From a young age, we pick up this idea of ‘right & wrong’, as if life can only fit into two categories. As we get older, we begin to recognise that perhaps it’s not that simple. Sometimes things that are right for one person are not so right for another, or vice versa. With an area as complex as ethical consumption it’s almost anything but straight forward. In my mid-twenties, I’m still finding my way through this journey we know as life. So although I am considered a bit of a go-to person in regards to ethical consumption due to my involvement in social justice, especially Fair Trade over the last decade, it’s probably more accurate to say I’m just a bit further along the path, or an experienced traveller.
Being born in Aotearoa New Zealand to Chinese parents, I found growing up as a Chiwi (Chinese Kiwi) ) I had to grapple with what it means to fit into this country, let alone this world. Growing up, racism was a pretty familiar experience and even to this day I am often asked, “where do you come from?” Or even comments like, “Your English is really good.” So from a young age I wrestled with what is right & wrong, developing my understanding of justice and nowadays continue on this journey alongside others on the way that Christ calls us to.
Our world has many languages, and one common languages is about consumption. It’s normal to trade something for another. We used to know this through the form of bartering, where we would swap one product that we have produced, for another product that someone else produced. These days, we generally have a more common means of doing this trade, through the form of money. In this form, with the additions to an ever changing market and means of operating such as globalisation, trade has become complex and no longer as transparent as the “good ol’ days.” We have this means of business which says, “buy cheap, sell high” and the measure of success is making as much profit as possible.
As we disconnect ourselves further from the origin of the everyday goods we use and dispose of, we fall into the chaos of consequences which disconnects us from people and land, as we see the implications and development of worldwide issues such as global extreme poverty and climate change/environmental disaster regularly. In that process, humans have created a means to engage and confront this issue in a way that is more proactive by a solution in the means of a movement: Fair Trade.
The Fair Trade Movement is an alternative means to our conventional way of being and doing – it’s based around principles, like the 10 Commandments of the Bible. These principles as outlined by the World Fair Trade Organisation are about a constant journey of being as ethical as you can possibly get through opportunities for disadvantaged producers, providing fair pay & good working conditions, environmental sustainability – just to name a few. Often our first obvious encounter with Fair Trade in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia, is through the distinctive Fairtrade logo, which is ‘black & white’ means in terms of an independent organisation certifying products to say you’re either fair or not. This form of ‘branding’ is like the National Heart Foundation Tick, or Organic Certification. An official process takes place to help the consumer be able to recognise these products with simplicity and ease. Many of the ethical labels we see today, such as Rainforest Alliance, UTZ fall into a similar category, but hold different aspects such as workers’ rights or environment in higher priority.
Fairtrade, as a human made structure is not a perfect structure, nor does it claim to be. It has its flaws and is a work in progress at times. However it is one of the most accessible systems for producers and consumers alike, especially for the consumers in the Western world (and increasingly the Eastern). The importance of such a structure is that it keeps producers at the fore and participating businesses in a dialogue of justice and empowerment through the means of a framework. In amongst all of this, dialogue is really important, because it’s all about being connected.
As a consumer, to be engaged in dialogue allows you to ask the questions and see things beyond the binary of good and bad. And we should be asking questions , because it’s easy to assume the worst, or the best in a story; but also because it creates a culture, that says we want to know and be connected to where our products come from. This is important in terms of promoting the importance of the producers & origin. Some will see boycotting as a better means of engagement, but it can easily become a means of non-engagement. It has been said “If you stop buying from a supermarket, they probably won’t even notice. If you stop buying from a local farmer, you are probably affecting how they pay for their rent or the future of their children, or even keeping their land going.” When we start investing in the lives of people, in a connected real way either here or abroad – we bless them in their living. There are times where it pays to officially boycott, and to do it properly by actually letting them know & the reasoning as to why, because at the end of the day one persons’ consumption is small fry in the world of multi-nationals (most of which generate more money than nations worldwide). However, other means of engagement and change should be attempted first, otherwise it can be more like a child having a tantrum and running away.
For myself, with the help of the Ethical Shopper Guide and the Fair Trade Principles I have a continuum which allows me to be aware of which companies are more ‘ethical’ as a whole, beyond the smoke screens & bright lights of greenwashing, because we live in a world where looking good and being successful equates to the highest profit. This is worrying when it jeopardises the livelihoods of others at the expense of profit, take the Dole scandal for example.
I often promote my positive choices of consumption in the everyday conversations of life, via word of mouth or social media. I also read up on products and send emails of questions. With my continuum I already avoid some brands, because there are always better options (even if it means making it from scratch). But also this means of approach takes in the reality that I am on a journey, and may find myself unable to pay for things if my circumstances change. Sometimes the ethical option does cost more. This is only said in comparison to the cost of super cheap products – whether that be about the subsidisation of products, or just simply that the producers or someone else in the trade chain has been ripped off. Perhaps if we owned the reality of products in terms of its cost and history because we were connected, we wouldn’t be so shocked about how “expensive” something is. This change in our capitalist world has created a culture where buying something new is cheaper and easier, which creates greater issues such as waste, which thereby effects the environment. The True Cost movie sheds light on this through the lens of our ‘fast fashion’ craze. As companies are on a journey to be more loving & kind to their producers, we as the consumers of such products also have that responsibility – and here are 5 steps that I live by, to try and live as ethically as possible in all my consumer decisions:
1) Be still, take notice & reflect: What is actually going on?
2) Get curious, learn more, & ask questions: Why is it like this? Who are the faces of this?
3) Strive to do better: What can I learn from this? How do I implement those learnings?
4) Accept the reality (including the tensions): What do I value, prioritise the most?
5) Do NO (or as little) harm as possible: Who is affected by my choices?
This area of ethical consumption is by no means easy. We hate to be duped, and we want the best deal possible whilst not being indirectly responsible for some of the most atrocious circumstances in our world – yet we’re not willing to sacrifice time or effort to engage and find out the answers to be better consumers. But we need to acknowledge that we, as much as the companies that we purchase from are on a journey of learning & understanding – and that journey is intertwined together, as much as it is with the producers and the resources of this world. Whether it is about asking questions, doing some research, writing letters: Start somewhere. Own the reality of the world that we live in and take responsibility. Start with one product, even if it means one Fair Trade chocolate bar at a time. Perhaps you might even find yourself more connected to the brothers and sisters of this global world, the land and creation, and your very self.
Kaz has offered to do a follow up Q&A blog, so if you have any further questions or hesitations about fair trade, post them in the comments below or on our Facebook page and we’ll make sure Kaz gets them.