Thursday, December 13, 2007

What’s Enough Fair Trade for the Holidays?

In addition to being a Fair Trader I’m also a Quaker, a member of the Religious Society of Friends that pursues values such as equality, integrity and simplicity. “Stewardship of God’s creation” is a core testimony, with the guidance to “walk gently on the earth” perhaps a forerunner of today’s notion of calculating one’s “carbon footprint.” I was quite excited, then, to be asked to lead a conversation about Fair Trade at a local Simplicity Matters Earth Institute discussion circle. I found myself really eager for the chance to talk to a community of people who, although not necessarily Quaker, had committed themselves to lifestyle changes that support voluntary simplicity and sustainable living. I wanted to hear from them how their commitment to reduced consumption might influence my take on Fair Trade.

As I like to quip, it is one of the great ironies of my life that as someone who hates shopping I am regularly encouraging people to consume, even if it is “socially responsible” within the constructs of Fair Trade. I have no doubt that trade is essential—especially for disadvantaged producers in need of access to markets--and that you and I can play an important role in commerce by considering impacts on people and the planet when we participate in the economy. But as I try to get the word out about Fair Trade the reality is that--especially at the holidays-- I am promoting shopping. I could be accused of feeding into the U.S. culture’s habits of buying things to reflect status, to convey love, or to meet social demands.

I was almost a little sheepish about drawing attention to Fair Trade shopping options. Shouldn’t I be agreeing with the circle members that “living more with less” and “swimming against the tide” were the more appropriate actions at the holidays? Was encouraging them to “visit the Fair Trade Federation” to search its database of products going to sound hypocritical and contradictory? Right off the bat, during the introductions, one participant asked “Isn’t Fair Trade all about acquiring things, which is a behavior a lot of us are trying to do less of?” WONDERFUL! This was a great opening for a give and take on how we all need “things” to survive, and we all trade on our skills or assets to get what we need. The questions then became what do we need, and how does being in relationship with those who meet our needs impact our purchasing?

The “how” is pretty standard fare for me: When you want or need to buy something, try to do it in a way that gives opportunity and reduces exploitation. But the “what” is really challenging. There is no doubt that every person on my holiday list has enough food, clothing and shelter. The basics are covered in my middle-class circle of friends and family. What more could they possibly need? And not to be self-righteous…the things on my personal list reflect “extras” or “accessories.” Case in point: I want new wine glasses because one of my set broke. But why do I care about how I serve my wine when, let’s face it, I usually buy the cheapest stuff Trader Joe’s offers?

The discussion group didn’t come up with any answers about limiting or meeting our desires, of course. “How Much is Enough?” is a year-round critical question of modern American life. Answers differ according to a whole variety of factors. How big does your house have to be to create a satisfying home? Does every adult in a household need her own car? Is a living wage all we want to earn? How hard do you have to work to do enough good?

A Quaker practice is to contemplate and reflect on queries, to help guide our path. Secular discussion circles like those organized by the Earth Institute provided me good perspectives and advices. It helped me remember that my perennial questions were rather common among the Simplicity Set. I am not alone in my searching, my distractions and conflicts, my intentions. For me, at holidays and all year long, that’s enough....

but I'd also love to hear your comments and reflections if you care to post them.

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