There was public disquiet when a BBC investigation revealed exploited child refugees from war-torn Syria were being used to make clothes for major British stores.

The “sweatshop” factories in Turkey were reportedly using children as young as 15 to work 12 hours a days, ironing garments for sale. Some workers were exposed to hazardous chemicals, without adequate protection, during the spraying of jeans.

One of the high street chains at the centre of the exposé insisted ethical trading was “fundamental” to its practices and said suppliers were required to comply with its principles relating to global sourcing, which includes the treatment of employees. The notion of ethical consumption has become increasingly important as it represents “an expression of the individual’s moral judgment in his or her purchase behaviour”.

The story last October was the latest in a series of scandals to hit the clothing trade, the reputations of electronics firms also being tarnished by links to child labour, including Apple’s supply chain in China. This hugely emotive issue goes to the heart of the fierce debate about ethical consumption and ethical shopping.

I happen to come from China, which has been hit by allegations of child labour, and it would appear that, from a UK perspective at least, two moral philosophical approaches are observed in relation to the controversy.

There is the deontological approach, which considers if an action is based on the right principles; and there is consequentialism, which looks at the best consequences, or outcomes, of an action.

If one follows the rule-based deontological approach, consumers are advised to boycott products made by child labour because the exploitation of young people per se is wrong. However, consequentialists argue that boycotting “unethical” clothes effectively puts children out of work and cuts off a vital source of family income, the cash being required for food and shelter. Working in a sweatshop, as abhorrent as it seems, is arguably preferable to starvation and destitution.

But what if a third approach is possible? This, I believe, is where virtue ethics comes in and throws a welcome light on the controversy surrounding ethical consumption.

A virtue ethics approach asks important questions such as: “What kind of person/consumer do I want to become?” The emphasis is on exercising the virtues and advancing human flourishing.

In the case of child labour, a virtue ethics approach appreciates the need for compassion and generosity as well as the context of the action or event. Rather than being directed by rigid deontological rules or consequential outcomes, virtue ethics allows the consumer to be sympathetic to the child worker’s predicament. In this case, an instant boycott of the clothing is less likely to be advocated.

However, this does not mean a virtue ethics approach will continue to encourage the practice of child labour without further action. It does not give carte blanche to exploitation and child endangerment.

On the contrary, a virtue ethics approach locates the child labour situation within the wider social context and views the purchase action as part of the overall life. It recognizes the merits of ethical consumption as well as the limits of it; it seeks to understand the cause of the issues from an institutional level as well the specific context; and it strives to investigate the best possible solution from a fundamental perspective.

Crucially, the virtue ethics approach is non-judgemental; and it is motivated by love, patience and tolerance.

A virtue ethics approach considers the complexity of ethical consumption, the causes of child labour and involves an appreciation of people as human beings with human characteristics. It allows us to see that ethical consumption cannot be reduced to simple rules or a calculation of consequences.

Recently, my mother, who lives in Beijing, visited me in Birmingham and bought me a bag. The gift cost £110, a lot of money. What if the bag was made from child labour but my mother did not know this?

For me, the bag symbolises her love for me. I used to bring my lunch to work in a shopping bag that cost £2 and my mother said: “It doesn’t suit your professional image now. You work for The Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham. You are a research fellow. You need to maintain a professional standard.” I told her I had lots of bags and did not need another one, but she insisted.

Now if you take a deontological approach, the bag is a waste of money because I don’t really need one. If you look at consequentialism, it is probably bad for the environment.

But if you look beyond that as a human person, this bag is from my mum, who flew all the way from China to England and wanted to give me a gift. It reminds me of her every day I use it. I feel warmth in my heart. That is love. Deontology and consequentialism do not have the capacity to appreciate such love.

Virtue ethics “understands” my mum’s heart. This was an act of selfless love – she wouldn’t spend so much money on herself on a bag and it shows her understanding of my work role and her respect.

Now when I think about the contentious issue of child labour and visualise the three moral philosophies, I see three images. On the left is the judge who makes a ruling based on unbending law and regulations. On the right, I see the image of a Chinese mother whose young son works in a factory miles from their village – she has deep wrinkles but there is hope in her eyes.

In the middle, there is a wise man smiling at me and saying in a gentle voice: “Be slow in anger; and abound in steadfast love.”

Dr Yan Huo

Research Fellow

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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