We celebrated Fair Trade Day on Saturday, May 14 and fully embraced the concept of 360° Fair Trade. It means not only fair wages, but also long-term, holistic partnerships that empower small farmers and artisans to grow their business sustainably. See where Maggi Carfield, our guest blogger, takes today on this journey to a more socially conscious way of spending our dollars. Read on...
This three-part series aims to explore the idea of how spending money is like casting a vote for the kind of world you want to live in. Last time, in Part I of this series, I encouraged readers to consider what kind of world they want to live in and whether their spending votes align with their values.
This week, I’ll continue the discussion by making a case for shopping fair trade whenever possible. But I want to begin this week’s discussion with a disclaimer: In no way am I suggesting that shopping can right society’s wrongs or that we can find salvation through better spending practices! In fact, I am a firm believer in reducing our overall consumption. And I also firmly believe that many of society’s problems, such as poverty, must be addressed collectively through equitable public policies. That said, I still believe that the choices we make, as individuals, about how to spend our money matter. And the more spending “votes” we cast in support of products that are made fairly and sustainably, the better our world will be. So what holds us back?
In an insightful episode of Last Week Tonight, comedian and journalist John Oliver explores the harmful and sometimes fatal working conditions many workers labor under to produce the goods Americans consume. Oliver examines how concerns over working conditions surface from time to time, most often following horrendous tragedies such as when the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed in 2013 killing over 1,100 people. Yet, these horrific events quickly fade from the public’s psyche. Consumers are easily lured into a seemingly willful form of amnesia and quickly return to delighting in cheaply-made products until the next tragedy occurs and we all express shock and dismay once again. Oliver’s conclusion: “This is going to keep happening as long as we let it.” So how do we begin to make real and lasting change? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. But I think it has something to do with moving away from the idea that pity and guilt alone will motivate people to change their shopping habits.
If you’ve found your way to this blog series, more likely than not, you buy fair trade products at least on occasion. I want to encourage you to think about what has motivated you in the past to shop fair trade. You, like many people, may have been compelled to buy fair trade after reading a story about the workers who made the product. The stories behind fair trade products are very inspiring; it is hard not to feel moved to purchase a beautifully hand-woven basket from a woman who was a given a micro credit loan to start a weaving business and is now able to send her children to school. Yet, I would suggest that if people are motivated simply by what I’ll call the “charitable urge,” we will never see a true sea change in our economic practices. Why? Because charitable urges are fleeting and play on our emotions, particularly guilt and pity. If we’re making a purchase out of a sense of guilt or pity for another individual, the “buy,” so to speak, depends on the production of stories that elicit sympathy and place workers as “others” in need of our help. This sets up an unfortunate dynamic, fueled by human suffering, of “us” helping “them.” And it doesn’t work! As John Oliver points out, there is no shortage of sweatshop horror stories, and yet Americans somehow manage to forget how their shopping habits are intrinsically linked to these conditions.
That’s why I believe fair trade shopping should be viewed instead as an opportunity – a chance for consumers and producers to partner together to practice resistance against global economic systems that deprive us both of a better world. Moreover, if the goal is to dismantle those economic systems that make it possible for some to unjustly prosper off the labor – and sometimes the very lives – of others, then we must practice this form of resistance as much as possible. In other words, if we hope to build a more just and sustainable economic system, then we must cast our votes in favor of products that undermine the system whenever possible. Think of it this way: if you want to make a commitment to your own health and wellness, can you reach that goal by only occasionally eating a really healthy meal and exercising every so often? Of course not. If you genuinely want to improve your overall health, you have to be mindful and deliberate about how you treat your body every day, which means you make the best choices you can, given your own personal limitations and constraints.
The same can be said about how you cast your spending dollars. You cannot possibly hope to build the kind of world you want if you are constantly casting votes against your own interests. If you really want to see the end of sweatshops, then consider whether the way you shop is perpetuating their existence. If you are feeding the system in ways that conflict with your values, consider alternatives. Is there a fair trade option available to you? If not, or if you can’t afford the fair trade option, can you buy it used? Or, even better, can you simply skip the purchase?
Friends and family often make the argument that they can’t afford to shop fair trade. I agree that buying products that have been certified fair trade can be more expensive, although not always. Why is it more expensive? Often because the worker is actually being paid a fair wage and the materials used are sustainably produced, all of which costs more money. That makes it worth it to me because that’s the kind of world I want to live in and I know we’re never going to get there unless those of us who are able to are willing to vote with our dollars to show we mean it.
Maggi Carfield is a lawyer, social worker, and teacher. She is passionate about social, economic, and racial justice issues. She lives in St. Louis, MO