Spreading our @#!% Around (Part 2)

The same warnings as yesterday apply to today’s post. Also keep in mind that I said the talk being reprinted below was originally given to college students as a means of raising awareness about the Fair Trade movement. Here our speaker explains more of the details of the Fair Trade movement and encourages us to support systems that promote economic justice, rather than injustice. Considering that today is Black Friday, one of the most nauseating days of the year as far as I’m concerned, may we all have ears to hear.

So let’s talk about Fair Trade.

I want to be clear here: practically every item that you buy, especially if it is made by a major corporation and involves production in other countries, was made by exploiting people.  As Ron Soodalter, coauthor of The Slave Next Door, writes,

there's a very good chance that the clothes we wear 
and the food we eat have been tainted by slavery. Cotton, 
that symbol of bondage in the pre-Civil War South, is now 
being picked by slave labor on three continents, and marketed 
as clothing here at home. The orange juice and tomatoes we 
have with our burgers at lunch could very well have come from 
a Mexican or Guatemalan immigrant working under coercion. The 
rug we walk on at home could have been woven in India, Pakistan 
or Nepal by one of a hundred thousand child slaves, seven, eight,
nine years old. Cell phones and lap tops require an element called 
tantalum; it comes from an ore that is mined in the Congo, 
often by slaves.

Ideally, we would all be able to instantly stop doing this.  Ideally, we would be able to change the overall economic system so that you have good options for clothing, food, and technology that does not require that others be enslaved, or paid so little they can barely survive, or constantly work in conditions that we would not even be willing to step into.  In our dream world, none of these things need ever happen again.

Unfortunately, that quick of a fix is not available.

But there are things we can do.  Let me give two suggestions: First, for your own moral, emotional, and spiritual health, live on less.  Make do with jeans that are out of style and phones with less than blazing speeds.  Make do with eating foods that are more expensive and less processed.  Make do on less, and give more.  Your life will be richer, more meaningful, and more fun if you willingly choose to make it harder, poorer in stuff, and richer in people.

Second, and our point today, is that one small step that you can take with foods and some goods, is to buy Fair Trade.  Fair Trade isn’t a perfect system, but it is a system of exchange that tries to give the producers a living wage and tries to make their area and their environment a little bit better too.  Just sending money overseas may or may not help, but buying goods that allow other people to live meaningful, work-filled lives where they earn and enjoy the fruits of their own labor creates sustainable growth in places that you may never see or know anything about.

Let me tell you just a bit about how Fair Trade works.

Fair Trade is a very simple concept.  Our current system is broken, because supply and demand does not end up setting a reasonable price for goods and raw materials.  Multinational corporations are so large and their buying power is so immense that they can force prices to an unsustainable level.  To survive, small farmers must cut costs wherever they can do so; too often, this means paying their labor little or, in rare but all too frequent cases, nothing at all.  Rather than pay for labor repeatedly, they buy a slave in a one-time transaction, usually young children or women who are more easily controlled.

Fair Trade addresses this failure by setting an industry price, what they call a social premium, for all goods.

As one example, consider coffee, a common Fair Trade good.  On average, conventional farmers left to the rough mercies of the market received 2 cents from every $3 latte sold last year; the remainder went to the various middle men who bought and sold that coffee repeatedly before it made it into your mug.  On average, fair trade certified farmers received 12 cents from every $3 latte sold last year.  The deal is even better for organic fair trade certified farmers, who received 22 cents on average from every $3 latte.

That difference may sound small, but it isn’t.

  • That is the difference between having child slaves picking coffee in Guatemala, children who report that after only one hour their hands begin to burn as if they have been held in a fire because of all of the pesticides sprayed on the beans, and willing adults working for the good of themselves and their families.
  • That is the difference between clear cut coffee plantations grown in the full sun that destroy the fragile rainforest ecosystem for generations, and organic, shade-grown beans that can be sustainably produced in the same area for generations.
  • That is the difference, for the coffee connoisseurs among you, between coffee that tastes like a processing plant, and coffee that actually tastes good!

So how do we actually know that farmers live up to the Fair Trade requirements?  That they pay their workers well, take care of the environment, and invest in the infrastructure of their region?  That is what the certification sticker promises, that an independent third-party corporation has checked them out and made sure that they are abiding by these promises.

Of course, I am focusing on worst-case scenarios for one side and best case for the other.  Fair Trade is not perfect: it is still a niche market, corruption is still possible, the products do cost more (though sometimes not much more) in the US, etc.

But if you buy Fair Trade, you know that you are buying into an economic model that is attempting to care for each person in the chain.  You know that you have a much, much better chance of getting products that were made without slavery or severe exploitation.  You know that you are working just a little bit harder to make that dream world a reality.

But Fair Trade is not the perfect solution.  Fair Trade will never create that world we dreamed about a while ago.  But Fair Trade is one positive step that you can take now that makes a difference in someone else’s life and in your own life, a step that tries to put back together, if only a little bit, that garment seamless from top to bottom: God’s elegant solution for the world.

Fair Trade is one small way that you can begin to spread your shit back on the fields where it is most needed.

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