Luxury products are often associated with items of superior quality or scarcity, but all too often come at a cost much higher than their monastery value. Due to the amount of profit that can be made from luxury products many unscrupulous companies make use of less than ethical practices to get these products on the market. Of course not all luxury products are unethical, but since it is extremely difficult to determine the origins of certain items or components there is always a risk they come at a higher cost than you may know.
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The main ingredient in chocolate is cocoa, which is mostly supplied by Western African countries such as the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Unfortunately, child labor and even slavery have been uncovered on some cocoa farms. In some cases children as young as 5 have been found laboring on cocoa farms, but most children used for the work tend to be between 12 and 16. Children work with dangerous knives and tools and have to carry heavy bags. In Ghana young children are also reported to spray toxins without wearing protective clothing in order to protect the cocoa against insects.
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The Hollywood film, “Blood Diamond”, shined a spotlight on the issue of diamonds that are mined in war zones and sold to finance the conflict. These diamonds originate predominantly from war-torn areas in western and central Africa, accounting for up to 4% of the diamond production in the world during the late 90s. Although the flow of blood diamonds has been reduced and an international certification scheme set into place to regulate rough diamond trade, bribery and corruption make it difficult to monitor. The certification scheme also doesn’t address the issues of forced labor, child labor and horrible working conditions still plaguing the industry.
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Seafood sounds like an unlikely source of slavery, but it does happen. One investigation found people from Burma who were brought to Indonesia and forced to catch fish. These slaves were said to have been forced to work shifts of up to 20 hours and severely beaten if they tried to rest or even complain. According to some of the former slaves a lot of their fellow workers died at sea. The fish caught by the slaves are shipped to Thailand from where it enters the global commerce stream and end up at anywhere from fine dining restaurants to major grocery chains in America. Threats from some countries to ban the import on Thai seafood has led to the closure of trafficking camps, but according to reports the slaves were simply relocated to off-shore cargo ships where they continue to work.
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After a report by Human Rights Watch, it was revealed that children, some as young as only 7 years old, were working on tobacco farms. The children, often working alongside their parents exhibited symptoms of nicotine poisoning, such as dizziness, vomiting and nausea. Even more shocking is that the practice is completely legal under federal labor laws, provided the parents’ consent and that it took place in the US states of Kentucky, North-Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. In the wake of the outrage some members of the tobacco industry started to prohibit the employing of children under 16, but 16- and 17-year olds are still allowed to work in tobacco fields.
5. Extra Soft Toilet Paper
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In contrast to Latin America and Europe where up to 40% of toilet paper is made from recycled products, American consumers have a taste for luxurious ultra soft toilet paper. According to a scientist at the Natural Resource Defense Council, more than 98% of toilet rolls that are sold in America are made from virgin wood. The result is that an estimated 15 million trees are destroyed to provide the American market with toilet paper each year. Most of these are made from old growth trees, one of the key absorbers of carbon dioxide. In fact, some of the pulp for toilet paper come from the virgin North American forest, an irreplaceable habitat for numerous endangered species.
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From smartphones and tablets to laptops and other gadgets the demand for electronic devices continues to grow. However, major tech companies, such as Apple, have been battling for years to combat labor violations and unsavory labor practices in their factories. In addition, many electronic devices are dependent on coltan, which is a combination of columbite and tantalum. The problem is that these resources are mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, often by enslaved children who are not provided with any safety protection. The raw materials mined under these inhumane conditions are then sent to China, where they are processed in factories that, according to some reports, are little more than labor camps. Suicides occurred so regularly at some of these factories that employees were forced to sign agreements that stated their employers are exempt from lawsuits from family members in the event of suicides.
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According to a report by the United States Department of Labor, silk is still one of the commodities that are produced by child labor, most notably in countries such as India. For years, young children were exploited to work in the manufacturing of silk fabrics and silk threads because of the belief that their small hands were more suitable for the job. Children as young as 6 or 8 had to stand on their feet for up to 14 hours a day amidst ear-splitting noise while working with dangerous machinery. For many it was a case of bonded child labor as their parents were already paid an advance sum of money for the work of the children. The amount of child laborers employed in the Indian silk industry has dwindled in recent years, but still occurs in some places.
8. Designer Fashion
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While it is often the lower cost garment suppliers that thought to engage in sweatshop practices for production this does not mean that designer labels are exempt. Luxury clothing often have a reputation that are based on the high quality of their crafted items, but due to cost cutting measures this is not always the case. When garment manufacturing is outsourced to poorer countries, workers are often subjected to unsafe and unsanitary conditions with very little compensation. In addition, many of the fabrics used by the major fashion brands are actually made from dissolving pulp. This is wood pulp that is combined with toxic chemicals and often come at the cost of forest loss.
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In addition to the often hazardous conditions in which gold is mined it also comes at a cost to the environment. Open-pit gold mining in particular can destroy the landscape and destroy ecosystems. This is especially worrying as about a quarter of the active mines globally are situated close to parks or other protected natural areas. Studies have found that a single gold ring can leave up to 20 tons of mine waste in its wake while a large gold mine can use close to 2000 tons of cyanide on a yearly basis. To put that into perspective, even a dose of cyanide the size of a rice grain can be fatal to humans, let alone fish or animals.
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Pearls are prized for being rare and valuable, which makes them very recognizable luxury items. However, since natural pearls are extremely rare, the majority of pearls on the market are farmed, often at a cost to the environment. For example, in China the pearls are cultivated from freshwater mussels where old rice paddies are flooded after excavation. The ponds are then enriched with manure or animal waste in order to produce the algae that serve as a food source for the mussels. Unfortunately, the soil and waters can become nutrient impoverished due to this process.
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