My Facebook feed has been peppered with articles about 50 Shades of Grey in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, and the discussion doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon. I certainly do agree that the books and movie sound like they have some super abusive content, and that they might just signal a larger cultural problem that we aren’t deal with, but I also feel like they’re just a little too easy to criticize.
Instead of preaching to the choir about the 50 Shades series, I plan to make us all feel guilty about the part of Valentine’s Day that is much harder to address: consumerism. This post will focus specifically on the three most common gifts associated with the holiday: flowers, chocolate, and jewelry.
Did I ever tell you about the job I had picking flowers? It wasn’t actually as easy as it sounds.
The organization I worked for paid by the bundle. If you didn’t cut the stems long enough, or if you included any flowers that had already started to bloom, that bunch was thrown out and you wouldn’t get paid for it. At first, I kind of enjoyed the work. It was monotonous, so I had lots of time for thinking, and I loved being outside in the sun. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always sunny. When it rained my shoes would be sucked deep into the mud. Not to mention how being constantly bent-over made my back hurt. Often, at the end of the day, I would suddenly
realize that the money I made didn’t even equal out to minimum wage. As soon as I was able to get another job, I quit.
That experience was probably the first time I started to think about the history of flowers. Where did they come from? Who picked them? How far were they being shipped?
At the time, I didn’t really know that much about it, and I never put in the work to find out. However, just a few days ago, I came across an article by Oliver Balch in The Guardian, titled “The women suffering for your Valentine’s Day flowers”.
Bulch’s article focuses primarily on flowers being exported from Columbia. While Columbia has recently become the second largest flower exporter, the industry’s growth has also prompted concerns about workers’ rights. According to Ricardo Zamudio, president of the Colombian non-profit called the Cactus Corporation,
“These workers receive the absolute minimum wage of 644,000 pesos a month (£175), which only covers about 40% of their typical monthly outgoings.”
Zamudio also mentioned a variety of health concerns among workers, explaining that,
“carpel tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and other repetitive strain injuries are commonplace among flower workers, around two-thirds (65%) of whom are women… [There are also] registered cases of exposure to toxic chemicals during fumigation.”
Ecuador, one of Columbia’s main flower competitors, has been accused of similar violations of workers’ rights. Additionally, some reports have claimed that up to “55% of women workers in Ecuador’s flower plantations have been the victims of some form of sexual harassment in the workplace”.
In 2010 Danish journalist Miki Mistrati U. Roberto Romano produced a documentary called The Dark Side of Chocolate. This documentary, which I’ve included below, investigates the cocoa industry in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa.
The film highlights problems with child trafficking and indentured labour. It also touches on the problem of chemical exposure, since working with pesticides can make child workers “prone to incorrigible respiratory and dermatological diseases”.
After the documentary was released, the Global Chocolate and Cocoa Industry spoke out in condemnation of forced or indentured child labour. However, the Bureau of International Labor Affairs continues to report incidents of child labour in cocoa plantations in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone.
Two years ago, on February 14th, John popped the ol’ question. I knew it was coming, so I started researching rings, sending him the most ethical options I could find (super romantic, right?). I tried to find something used (surprisingly expensive), or with recycled materials (really hard to find), and avoided getting a real diamond like it was the plague.
In the end, we bought a ring made by a Canadian artisan who claimed the topaz and silver in the ring were ethically sourced. Unfortunately, the origin of gems is so hard to track so there’s really no way of knowing for sure.
Over the last couple years the jewelry industry has begun to focus on finding “conflict free” diamonds in order to meet consumer demands and claims it has increased its “ethical, social and environmental standards“. But just because a company is no longer buying products from a war torn country doesn’t automatically make it ethical. For example, Canadian mining companies continue to be accused of human rights violations, as well as devastating environmental practices.
Meanwhile, even diamonds that come from mines with poor human rights practices are generally able to get “conflict free” certification, since they are not technically “blood diamonds”.
Did I write this just to make us all feel guilty? Partially. Although I’m not in any position to lecture. My house is currently peppered with flowers, from who-knows-where. Recently, we stockpiled on cheap Valentine’s chocolate at Target’s closing down sale, a store I once swore I would never ever enter. And despite my attempt to avoid blood diamonds, I still couldn’t tell you if my wedding ring is actually ethical or not.
So yes, I am writing this as a reminder to myself, and you, to make better choices with our money. I’m also writing it to remind us that, while we have been busy complaining about a film that isn’t (directly) hurting anyone, we have also continued making choices that actually are hurting somebody. Are any of us willing to put as much energy into fighting these problems as we are willing to put into protesting a stupid movie?