Friday, November 24, 2006

FT as Faith Journey or Shopping Experience?

With the Christmas holiday approaching here in the US, I thought I'd share a talk I gave to a Unitarian community in July 2004 as director of the Fair Trade Resource Network.

"Most Americans are entangled in a car dependency not of our own making, but nobody has to eat foods out of season from Rio de Janeiro. It's a decision we remake daily, and an unnecessary kind of consumption that I decided some time ago to try to expunge from my life. I had a head start because I grew up among farmers and have found since then that you can't take the country out of the girl. Wherever I've lived, I've gardened, even when the only dirt I owned was a planter box on an apartment balcony. I've grown food through good times and bad, busy and slow, richer and poorer - especially poorer. When people protest that gardening is an expensive hobby, I suggest they go through their garden catalogs and throw out the ones that offer footwear and sundials. Seeds cost pennies apiece or less. For years I've grown much of what my family eats and tried to attend to the sources of the rest. As I began to understand the energy crime of food transportation, I tried to attend even harder, eliminating any foods grown on the dark side of the moon. I began asking after the processes that brought each item to my door: what people had worked where, for slave wages and with deadly pesticides; what places had been deforested; what species were being driven extinct for my cup of coffee or banana bread. It doesn't taste so good when you think about what died going into it. "

Barbara Kingsolver, "Small Wonder Essays", p.114-115, Perennial, 2003.

…In my introduction we were just talking about the presidential election. What does that have to do with Fair Trade? Voting is connected to Fair Trade. Every single day we vote. You may have heard this comparison before: Your dollar is your economic ballot. You make choices each and every day about how to spend your money, to exercise your power. What clothes buy, what magazines to read, what cars to drive, what food to buy. The Barbara Kingsolver reading today references our consumption patterns and the processes that bring items to your doors. When we make conscious decisions about how to spend our money on items that don’t depend on the exploitation of human labor, the destruction of the environment, the homogenizing of culture, we are voting for the kind of world we want to live in, and we are engaged in creating that world. Fair Trade for me has been fundamental to my spiritual journey because it allows me to join in the process of creation, creating a just society, a healthy and honored planet.
So what is this “Fair Trade” system I’m talking about? This morning I’d like to share some ideas I have about Fair Trade, how it relates to the physical and spiritual conditions of those involved in Fair Trade, including folks like you, and how you can make shopping part of your faith journey.
Your congregation sells Fair Trade beverages. You’ve hosted craft sales featuring the products from your own neighborhood store, Village Imports on Main Street. Any ideas out there what Fair Trade is? What is your understanding of Fair Trade? [congregation responses]
Thanks…many of those ideas touch on the criteria established by the Fair Trade Federation:
∑ Paying a fair wage in the local context.
∑ Offering employees opportunities for advancement.
∑ Providing equal employment opportunities for all people, particularly the most disadvantaged.
∑ Engaging in environmentally sustainable practices.
∑ Being open to public accountability.
∑ Building long-term trade relationships.
∑ Providing healthy and safe working conditions within the local context.
∑ Providing financial and technical assistance to producers whenever possible.
The criteria are important, and Fair Trade has an official definition (actually it has several, but we can deal with that in Q&A), but for now I’d like to share what Fair Trade means to me.
I was in Brazil last month at the 11th UN Conference on Trade and Development. I like going to those sort of events because after all the speech making and networking I can take off and visit villages and favelas (the word for “slums”) and talk to the actual people whose lives really depend on policies and programs that come out of those gatherings.
There were lots of important speeches, by the way. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that the sad truth is that the world is a more unequal place today than it was 40 years ago when the first UN Trade and Development Conference was held. He, Brazilian President Lula and other dignitaries encouraged using trade in this era of globalization as a way of promoting human development, not just profits. And we Fair Traders were there trying to provide examples of how Fair Trade makes human development possible.
When it was all over, I had the chance to meet with a women’s cooperative in a community about an hour north of Rio de Janeiro. Two years ago, thanks in part I am sure, to globalization, a new clothing factory opened in this community of Santa Cruz. I am not talking about a sweatshop, although those proliferate, but a clothing factory that just day in and day out produced the same clothes over and over again. The women of the community were hired to work the machines. They got paid, although they had no say over what their wages were. But still no women complained to me about being abused in their bodies. It was there spirits that were lacking in this context.
They found the work deeply unsatisfying because the monotonous machinery created the same product over and over again. Working at the factory as seamstresses didn’t allow them to practice their traditional sewing techniques. These are women who have a reputation for making sequined costumes for Carnaval. They were also known for patchwork bedspreads that we could lay alongside the beautiful creations of our Amish friends in nearby PA. But that’s not what they were producing in this new factory. And the women, although grateful for the jobs, felt diminished by the lack of control over their destinies. They felt that although the desperately needed the factory income they were in danger of losing their community’s sewing heritage and their self-expression. They used up all their time and energy working for the factory.
So one woman named Rosemary decided to organize a sewing cooperative that preserved the seamstress tradition, gave women the right to determine their own prices, and provided after school care for the children of the members. You see, the women had begun to worry about the children who were leaving school and arriving home to empty homes in poor, sometimes dangerous neighborhoods.
This cooperative—Cooperativa de Costura-- is what Fair Trade is. Women designing and creating their own products, setting their own prices to work their way out of poverty, protecting their children. To get started they needed help to purchase sewing machines, find space, locate customers. That’s where another Fair Trade story came in. A nongovernmental organization called Viva Rio provided the machines and, as importantly, are finding customers for the cooperative’s products.
Viva Rio is a member of the International Fair Trade Association (IFAT). IFAT defines Fair Trade as a “trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South.”
By definition, a partnership includes at least two groups. So, in this story, we have the businesses in Brazil, creating and distributing the products. The businesses can produce pounds of coffee, beautiful baskets, unique stationery, hand-crafted tables. Whatever the item, the items need to be purchased. That’s where your vote comes in. As consumers when we buy Fair Trade we are declaring our support of the Fair Trade criteria and the partnership philosophy.
I mentioned that the world is an unequal place these days. We see this in the growing economic divide right here in the United States. According to census data, in 2002, 34.6 million lived people below the official poverty line, a figure 1.7 million higher than in 2001. The number of children in poverty increased to 12.1 million in 2002, up from 11.7 million in 2001. (
That’s a lot of poor people in the richest country in the world. What about the rest of the world? How many of you have been fortunate to travel to the “developing world” or what is more rightly termed the “global south?” Which countries?
~ [congregation responses] You all have probably witnessed the poverty first hand.
I have been talking about the power of Fair Trade in Brazil. That power is sorely needed. There is a lot of work to do. In Brazil 22% of the population of 176 million people live on less than $2 a day. In Mexico, where farmworkers in this region probably come from, 26% percent of the people live on less than $2 a day. Travel around the globe to Rwanda, that number jumps to 84% of people live on less than $2 a day. (
Can the Fair Trade system change those numbers? Not by itself. There are a whole range of reforms that need to be made to institutions such as the World Trade Organization. Regional free trade agreements such as CAFTA need to be scrutinized. I commend to you organizations such as Oxfam America, Public Citizen and Global Exchange for analysis of what type of macro level changes must take place.
But at the level of the individual, of the soul, Fair Trade as a partnership does have the power to improve lives. "Buying Fair Trade is like giving a glass of clean water to a thirsty person," a cocoa farmer, told me once. Her cooperative -- Kuapa Kokoo -- has sold enough cocoa at fair prices in Ghana to dig 96 water wells, open three schools, and provide her village's first "places of convenience," what you and I call "bathrooms."
When you buy Fair Trade, you make those kinds of developments possible. And you get high quality, beautiful or tasty products in your own hands. Your life is enriched with unique items representing a diversity of cultures. Like the music from India being offered to us in the service today. Not necessarily top-40 hits, but certainly music to be savored and enjoyed.
The vision of my organization, the Fair Trade Resource Network, is a world in which trade is conducted fairly, the environment is respected, and individuals gain understanding and enrichment through cultural exchange. Our commitment: To see that every U.S. home contains at least one Fair Trade item. If fact, we encourage consumers to take the Fair Trade Challenge. Shift 5% of your household budget to Fair Trade. Americans spend $14 trillion a year on household expenses, after housing and taxes. ( Imagine the world if we shifted 5% of those trillions to living wages, to opportunities for the women of that Brazilian cooperative to preserve their culture and demonstrate their talents. So this morning, I challenge you to shift 5% of your consumption to Fair Trade.
Now this is a great irony for me as a person: My job is to convince people to shop. First off, I hate shopping. Second of all, I am a Quaker. Unitarians and Quakers hang out a lot, so I’m assuming you know that I’m supposed to be all about simplicity. And we Quakers look for the God within everyone, not what shoes somebody has on her feet (Nike??? Eeeek!!) or what brand of coffee is in his cup. We aren’t supposed to be concerned with things of this world. Yet these kinds of distinctions for me have been such an important part of my spiritual journey.
In Quakerism we use “queries”, which is just an old fashioned word for “questions,” to investigate our motivations, to clarify our intentions, to promote reflection. I like the queries related to “Personal Way of Life.” I’m going to share a few of them:
∑ “Do you live in accordance with your spiritual convictions?
∑ Do you seek employment consistent with your beliefs and in service to society?
∑ Are you watchful that your possessions do not rule you? “ (Baltimore Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice)
The question for me becomes: Am I promoting materialism? Am I suggesting that you need to buy more, just in a politically correct way? Am I contributing to the exact kind of over-consumption that Barbara Kingsolver warned against? Here’s how I answer those queries for myself.
A few years ago I was traveling around Central America and Mexico. I had gone through some tough times and was getting some space from the US trying to figure out what I believed in, what mattered. I was “taking a year off.” But in a complication I hadn’t expect, in these very poor countries I kept coming into contact with people who wanted to be part of popular American culture. Everywhere I looked: American magazines, fast food, Tommy Hilfiger, and television.
I have been in some remote places in the world, but wherever there is electricity, there is a television. Consider the implication of this. All over the world, way up high on mountain tops and down in flat rice fields, people are seeing not only our sometimes simple-minded sitcoms, but they are also watching our commercials. They are learning our materialism, our over-consumption. And, because 2.8 billion people live on less than $2 a day, many of them want our lifestyle.
This frightened me. Because I became worried, not only that the planet can’t sustain our kind of consumption spreading, but because millions of people are buying into a system that disconnects them from their individuality, separates them from their mother earth and seeks to direct their energy and their skills into purchasing power. The cloud of despair was getting darker for me.
At just about the same time I encountered a Fair Trade coffee cooperative in the highlands of Chiapas Mexico. I ended up spending four months volunteering for the cooperative. This was in 2000, when coffee was about .80 cents a pound on the world market, below the cost of production and much below the Fair Trade price of $1.26 which covers the cost of production and a social premium. I learned about how the fair price for coffee kept people out of poverty. That was important then and is more important now as the world coffee price has gotten as low as .40 a pound.
Beyond price, I also learned about Fair Trade as self-sufficiency, dignity, opportunity. By the way, I also learned that picking coffee beans is some of the hardest work you’ll ever do. And as you can tell, I didn’t have a total conversion and end up living in Mexico. I eventually left and was on a bus traveling for hours and hours. Somewhere along the way I had an epiphany: Fair Trade helps prevent impoverished bodies AND it can help prevent the impoverishment of souls.
This brings us back to the Fair Trade partnership. You as a consumer are essential to Fair Trade. Someone must buy the products to generate the income, to allow for the investments in community. But when you choose Fair Trade you aren’t choosing just a product, you are becoming part of a system that promotes your values. You are participating in a partnership. You are choosing to live in a certain kind of relationship with your fellow human beings.
Did anyone read “Life of Pi?” ~
I love that book. The author, Yann Martel, is an accomplished writer, and he was Canada’s spokesperson for Fair Trade back in May when about 60 countries, including the US, celebrated World Fair Trade Day. In an editorial Martel likened Fair Trade to the I-Thou Relationship that Jewish philosopher Martin Buber defined. “Each relation is not just a posture or attitude, but a mode of existence.” I-Thou relations are characterized by engagement, equality, trust. They are contrary to the I-It relations that diminish humanity, commodify the environment, promote materialism over spirituality. Martel notes that “We live in a world that is at present dominated by It-ness, where profit and convenience often seem to matter more than quality of life….The I-Thou [relationship] of fair trade is a way of reclaiming our humanity and that of those who are less fortunate.”
As I finish up this morning, what I offer you besides a shopping goal of 5% Fair Trade is a possible path for your spiritual journey. With Fair Trade you can help reduce poverty and promote human development; you can enjoy the richness of other cultures and countries. AND in so doing, I trust you will find an authentic way of relating to your place in this society and to people all over the world.
Barbara Kingsolver wrote that a cup of coffee or banana bread “doesn't taste so good when you think about what died going into it.” I hope now you can imagine how delicious life can be when you are in a peaceful, productive partnership with millions of artisans and farmers all over the planet.


  1. Anonymous8:31 PM

    Jackie - great article. If I had a cup of baby powder I'd throw it on your head. Blessings on the upcoming book.

  2. Wow. What an amazing story. If this post actually works, I'll be happy to add some comments. Let's see - I'm new to this blogging, too!

    -Megy Karydes,

  3. Anonymous10:45 AM

    Thank you for your uplifting words Jackie! I am researching fair trade, and this is exactly what I was looking for. A connection between spirituality and fair trade purchasing. I will admit to being a materialistic person for quite some time.
    I recently had a wake up call. I am working at a fair trade store in Ontario, Canada and also wrapped in the blanket of spirituality.
    I just passed my 27th birthday, and have had an awakening. My life has much purpose now.. no more running from that which is needing my support.
    I will be sharing some of your words with a small group of people on Monday @ the YWCA.
    A few more people will know what fair trade is all about.. the more people to share the truth, the better!

    Bibi Nielsen