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Sustainable Isn’t Always Ethical: Human Rights Violations in Environmentally-Sound Practices

Updated: Apr 19

By Sydney Kovach

As the world has become increasingly industrialized, the harmful human impacts on the environment have accelerated exponentially. As a result, international environmental activist groups have grown in prominence and in popularity. However, as companies prioritizing sustainability become increasingly mainstream, many have failed to ethically source their products. More specifically, consumers assume purchasing organic food and buying electric cars are entirely moral acts because they help save the environment. The inputs of these industries demand back-breaking labor that corporations exploit for profit, begging the question of how ethical environmentally conscious industries are.

Organic foods are those that are grown with synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers; genetically modified organisms; antibiotics and/or growth hormones or ionizing radiation. While there is not enough evidence to say that organic foods are more or less nutritious than non-organic foods, research published by the National Institute of Health explains the harmful impacts of pesticides, including the contamination of soil, water, and other non-target plants. In addition to killing insects and weeds, pesticides are often toxic to birds, fish, beneficial insects, and more. The same report noted that farm laborers are exposed to various toxic chemicals including pesticides, raw materials, toxic solvents, and inert carriers.

However, organic farming does not necessarily improve working conditions. In 2017, the organic food industry totaled $49.4 billion dollars. Despite the high revenues, 80% of agricultural laborers experience food insecurity. Unfortunately, food insecurity is only one of the many forms of systematic violence farm workers face. Unlike GMOs that often rely on synthetic pesticides, organic farming requires up to 35% more manually-intensive labor. The herbicides used in organic farming are less successful in preventing and killing weeds, requiring more manual labor to remove weeds as they come up in organic farms. Because organic fields use comparatively less fertilizer, cover crops must be planted and maintained to enrich the soil, which also increases the amount of labor needed to tend to organic farms.

Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice) claims Driscoll Berries (found in Target, Whole Foods, and Costco) trap migrant workers in a cycle of wage theft, poverty wages, hostile working conditions, and unattainable production standards. While large corporations control the conditions farm workers endure, consumers dictate which companies are successful. To improve the treatment of employees, customers can push companies to do better for their employees through protests, boycotts, and supporting workers’ legal efforts against the corporations. Underscoring the importance of consumer choice, one must be aware of the living conditions that workers harvesting a company’s produce endure and buy from companies that provide adequate standards of living. Organic farming may not expose humans and the environment to toxic chemicals, but it requires more human labor that corporations often exploit in numerous ways through systematic oppression.

Increased human labor in the name of sustainability and health disproportionately impacts migrant populations and targets communities experiencing extreme poverty. The EPA reports that the transportation sector is responsible for over 55% of the U.S.’s total nitrogen oxides emissions and produces air toxins that are known or suspected to cause serious health and environmental effects. Based on these findings, it is clear that electric cars are much better for the environment when compared to cars that run on gas. However, the cost of zero-emission vehicles is grave; Tesla (along with Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Dell) has been sued for the deaths and injuries of child laborers in Cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), according to CNBC.

While electric cars are better for the environment with regards to global air pollution, the mining of cobalt creates harmful pollution. The DRC produces 60% of the world’s cobalt, which is essential to power batteries in electric cars. While it is difficult to prove causality, children born inside the Lubumbashi mining zone are 27.8% more likely to have birth defects than those born outside of the zone. Court documents reveal deeply impoverished children worked in dangerous cobalt mines for $0.75 - $2/day. Congolese children are subject to companies violating child labor laws and disregarding international human rights.

The abuse does not stop there; families claim that children suffered life-altering injuries, were paralyzed or even faced death when mines collapsed on them. Even worse, victims’ families say Tesla, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Dell for having ‘specific knowledge’ of the human rights violations of cobalt mines in the DRC. Cobalt mines destroy too many Congolese children’s lives. From birth, through childhood, to death, these children’s lives can be defined by proximity to and/or working at a cobalt mine. While Americans often assume purchasing an electric car is entirely benevolent, the heartbreaking stories of Congolese children prove otherwise.

Although environmentally-friendly practices may initially seem one-dimensional, the details of how corporations execute sustainable practices are much more multifaceted than one might expect. Migrant workers tending organic farms and impoverished children working in dangerous mines are often forced to endure horrendous conditions in the name of environmental sustainability.

Sustainable practices are not always ethical. However, this is not to say that environmental consciousness is inherently less important than human rights, as environmental activism and human rights advocacy are not mutually exclusive. Living in an era in which sustainable practices have become ‘trendy,’ one must research and be aware of whether their environmentally conscious decisions are supporting companies that contribute to the oppression of vulnerable communities. More importantly, corporations that violate human rights, regardless of whether it is in the name of environmental sustainability, must be held accountable.

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