Angles, Superfruits, and Supply Chains

November 30, 2021

This is a weird angle, for a couple reasons.

There’s a fairly exhaustive amount of reporting in this piece that has me absolutely believing this headline is true — that small children are climbing giant scary trees to harvest the açaí that I can only assume goes into the acai bowls we get on the weekend (assuming they actually have açaí in them, which I do not know). So no argument there.

The article itself is interesting, and I think valuable. I couldn’t stop reading it. What goes on around the world to make little things happen in your living room is important, and I’m glad we get to read about it. But while I’m not a global supply chain expert by any means, I’ve dabbled a little bit thanks to working with my wife, who has dabbled a lot in places like China, Vietnam, India, and yes, Brazil. And other than the giant trees, what this piece describes applies to just about every consumer product you interact with. It’s just that instead of giant trees, other products have other hazards, be they unsafe machines, long hours, or other treacherous means to acquire raw materials.

The real news in this piece that people should be aware of is that we don’t have a very good system for ensuring that things we buy don’t exist (or exist at a price we find acceptable) as a result of things that are morally questionable or just straight up wrong. Some of that is logistical (auditing is hard and inherently flawed in a lot of ways), but some of it is just the everyday forces of downward-price-driving capitalism we usually praise. In fact, it’s pretty rich to see this article in the post after weeks of inflation panic dominating the headlines, as if these two concepts have no useful relationship.

To counter the human evils (indifference, essentially) that aren’t caused by capitalism, but are often perversely incentivized, we have a regulatory state. People complain about regulations causing price increases, but that’s kind of what they’re for. We decided that no one should be able to sell you cheaper meat because they don’t follow expensive safety protocols, so we don’t let you do that. When you operate globally — as we all do, basically — you quickly discover that there’s no great way to do things like that, and it’s even harder when the wrong you’re trying to take off the table doesn’t materially impact the product (i.e., rancid meat), but just the people who produce it. It’s hard to hide the product if you want to sell it to consumers, but it’s easy to hide workers and the things they have to do ESPECIALLY if they are located in a country that is not interested in protecting them.

Given all of this, ordinarily I’d react to a piece like this by assuming that the Post is simply trying to use an interesting anecdote to highlight a larger issue. But they don’t really talk about that larger issue or do a very good job pointing out that it even is a larger issue. You can read all about the child labor issues of açaí production and still walk away from this article thinking the problem of both child labor and labor safety in general is disproportionately localized to açaí, which I don’t think is true at all.

Worse, they add this bizarre additional (and less important) moral component that “elites” like açaí fruit and sketchy people promote açaí as some healthy superfood without especially strong scientific evidence. This, frankly, does not seem relevant, but it DOES feel morally comforting if you don’t eat açaí products. Why? Because you’re now, by default, standing up against kids falling off of trees. And that’s exactly how some people feel after reading this, apparently!

Way to stick it to THE ACAI CROWD, Chas. How about this guy?

FIX IT, STARBUCKS. Did you not read the article? Starbucks has no idea how to fix it! What the hell are they going to do, open an Acai farm? Vertically integrate everything? I’m only half kidding, because I actually think that might be the only way to do this, but it’s an absolutely massive undertaking I don’t think most people can even comprehend.

And that brings us back to my original point — it’s not just açaí. Good lord is it not just açaí, it’s like, everything. And if (like me) you’ve dabbled in international audit world, you know for a fact that we’re asking corporations to make moral decisions based on information and leverage that they absolutely do not have, and honestly, do not know how to even get.

Would they make the right decision if they had that information? Different question, and probably very different answers from very different companies/leaders and all that. But we’re not there yet, because it’s basically impossible to reliably tell what’s even going on. “Well, the Post found out!” No, the Post found out something bad exists (which, in case this isn’t clear, is a good thing and what the Post should be doing, because it’s a newspaper). But you don’t get to run a supply chain based on one-offs. You have to know if this kind of thing is happening A LOT, and once you try to fix it, you have to find out if this thing still happens. And then, you have to decide what to do if it keeps happening, and those options are usually very close to “shut down this process because it can and has in at least some instances been done immorally”, or “do not shut down this process”. And that doesn’t even address the extremely salient issue of what happens to the very people and communities we are worried about if and when BIG ACAI pulls out.

(Hint: they do not all get union jobs and a regulatory state that cares about them. At least not overnight.)

Look, actual sustainability people work on this and it’s obviously more complicated than my dumb blog post is making it out to be, but for the purposes of having a generally accurate sense of how something like this would/could actually be dealt with, I’m not really that far from the truth here. Basically, the idea of using your purchasing power or (even more laughably) harassing corporations on social media to “do the right thing” when you really mean “figure out a way to create the right outcome that you unequivocally do not know how to create” is a fantasy. That doesn’t mean it’s a BAD thing to attempt to buy ethically sourced thing — it’s good! Being willing to pay higher prices than you have to, if you can afford it, is something that is directly related to being able to solve these kinds of things.

But it won’t simply be buyer choice. We didn’t massively reduce child labor and other industrial hours in the United States with purchasing power — we did it with organized labor, strikes, and regulations. Until we figure out how to do that globally, a global supply chain for basically ANY product, not just “elite” superfruits or whatever, is going to be morally suspect.