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New App Provides Ethical Buying Guide for V-Day

The greatest tragedy this Valentine’s Day may not be lacking a significant other. What if those beautiful roses from your loved one were picked by exploited workers in Ecuador? Would that diamond ring appear as brilliant if it were tainted by a bloody conflict in Rwanda? Does chocolate produced using child labor taste as sweet?

Americans who collectively spend $14 billion buying flowers, jewelry, and candy on Valentine’s Day, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, should ensure that their gifts are not bought at an intolerable cost to those who produce them.  

Providing consumers with this recourse was precisely what Not For Sale (NFS), a San Francisco based non-profit committed to fighting global slavery, had in mind when creating Free2Work.

“As consumers, it is our responsibility to know which companies will not tolerate slave labor in their supply chain,” claims David Batstone, co-founder of NFS.

The Free2Work iphone app, named “One of the 11 Great Apps for 2011” by the SF AppShow, makes valuable information about products available to conscious consumers while they are shopping. After evaluating a company’s code of conduct, transparency, and response to child labor and efforts to empower workers, Free2Work rates them on a scale of “A” to “F.” Consumers also have the option of browsing through a database of companies to see whether the people who make a certain product are respected or exploited.

This option is increasingly popular amongst the growing mass of concerned consumers interested in knowing how their goods are produced. However, discerning the ‘good’ products from the ‘bad’ can be tricky.

“The volume and variety of certification programs and product labels that exist to protect worker rights can be confusing to consumers,” says Tim Newman, Campaigns Director of the International Labor Rights Forum. “Free2Work helps to reduce the confusion and demonstrate to consumers how each program differs.” 

Navigating through the fair trade and conflict-free items available at the store is especially useful on major consumer holidays like Valentine’s Day. For those perusing the candy aisle, Hershey’s, Godiva, Dove, and Divine Chocolate are rated based on their use of fair labor practices in their supply chain. Companies like 1800Flowers, Pro Flowers, Jared Diamonds, and Signet Jewelers are also featured on Free2Work.

“The concentration of forced labor used in the production of chocolate, flowers, and jewelry has significant implications for the credibility of these industries, particularly around Valentine’s Day,” says Batstone.

A quick glance at your iPhone can now ensure that the chocolate you buy wasn’t produced in West Africa – where recent reports by the Department of Labor highlight child labor exploitation in the cocoa fields.

Flowers are another popular Valentine’s Day purchase, with 90 percent of the U.S. market of carnations coming from Columbia and Ecuador. To meet the huge demand of American consumers leading up to February 14th, Ecuadorian flower workers must labor up to 16 hours a day without overtime pay. If that doesn’t stem your desire for these tokens of affection, a 2009 report by the International Labor Organization estimates that 20% of the 60,000 Ecuadorian flower workers are children.

Free2Work ratings help consumers ensure that their purchases don’t perpetuate these cycles of injustice. For instance, 1800 Flowers, one of the most widely recognized and fastest growing floral retailers in the country, received a (D-) rating on Free2Work for failing to ensure that forced and child labor are not used in their supply chain.

For those whose loved ones have more expensive tastes, diamonds are the perfect symbol of timeless beauty and luxury. But many of these precious stones also represent something much darker – human suffering and exploitation.

According to the World Diamond Council, an estimated US$13 billion worth of rough diamonds are produced per year with 65% coming from Africa. African mines are largely controlled by militant factions who fight for control over these lucrative mineral zones – causing civil conflict and human rights abuses through out the region. The Walkike Territory in Eastern Congo, for instance is controlled almost entirely by commanders of the Democratic Forces of the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Mai Mai Cheka militia.  The millions of dollars in profit accrued through the diamond trade directly fund these forces and continues the cycle of violence in the region.

Does 18-carats feel heavier when bearing the weight of child exploitation? The 2010 U.S. Department of Labor’s Report on Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor cited fourteen countries where child labor continues to occur in diamond production. Prominent on the list were Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In these mineral-rich countries 30 % of the workforce is comprised of children who are made to toil under hazardous conditions.

Tarnished as they are with war and oppression, there is one more stop in a diamond’s journey before it reaches your local jewelry counter – Surat, India. Over 92% of all diamonds in the global trade are cut and polished here, mostly by children under the age of 10. These children face a multitude of health complications from having to sleep next to cutting wheels in cramped and contaminated warehouses. This appalling practice continues because of India’s lax enforcement of its Child Labor Act.

Despite the travesty of companies like Zales Corporation, Kay Jewelers and Jared Diamonds, who do very little to monitor labor practices in their supply chains, there is a glimmer of hope for the jewelry industry. Free2Work features Brilliant Earth, a small, responsible company that integrates ethical sourcing into their business model.

Equipped with the knowledge to make smart, ethical gift purchases, Valentine’s Day need not only be about showing love to a significant other. Free2Work enables consumers to use their spending power to allow love to flourish in some of the most exploited and impoverished regions of the world. 


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Brian is the General Editor of churchleaders.com. He works with creative and innovative people to discover the best resources, trends and practices to equip the church to leader better every day. He lives in Ohio with his wife, Jenna, and four boys..