Buying into the fair trade model is more than doing our due diligence or abstractly making the ethical choice. It affects real people on the ground, and it affects us, too.
As 2016 barrels toward the holidays, many of us will have the opportunity to celebrate in a physical space with the people we love: to hug and tease, to laugh and trade war stories, to share meals and clean-up duties. And, while social media has made it abundantly easier to stay in constant contact with friends and family throughout the year, I would argue that there is something primally important about human touch and the energy of being with people in physical time and space.
Not to mention that being in a room with people and looking them in the eye makes it easier to have hard conversations about weighty matters without losing sight of our mutual humanity. In the wake of a global refugee crisis, critical climate change, political turmoil, and economic uncertainty, those difficult, sacred conversations are more essential than ever.
This is why fair trade matters…
Americans will purchase 465 billion dollars in gifts this holiday season, most of which are stained with the corruption of the global manufacturing industry, where millions of laborers within the supply chain are overworked in unsafe conditions and receive just pennies of the final profits. Though North America and Western Europe make up only 12% of the global population, we comprise 60% of annual private consumption spending.
Most of us will not consider the people who grew and harvested raw materials, manufactured the products, and prepared them for shipment. Most of us won’t even consider the livelihoods of the American retail workers who will work through the holidays in dark warehouses or vast chain stores to ensure we get everything on our Christmas list in a timely and professional manner.
How ironic that this time set aside for cherishing people we love inadvertently contributes to human suffering.
Thankfully, ethical, accountable enterprise blows the doors wide open on the underbelly of the production industry by insisting that there is a better way. We are asked – sometimes in ways that take us outside our comfort zones – to confront the suffering we are complicit in, and to take steps to remedy the damage. This can be as simple as purchasing a fair trade certified product over a conventional one or as difficult as going on a spending fast while we sort out the details of our addiction to stuff. But perhaps the most difficult test is the one that tells us we must do something.
Once your eyes are open to injustice, sitting idly by is no longer an option.
While we may not be able to physically embrace the people within the supply chain, the fair trade model makes them visible — and known — helping us, once again, to see our mutual humanity in a way that is paradoxically both humbling and empowering. People grew the cotton and harvested it. People wove it into fabric. People cut and sewed it. People dyed it. People steamed it. People folded it. People carefully packaged it. People sold it. Thousands — millions — of people with goals and fears; with parents, friends, and children. People like us.
When you realize how interconnected you are to a vast network of people, how can your perspective toward consumption not change? Every consumer choice we make has consequences. Every purchase helps or hurts. And whether or not you feel a responsibility to help people who live outside our borders, it’s inevitable that the decisions you make on behalf of others will affect you, too.
We are like trees rooted in a lush forest, sending messages underground. Sharing nutrients. Sharing in drought and rainstorm alike. The only way to move through cycle and season — the only way to flourish — is to do it together.
The first step is acknowledging that. The next step is taking concrete action.
This holiday season, let’s commit to making more conscientious consumer choices, choosing fair trade and transparent brands over conventional ones, buying less, and sharing the reasons why with honesty and vulnerability. We have the opportunity to demonstrate lifestyle habits that contribute to reconciliation and restoring dignity in real time with the people we love.
But it’s not just about how we can help people we may never meet. Considering our consumer choices and making those who work within the manufacturing system fully fleshed-out people in our lives helps us acknowledge the craft and skill that goes into producing the products we use and love. It makes us thankful for the human virtues of dedication, artisanship, and personal pride. We connect with what we own in a way we haven’t before, and this helps us avoid consumer burnout.
It also makes us more aware of the injustices that occur in our own communities. We can’t very well choose to care about people in Bangladesh, Madagascar, or Cambodia and turn a blind eye to the homeless, violated, and marginalized people we share a town with.
Justice doesn’t play favorites, and neither can we.
And this broadened understanding of justice brings us full circle, because you really can sit in physical time and space with people at your local homeless shelter. You can cry alongside the woman who suffered domestic abuse and is taking her life back. You can share a joke with a refugee.
Fair trade matters because fairness matters. And fairness requires seeing the disparity through the eyes of the person who suffers the most from it.
This holiday season, let’s commit to looking more people in the eye, and letting human connection push us forward to a fairer world.