Slavery Footprint: How Many Exploited Workers Does It Take To Support Your Lifestyle?

Essay: More urgent than carbon footprint consciousness is one group's online test to make us aware how many de facto enslaved workers are behind the electronics, food, clothing -- and even medicines -- that keep the rest of us fat and happy. You

A child mining gold in the Congo (Grassroots Group)
A child mining gold in the Congo (Grassroots Group)
Nina Merli

ZURICH - Let me just say up front that I separate my household garbage. I bring the empty bottles to the glass collection point – okay, maybe sometimes a little grudgingly – and I recycle paper, plastic, cardboard and batteries. Lately, I've been making a concerted attempt to use public transportation. When I buy cosmetics I make sure the label says No Animal Testing. Ever since a friend of mine told me about the illegal and brutal fishing of tuna, I've crossed that fish off my personal menu. I buy only seasonal fruit and vegetables. I'm the first to agree that I could be doing more for the environment, but all in all, I think my efforts for the earth and my fellow humans are pretty respectable.

Or I did think that – until this morning when I took a test on the Slavery Footprint website. Slavery Footprint is a non-profit organization that for years has been working to stamp out modern slavery. And I will tell you that the result delivered quite a smack to my self-image as a good person. Because what the test reveals is how many slaves have to work – without our being aware of it – for us to have the goods we take for granted in everyday life.

Things like our smart phone, music system, iPod, laptop, but also clothes, sports equipment, shower products -- not to mention food. The 11-question test is simple, but the result is shattering. It turns out that my lifestyle keeps 56 slaves busy. And after Christmas shopping it might be even more.

27 million slaves in the world

After the first shock, questions about the validity of the test started to kick in. How could a result like that even be possible? Isn't somebody looking into all this? Surely awareness levels and a sense of responsibility on the part of producers has risen in recent years, or failing that at least a desire not to hit the headlines as an exploiter of children, a driver of slaves? You'd think they'd be more into fair trade now than they were before.

But the problem, according to Slavery Footprint, doesn't lie so much with the factories making the end product like my smart phone; it goes back to the people providing the needed primary resources. Take coltan. You need coltan to get tantalum – the metal used for many of our gadgets like digital cameras, game consoles, laptops, flat screens and mobile phones. These were all objects that I listed as being part of my household when I took the test.

Every year, 383 tons of coltan are mined in the Congo. Work conditions in the mines are considered to be inhumane in the extreme, and children are among the workers. High profits and lack of government controls during the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo led to chaotic mining practices over which any sort of control is virtually impossible: forced labor is the normal order of the day.

Since the abolition of serfdom and human trafficking more than 150 years ago, slavery is against the law in all countries on earth. And yet, according to the UK's Anti Slavery International (ASI) there are still some 27 million people living in slavery – mainly in Third World countries like Sudan, Pakistan, and India, but also Brazil, where people are living at the mercy of landowners, earning virtually nothing.

A house full of slaves

But the problem as I learned doesn't only lie with the electronic equipment: my whole house was awash in end products resulting from slavery. In Question No. 6, you have to list the contents of your bathroom medicine cabinet, or at least cross off the products it doesn't include. In my case, I was able to cross off shaving foam and razors, but I'm pretty sure that if I'd been asked about my electric epilator the number of slaves working for me might well have been even higher. But even shampoo, shower products and medication can have an unfair provenance since they contain raw materials, chemicals or oils such as coconut oil that is produced under unethical conditions in countries such as Brazil.

Negative points in my slave account also came from my clothes closet, seeing as most cotton is harvested by slaves, although I only answered questions concerning clothes on a sort of guestimate basis because I really don't know how many pairs of jeans, or T-shirts, I own. Do you know how many you own?

The kitchen proved to be another minefield, containing an abundance of products of murky traceability. The test doesn't ask about things like mixers, toasters and juicers; it focuses on food products alone, but the result sends my slave-quotient soaring. According to Slavery Footprint, for example, working conditions in many Asian shrimp farms are inhumane, with 20-hour days being the rule. Many exotic fruits from Brazil that are routinely used in juices, yogurts and sweets are harvested under conditions nobody with a conscience could condone. The same goes for the coconut milk we need to make our green Thai curry, the pistachios we serve with drinks, and the sugar for our coffee.

Since the test focuses only on the main aspects of daily life, God knows how bad the results would be if things like vacations were taken into account, or even exactly where all the components used in the construction of my house were to come under examination. Where did those mosaic tiles in the bathroom come from? How about those bricks: from China maybe? And what exactly do you know about the orchids in the living room, as in each step of the production chain?

Every one of us is going to fail in the attempt to be 100% fair and sustainable in the way we live. It's quite simply impossible to have an overview of all the production chains that touch our choices. But the test makes you really think, which is what it's all about.

Slavery Footprint's Internet site is meant to shake you up, provide information, and motivate you to become more aware and active. Site visitors are even encouraged to send form e-mails to manufacturers requesting information about the full production chain of their products, and asking them to examine the working conditions of all involved and improve them where necessary.

Read the original article in German

photo - Grassroots Group

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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