the U.S. economy, this might be a time when ideals and practicalities go nicely hand in hand. We can continue to buy inexpensive Chinese imports created by workers who are suffering at the hands of their employers, or we can buy American, rebuild our own economy and, in the process, vote with our wallets against inhumane working conditions. I think it’s time American consumers put their money behind their principles, and made it a point to buy goods that aren’t the product of human misery.

To read my article for TheStreet.com, click here.

Topics: Business Ethics | 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “Is it ethical to buy from China?”

  1. Jennifer DiGiovanni Says:
    February 10th, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    This reminds me of the story I heard on NPR’s “This American Life”. It was a real eye-opener for me. I’m glad this issue is now fully coming to light.
    Here is a transcript of the story, though if you haven’t heard it performed, I highly recommend the audio:

  2. Sara Kaderly Says:
    February 10th, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    Thank you for your interesting article on business ethics. China’s mistreatment of political dissenters and employees would be considered unethical according to Ethics in Human Communication, in which the authors believe that “a technique that dehumanizes, makes a person less than human, is unethical.” (p35) German philosopher Jurgen Habermas’ theory of “communicative competence,” puts a major focus on how language, “a distinctively human capacity, functions to foster mutual understanding, shared knowledge, mutual trust, and interpersonal relationships” (p40). He emphasizes justice and solidarity as fundamental ethical principles. “Justice requires equal respect and equal rights for individuals while solidarity demands “empathy and concern for the well-being of one’s neighbor”” (p41).
    Yes, there are case studies of many American companies with unethical practices, but you can also find the same number of case studies where businesses are developing their employees, are caring about the individual, and, in turn, are seeing growth and success because of those practices. [Read about Hallmark Here] https://www.cpp.com/pdfs/hallmark_cards_case_study.pdf.

    Christopher Lyle Johnstone’s states the following obligation of the “humane ethic” for rhetoric: “to be humane suggests that one’s conduct is guided by a respect for and a tenderness toward others’ beings. It suggests a prizing of these beings and a desire to protect and nourish them.” (p44). You asked the question: Do we boycott China made products? Yes, it is one of the small things as an individual we can all do to try to make a point. In a perfect world, we want all countries, including our own, to believe in the type of humane ethic for rhetoric that Johnstone mentions. How do we change the mindset of an entire country?

    Sara Kaderly

    Richard L. Johanneson et al, Ethics in Human Communication (Waveland Press, Inc, 2008), chapter 3.

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    February 11th, 2012 at 6:17 am

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  6. sinrida Says:
    October 8th, 2012 at 2:53 am

    It is not a ethical problem actually.