The True Cost of Groceries

Many companies are either complicit in or engage in labor trafficking. To break this cycle of demand and exploitation, consumers must boycott brands that do not ensure that their food is ethically sourced and grown.

January 11, 2023

farm workers picking crops in a field

The Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

By Will Grout ’23

One of the most widely-used conveniences of modern American life is the supermarket. Historically, grocery stores would carry mostly local foods, today food from all over the world can be found and bought at a local supermarket near you. Avocados from Mexico, cocoa beans from Ghana, mangoes from India: foods once only available thousands of miles away are now commonplace in America thanks to global supply chains. However, now that these foods have become commonplace in supermarkets, American consumers expect grocery stores to carry them, leading to an increased demand for these foods.

To meet this demand, food exporters need to massively increase the amount of food they produce, and this burden is passed onto the workers that grow and harvest the food. Many companies are either complicit in or engage in labor trafficking to maintain their workforce. This means that when customers buy their favorite foods at the supermarket, the joy they experience often comes at the expense of the workers who grew, harvested, and shipped the food. To break this cycle of demand and exploitation, consumers must boycott brands that do not ensure that their food is ethically sourced and grown.

Labor trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Labor trafficking can be found in any industry, anywhere. While the word “trafficking” is typically associated with traveling between different countries, labor trafficking does not have to involve travel. One of the most common settings for labor trafficking is in the agricultural industry, where seasonal laborers are often forced to work in horrible conditions and threatened with unemployment or legal punishment for speaking out.

Labor trafficking also poses a significant risk to vulnerable groups such as women and children. A recent report from the OHCHR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) stated that over the past four years, there has been an increase of 8.4 million child laborers worldwide, despite the international community pledging to end child labor by 2025. The report also states that women are particularly vulnerable to trafficking due to gender discrimination and that they face additional risk due to sex trafficking and forced marriages.

Given the prevalence of labor trafficking, it might be easy to simply throw your hands up and exclaim that nothing can be done about it. Doing this, however, would ignore why victims are trafficked in the first place and what can be done to stop this. Victims are trafficked and forced to work because their employers are capitalizing on consumer demand by treating them unfairly. If this demand is removed by boycotting companies that abuse their workers and only buying food from companies that treat their employees fairly, then employers will be sent a strong message that abusing their workers will cost them financially as well as morally.

But how can you bring about this change as an individual? It’s unlikely that losing a single customer would convince companies to stop exploiting their workers. However, if you are one of many, then the collective action of your group will be much more noticeable and impactful to these companies. How would you form or join a group, though? If you wanted to start your own boycott, you could post on social media announcing how and why you are boycotting a company and call on others to join you. Alternatively, you could check reports from consumer advocacy groups like Ethical Consumer that list ongoing boycotts and cross-reference them with your grocery lists. And, you can support companies that engage in fair labor practices like the members of the Fair Food Program. 

Making a conscious effort to only buy ethically sourced groceries might not appeal to everybody. Some might view it as a waste, for example, while others might only be able to afford unethically sourced inexpensive food. This is why it is important to stress that if one cannot boycott unethical companies, it does not mean that they are therefore solely responsible for the trafficking that these companies engage in. The blame for labor trafficking lies squarely in the hands of traffickers and the companies that make a profit from it. Boycotting is not meant to stop labor trafficking single-handedly. It is meant to send a message to both businesses and governments that consumers do not support these practices and that they must be ended. Businesses and governments will only try to end these practices if people like us press them do so.

Will Grout ’23 is a history major and art history minor from West Olive, Michigan. As President of Albion College’s Model United Nations club, Grout actively promotes the United Nations’ values on campus.

The views expressed here are the author’s and not necessarily those of Albion College.