As I struggle to light a cigarette with my shaky, frozen hands on a bench in Boston, surrounded by the cheers of my gleeful neighbors, I am reminded for the 20th year in a row of a harsh reality: Bostonians only seem to be in a good mood during the holiday season. For most of my childhood I tried to understand why typically unfriendly Bostonians smiled for the whole month of December and now, as an overly observant economics student, I can see why. Not only do Bostonians smile at this time of year, but they also shop. They shop recklessly. While not all of us buying goods for the holiday season do so naively, enough do that we must regularly remind ourselves and each other of our privileged, and often exploitative, role as Western consumers, particularly regarding the process of material production and heedless consumption for the holiday season.
In 2012, a global advocacy network called the Global March Against Child Labor rescued 14 children who were working 15 hour days in a small, unventilated space to make Christmas decorations and seasonal gifts to be sold in Europe and America. The same advocacy network found that 300 youth workers in China were drafted in 2011 to help with the holiday demand of the West. Because Americans are more likely to consume sweets on holidays, the cocoa industry operating on the Ivory Coast is another good example of the pervasive problem of forced child labor as a result of Western demand. Forced child labor, human trafficking, child slavery and abusive labor practices are involved in about 70 percent of the world’s cocoa production process. In order to break the cycle of consumption and profit that keeps many in harsh conditions, we must grow our awareness of how Western consumption is linked to international supply chains.
As my experience with giddy Bostonians during the holiday season reflects, the invention of the modern, domestic holiday celebration was partially a cause and consequence of commercial capitalism. As America’s commercial economy has grown, it has become much easier for Americans to separate themselves from the grim realities of the people who produce their material goods. Americans distract themselves from a holiday season laden with crass materialism using Christmas trees, large meals, mistletoe and other traditions. While this time of year is thought of as an opportunity to enjoy the company of family and friends, consumers are guilty of ignoring their reliance on materials as a source of holiday happiness.
I mean, does the image of Saint Nick’s elves hand-making your kid’s Mini Bake Oven seriously distract you from the fact that American materialism and capitalism function at the exploitation of workers across the world?
The foreboding economic and political climate of America post-election poses a unique opportunity to challenge the blind acceptance of this consumption. With a nationalist as our president-elect, we as the body who elected him have a responsibility to make up for our mistakes and acknowledge his ethical impact on the rest of the world. In order to do this, it is vital to address our investment in holiday traditions that exploits others for capitalistic gain.
As the world’s largest market for child-labor goods, American consumers must lead the way in supporting child-free labor worldwide. We should not simply ignore child labor in order to naively exist in a world of holiday cheer and economic production; instead, we have the responsibility to use the holiday season as an opportunity to raise awareness of the exploitation of laborers around the world as a result of careless Western consumption. Hopefully this year in Boston, we shop mindfully, not recklessly.
Help make a difference:
How to Buy Chocolate Ethically
Micol Garinkol is a sophomore politics and economics major. She can be reached at email@example.com