It is hard to stay away from China these days, when it seems everything one buys is made there. However, one company stands out in its perceived civil disobedience lawsuit fighting the government mandate to give employees access to birth control coverage. Citing violation of religious beliefs, the owners of Hobby Lobby, the David Green family, doesn't want to provide access to birth control they think will induce abortion, although according to Tulsa World they have covered other forms of birth control in the past. Tulsa World explains:
"Hobby Lobby has always been a tool of the Lord's work," Green said in a teleconference after the suit was filed. "But now our faith is being challenged by the federal government." "We simply cannot abandon our religious beliefs to comply with this mandate," Green said. The Hobby Lobby suit says the mandate, which went into effect Aug. 1, will require the company's insurance plan to cover birth control products like Plan B, Ella – so-called morning after pills – and IUDs. The three products can prevent the implantation of a human embryo in the wall of the uterus, which constitutes an abortion, the suit says. "The Green family's religious beliefs forbid them from participating in, providing access to, paying for, training others to engage in, or otherwise supporting abortion-causing drugs and devices," the suit says. The mandate illegally coerces the company to violate its founders' religious beliefs, violated the First Amendment's free exercise clause, discriminates against the company on the basis of religion, violates the plaintiff's free speech rights and is arbitrary and capricious, the suit says.
In comes the rub. David Green has made a fortune with his Hobby Lobby stores, selling products primarily made in China; although business is business and making a buck is the thing, it bears scrutiny when corporations do not consider where their products are coming from. Green, who had a net worth as of 2010 of over 2.6 billion, takes great pride in the missionary work he has funded in China, bringing people to Christ. He uses much of what he makes to fund philanthropic endeavors. Some of what he has funded, according to CNN Money, includes buying an old Ericsson cell phone plant in Lynchburg, VA and giving it to Jerry Falwell's conservative Christian Liberty University, bought bankrupt Bradford College in Haverill, MA, then spent $5 million in renovations and turned over the deed to Zion Bible College. Green is also on the board of Oral Roberts University, and wrote a check for 70 million dollars to save it in 2008. Green has also bought land for Rick Warren's Saddleback Church so the church could have a retreat center, and he seems to be regularly called upon by evangelists for this kind of help, no doubt writing it off on his taxes as a charitable contribution. CNN Money adds that talking about where his products come from isn't something Green likes to discuss. It is a critical juncture where his religious beliefs don't seem to extend to the ethics of how he makes his money. It can be argued that Green deserves a pass because of his Christian philanthropy and mission projects, but it can also be argued that the root of where it comes from is not something that can be ignored altogether.
The reason Green may be hesitant to discuss where his products come from is because China is one of the world's largest providers of forced abortions and forced birth control measures in the interest of population control. Joel Brinkley of the Chicago Tribune wrote earlier in June 2012 that China performs seven million state abortions a year. In comparison, in the United States where there are far fewer abortions, and where abortion is voluntary, the overall rate of abortion has declined 6% between 2000 and 2009, from its peak at 1.3 million in 1996. 1.21 million legal, voluntary abortions were performed in the US in 2008. Between 1973 and 2008, (a span of 35 years for a rate of 1.4 million abortions a year), a total of 50 million abortions were performed. In China, if seven million is a constant number, then the US's paltry 50 million abortions over 35 years would be blown out of the water by China in just seven years. If China has done 7 million abortions a year for the last 35 years, which is about how long they have implemented their one child policy, that means the total number of forced abortions done in China up to this point in time exceeds 210 million. 210 million forced abortions. It's enough to make a conservative Christian swoon. Brinkley adds:
The U.S. State Department has reported that China "goes to appalling lengths to enforce its one-child limit," including forcing married women to submit to regular pregnancy tests. They're fined if they don't show up. If, despite that, women do get pregnant, the future can be terrifying.
In early June, photos of a woman who was seven months pregnant and forced to have an abortion went viral on Weibo and other Chinese social-media sites. One picture showed the dead fetus in a bucket of water.
"Our country is run by animals," a typical commenter said.
That late-term abortion got lots of attention, but, as most Chinese know, it's far from unusual. Yang Zhizhu, an associate professor of law at China Youth University, obtained Ministry of Health statistics showing that, on average, China performs 7 million abortions a year. It's impossible to know how many of those may be voluntary, he notes in his blog. But in a nation where much of the population fights the one-child rule, voluntary abortions are probably rare.
"Mandated abortions employ violence and coercion," he wrote. "There are 'population schools' that illegally detain the parents, grandparents and husband of the pregnant woman, or even the woman herself, in order to force them into 'willingness.' Neighbors, too, will scare the pregnant woman into 'willingness,'" sometimes by vandalizing her home. (China Digital Times translated his blog.)
What is a responsible consumer and corporate owner to do? It is a ethical dilemma that seems to beggar the imagination since nearly all of what we use in the United States comes from–China. China does not see the importance of changing its policies for they are funded directly by corporations in the United States. There is an argument that says if consumers took a stand and refused to buy items made in China, it might shift the economy in the United States more favorably to encourage production at home. However, complaints by US corporations that include dislike for government regulation, EPA standards, dealing with labor unions seems to indicate the bottom line is much more important than conscience. A 2005 journal article by British scholars Clive Barnett et.Al gives an indication of the complexities and politics involved in consumerism:
The growth of this sort of consumer-oriented activism and campaigning can only
work if there is a concerted effort by organisations and institutions, but it also
indicates that there are all sorts of latent values involved in being a ‘consumer’ that
these campaigns are able to tap into. One aspect of our research has investigated the
sorts of values ordinary people think are important when it comes to simple things
like doing the weekly shop. To do this, we used focus-groups consisting of people
from a variety of different backgrounds and occupations. The focus groups were
conducted across the city of Bristol, using government data on levels of social
exclusion at ward level as a selection principle, to gain some insight into the different
sorts of values that people are concerned with when they ‘do’ consumption. The
results show that, not surprisingly, people are concerned about value for money,
which may seem like a rather self-interested, perhaps individualistic concern. But this
concern with value for money is actually embedded in much broader concerns which
people have about, for example, what to put in their kids’ packed lunches, or about the
health impacts on themselves and their loved-ones of different sorts of foods that they
might be buying. Ordinary consumption is already shaped in all sorts of ways by
values of caring for other people, and sometimes, by quite explicit moral values
drawn, for example, from the faith communities or ethnic groups to which they
belong. [emphasis ours]. So, our first point is that there is a diverse range of values and commitments
that guide people’s routine shopping, investment, and consumption practices, ranging
from personal health and local community issues to environmental values, faith-based
commitments, and concerns over global poverty. Our second point follows from this,
and it is that a great deal of the ‘consuming’ people do is not undertaken by them as
‘consumers’ at all, but is embedded in other sorts of practices where they are enacting
other identities. It is important to recognise the ways in which consumption is
embedded in other social practices – being a good parent, a caring partner, or a good
friend – because this helps us see that campaigns or policies that focus solely on
providing information about the consequences of everyday consumerism, in the
expectation that this will be enough to motivate changes in people’s behaviour,
underestimate the extent to which people find themselves ‘locked into’ certain
patterns of consumption. This is partly to do with the extent to which some sorts of
consumption are integral to people’s sense of themselves as persons. It is also, more
mundanely, to do with the types of access and the sorts of opportunities that different
people have to exercise any sort of choice over their consumption patterns.
Changes in consumption do require a group effort–consumers create the demand, and corporations generally work to fit that demand, thus illustrating neatly consumption patterns in a given society at a given point in time. The most drastic measure is to boycott a business, something that was seen earlier in 2012 when boycotts of Chick-fil-A for their stance on gay issues came to the forefront when it was discovered they gave a significant portion of their profits to homosexual "rehabilitation" Christian organizations, (among others), as well as current efforts to boycott Papa John's, Applebee's, and the Olive Garden for their refusal to implement Obamacare. But when to company boycotts work? Daniel Diermeier at the Harvard Business Review says first of all, companies do better to stay out of inflammatory political issues. However, conservative Christians have shown the last 25 years they have no intention of doing that, and they do have political clout. Secondly, Diermeier says boycotts don't tend to work if they are not thought out properly, and made easy for the public to participate. Diermeier continues:
In most cases companies are well-advised to stay out of these polarized issues, if at all possible. Being in a political dog-fight is rarely good for a company's reputation. The public debate is likely to create intense media coverage. And it may lead to severe internal tensions among employees who may ask themselves whether the company is still a welcoming place to work.
If you can't stay out of the fight, how can you assess the likely success of a consumer boycott? The first thing to note is that while boycotts can be effective (Greenpeace's boycott of Shell in 1995 reduced sales in Germany by up to 40%.) most fail to have any noticeable impact. Among the factors that determine a boycott's success, the following are most important.
- Customers must care passionately. For customers to participate in a boycott they must passionately care about an issue. The main driver is moral outrage. Examples are violation of human rights, firmly held religious beliefs (e.g. the boycott over Danish products in Muslim countries after a controversial cartoon in a Danish newspaper), discrimination, betrayal, and so forth.
- The cost of participation must be low. Smart activists make it easy for customers to participate in a boycott. They target a single company so that customers have plenty of alternatives or a single product. This is one reason why retailers and oil companies make good boycott targets. It is easy for customers to shop somewhere else. Entertainment companies (e.g. Disney) are much harder to boycott successfully, especially if their products are unique.
- The issues must be easy to understand. Activists often fail to effectively communicate their objectives in a simple manner. PETA's McCruelty campaign, for example, has had limited impact in part because the underlying issues are complex and not intuitive. Boycotting fur, however, is easy to understand.
- The mass media is still essential. While social media platforms have made it easier for activists to gain support, activists need coverage in the mass media for a boycott to be successful. Such coverage can then steer viewers to the relevant social media sights. Media coverage requires strong audience interest and a connection to an issue that the audience passionately cares about. Publicity stunts, such as occupying a building or involving celebrities, generate audience interest, but they must connect to a bigger topic. Greenpeace succeed in its campaign in large part by framing the issue about disposal of the Brent Spar as a recycling issue, a passionate topic among the German public.