How should we conceive of individual consumer responsibility to address labour injustices?

In Yossi Dahan, Hanna Lerner & Faina Milman-Sivan (eds.), Global Justice and International Labour Rights. Cambridge University Press (2014)
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Abstract
Many approaches to addressing labour injustices—shortfalls from minimally decent wages and working conditions— focus on how governments should orient themselves toward other states in which such phenomena take place, or to the firms that are involved with such practices. But of course the question of how to regard such labour practices must also be faced by individuals, and individual consumers of the goods that are produced through these practices in particular. Consumers have become increasingly aware of their connections to complex global production processes that often involve such injustice. For example, activist campaigns have exposed wrongful harm in factories producing clothes, shoes and mobile phones and farms producing coffee, tea and cocoa. These campaigns have promoted the message to ordinary people that by becoming connected to unjust labour practices through their purchasing behaviour, they acquire special additional moral responsibilities to contribute to reforming such practices, or to address the hardships suffered by the victims of the wrongdoing that result from them. The moral significance of the responsibilities of individual consumers has not, however, received much analytical scrutiny. Why should we believe that there are such responsibilities? And if there are such responsibilities, what are their grounds? How stringent are the responsibilities triggered by such connections? Finally, what are the implications of such responsibilities—the courses of action that they prescribe or proscribe? The activists who assert special ethical responsibilities for consumers have promoted many particular courses of action, but have seldom articulated the grounds of these responsibilities or explained why they should be taken to be stringent. And moral and political theorists have not devoted much focussed attention to this issue. For the consumer who is concerned to act in a morally permissible way, this presents a troubling practical challenge regarding the goods they may (or may not) purchase, and the moral relevance of their consumption choices more generally. While we cannot address all of these pressing questions in this chapter, we try to make some headway with them by discussing two general approaches to the question of how individuals should conceive of their responsibilities with respect to such practices, taking as our starting point the recent work of the late Iris Marion Young—the most sustained treatment of this topic by a prominent political theorist. In a series of influential articles and a posthumously published book, Young articulated an approach to conceiving of individual responsibilities to address labour injustices—the social connection model—at home and abroad. She also argued that an alternative model—the liability model—which she claimed had dominated discourse on this topic, suffered from very serious flaws. In a critical vein, we will argue that Young’s arguments against the liability model are not convincing, and that the alternative she proposes is itself vulnerable to some damaging objections. We also find, however, that the liability model would need to be extended in various ways to provide an adequate account of individual responsibility to address shortfalls from minimally decent wages and working conditions, and we begin the task of sketching an extended framework.
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