Fair Trade Frustrations


October is Fair Trade month so I thought I'd do a post on the topic. It's a topic that I feel like people want to care about, but it just gets impractical, inconvenient, or scarily radical. So can we just be really honest about it and share our frustrations, concerns, and even skepticism on the subject?

Why Care

Here's the thing. I really think this is an important issue. It's basic human rights and decency we're talking about here. There are thousands of causes we can get behind and advocate for from diseases to law-making, but at the end of the day what is more appalling that 12 years old girls being forced to have sex with strangers, or young kids being kidnapped and forced to work for no pay day after day. People talk about slavery like it's a thing of the past, and yet it's possibly at the highest it's ever been in history. If we need to change anything, it's this.

As guilty as I can feel about the issue, it's one of the least tangible issues. You know it's there, invisible, but what can you really do about it? While it's okay to feel overwhelmed, and I'm guilty of forgetting about it, there are a lot of "excuses" and attitudes that I have and I hear others use that are just not okay.

Common Excuses We Use

1. Chasing the bigger and the better

Our culture is very tied up in the next and the best. John Paul and I were just discussing this the other day. We're practically programmed for it because our economy depends on our consumerism. John Paul admitted that he practically lusts over getting a bigger better tv. He's had his iphone 4 for only a few months and he already wants to sell it so he can get the iphone4S. We can even start to feel inferior or weird if we don't have the "stuff" whether we are aware of it or not. I remember always feeling poor and embarrassed around my friends growing up because my clothes weren't as expensive, my car was old and my house was smaller than everyone elses. Never mind that I had a stable family, plenty of food, new clothes twice a year, tv, internet, ac, running water, a warm house, and went to a private school. It bothers me when I hear teenagers complaining about how awful their lives are or how depressed they are when they have so very much.

2. Money (or lack thereof)

Another big excuse is that we can't afford to do anything about it. Bullshit. I use this excuse ALL the time as our bills come in, car breaks down, and I feel overwhelmed by how much there is to pay for on our tiny budget. And yet when there's something I reaalllly want, I figure out a way to buy it. We are so incredibly wealthy. The cost of living is high, sure, but it's because we live in luxury compared to the rest of the world. You can track someones priorities by where their money goes.

3. Too many causes

I think we get numb to "causes." There's always something. It's so easy to jump on board with a cause because how can you criticize an attempt to make something better? But it's so overwhelming we get numb to it....just another cause, another person asking for money, another issue people want you to care about. It would be impossible to care about them all much less impact them all...and yet they are for the most part all important. How do you decide which ones to care about and how do you justify ignoring the rest?

Questioning the Cause

Let's just be brutally honest for a minute. This topic is inconvenient, overwhelming, and complex. It would be easy to criticize others for their "extreme stance" on this issue and easier still to think they're weird or going "overboard" for not participating in normal consumerism. It's also not as simple as just changing your buying habits.

Outsourcing is the norm these days (no wonder there are no jobs) because it's good business, it's cheap labor. <---Slavery = Cheap Labor, sound familiar? It is a very good business strategy. It's also kind of invisible. It's distant. We don't see it. But we support it. We all do. The majority of our products in this country use some kind of unfair or forced labor.

And it's not an easy fix. You can't just change your buying habits, demand fair wages from the company, or bring the factories back to the U.S. and think you've solved the problem. That's where it gets overwhelming to me. In situations where work conditions are poor and the wage is low---if you raise wages you cause more violence and issues because suddenly you have have a job that's in demand. If you take away the work, in many cases you take away the only means of work that community has. All those changes that sound good, can actually make things worse. In the instance of child labor, taking away the demand all together doesn't seem to be the fastest/most practical way to solve the problem either.

Practical Solutions

This is the point where I usually get depressed and put it in the back of my mind. But the problem is that unlike a lot of people, I do actually care. A lot. Conviction and guilt will inevitably find me. It's an endless cycle of apathy and small efforts.

As I admit that, I also can't justify doing nothing at all. I think there are a couple of first steps to any sort of change being made:

- Decide what you care about

There are an overwhelming amount of issues in the world and you can't do something about all of them, its true. So decide what is most important to you (or better yet what is most atrocious and needs your support the most) and let yourself feel strongly about the issue. The first step towards action and away from apathy is informing yourself and feeling like you have to do something.

- Don't be afraid to be weird

Once you know what is important to you, be willing to sacrifice, be considered weird and maybe even a little radical. You're going to get no where if you hold onto your pride. We live in a culture where there is a logical criticism for every decision and where causes are trendy and easily denigrated. You're going to receive opposition and people are going to talk about you if you choose to challenge the norm. If you're doing this to make yourself feel better or look good to others...it's not going to last.

I ended a post in August about Human Trafficking with a list of resources and practical ways to get involved. I think that list applies here as well, but since it is Fair Trade month I'll add a couple things to the list that I think are pretty tangible.

- Be willing to be inconvenienced 

I recently purchased jewelry from a company and realized it was manufactured overseas (I probably shouldn't have been surprised). Though the countries weren't particularly known for unfair trade practices, I panicked a little. I didn't want to research it because I liked it and wanted to keep it. Actually at this point it was too late to return it anyway so I figured I was better off not knowing. I did end up researching it and couldn't find anything unethical about the companies practices, but it made me ask myself...am I willing to bypass getting something material that I want in order to hold to my beliefs and convictions?

- Support local farming

There are so many good reasons to support local farming, but one is that you know where your food is coming from. Cocoa beans, coffee, many fruits, flowers, etc. are all often imported from places that have unfair trade practices and it's hard to track.

- Thrifty Shopping

I love Forever 21 and H&M. I enjoy shopping, and I enjoy changing styles frequently. So far I haven't been able to make a commitment towards fair trade clothing because it's expensive and often I just don't like it. It's selfish, but again...I'm being honest here. Though I feel like it would be worth the investment to buy fair trade, it's an area I've been unwilling to let go of. Recently it occurred to me that if money is my issue, reuse is a great option for me. Reuse is a great thing for many other reasons but it also helps  lower the demand for new clothing. The clothes are already made and paid for. What's the sense in throwing out all your clothing that's not fair trade? Or refusing a gift that's got fair trade? It's just wasteful. Thrift stores and yard sales are abundant with great things that are reusable. And hey, even trading clothes with friends would be a fun way to reuse.

So for me, those are the three things I've added to my list of attempted change. I know it's important to put in the effort and try to act on my convictions. I encourage all of you to figure out how to support your convictions as well. That might look different for every person, but we are the sum of our whole and almost all change starts with individual change.

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