Consumerism and the Marginalized

Yesterday a fellow blogger made it to WordPress’ “Freshly Pressed” page with a post on Fairtrade and how it does very little good for the world except alleviate guilt.

I first want to offer some publicity to the piece because it is a thought-provoking write-up about a controversial topic that we’ve recently discussed on this site. I encourage you to check it out.

And as a writer who focuses mostly on forced migration and thus rather tragic issues occurring in the developing world, I wanted to elaborate on some alternative viewpoints to three issues that the article brings up.

The article includes a reminiscent paragraph about the author’s travels:

As simply a passing tourist, my experience from seeing kids in the developing world (Vietnam, Mexico, Cambodia) felt quite different. I saw them laugh and run, and skip school and sell junk artifacts and postcards to tourists. I saw them play with dirt and sticks and do flips when they jumped in the water. I compared them to western kids, craving for toys and sugar and moaning in restaurants; and I knew which of those kids I’d rather be.

The author goes on to explain why everyone in the rich nations feels so guilty about the poor:

Part of the reason we feel so guilty when thinking about the developing world is the media’s continuous banter on its tragedy: hunger, illiteracy, dictatorships, wars, famine, disease, water shortage, dysentery, destruction of the habitat, slavery, prostitution, etc, etc.

The rest of the article looks deeply into the dangers of consumerism and the Fairtrade movement, delving into what buying for a good cause does to harm both the rich and poor.

Here are a few thoughts on some of the many points brought up in the first part of the post:

1. Media Coverage of Tragedy

The media is great at telling scary or pitiful stories. But to say that the media focuses on issues like illiteracy, water shortages and dysentery is quite a stretch. Having spent this last weekend in a hotel that had 24-hour news channels on in the lobby, I can confidently say that, at least in America, political party infighting and Chelsea Clinton’s wedding are apparently much more important than the flooding in Pakistan, slavery on chocolate farms, the growing sex trafficking industry, or the world’s toilet crisis.

2. The Happiness of the World’s Poorest Children

I appreciate the author’s statement above about his/her time in Vietnam, and agree that simplicity and even poverty can provide blessings with which consumerism simply cannot compete.

But for every happy child he/she saw, millions more go unseen every day. Little boys haul produce and brick under a slave master’s whip. Girls as young as three are sold by their own parents into the sex trade where they are raped an estimated 1500 times a year. And, as the author points out, I as the media could go on and on.

The article mentions briefly that there are real problems in the world that need to be addressed, but points out that buying more stuff won’t address them. In general I agree. But if I’m going to drink coffee anyway, or bake a chocolate cake for my friend, it is unacceptable to do so on the backs of child slaves. Which leads me to…

3. The Motive of Guilt in Consumer Decisions

The Fairtrade movement has its fair amount of problems, including large portions of the proceeds not making it to farmers and a consumer base that does not truly care in the first place. But it is incorrect to generalize all buyers of Fairtrade products as being motivated by guilt or even marketing.

I buy Fairtrade chocolate from co-ops that have a strong record of benefiting the farming communities. But I don’t buy that chocolate out of guilt. And I don’t go out of my way to buy more of it just because it “helps someone somewhere.”

I buy it because the injustices that the almighty dollar supports around the world make me sick. It turns my stomach to think that my ice cream was made by little boys sold into slavery or that some major corporation I do business with contributes to the child sex trade in its work abroad.

If I ever do feel guilty, it is only because I know that for 25 years I ate chocolate that was made by child slaves. In my ignorance, I oppressed. I wish more people could feel guilty about such a thing, and that my conviction could be even deeper.

Marketing is often a rather evil industry: concocting desires and then turning those desires into supposed needs. Much Fairtrade marketing is certainly guilty at times of encouraging the West’s unquenchable consumerism.

But as a concerned shopper who sometimes eats chocolate, I am grateful that there are alternatives to supporting slavery and other injustices, even with the many faults of Fairtrade.

I appreciate the author’s harsh words for consumerism. We can and should work toward simpler lifestyles and better alternatives. Buying goods is still much less powerful, after all, than going into places of injustice and working to create and promote systems that protect the most vulnerable people.

And in the meantime, we can be grateful that, unlike the British abolitionists who had to give up sugar altogether, we can reduce modern slavery by instead supporting the farms that are committed to paying their laborers.

11 Responses to “Consumerism and the Marginalized”
  1. Jesse says:

    I find no problem with the fact that the FairTrade label exists, but there is a huge problem in thinking that it will solve any of these problems. I equate it to the “Organic” label, that attempts to tell us that its foods are healthier, but per popular discussion, many people realize that “Organic” foods are not automatically the healthier choice for you, but are instead an advertising ploy to charge you more. (I am not saying that all Organic foods are unhealthy or the worse choice)

    Americans often become desensitized to simple labels added to foods. Not only that, we distrust the corporations, farms, and vendors that use such labels, mostly because we know of or have heard rumors of abuses from other labels.

    Whenever money is involved, you can bet that someone tries to abuse the system to simply get rich. That is why laws and regulations are necessary. But how do we know that the laws are enforced, especially when they apply to corporations that exist in other countries outside of our jurisdiction?

    I think it is more important to spotlight corporations that are doing the right thing rather than lump-summing all corporations that operate underneath the “FairTrade” label as good.

    • Joanna Miller says:

      You make a really good point – spotlighting particular corporations that are doing well seems much more effective than just trusting a label. A great example is Ugly Mug Coffee. We did a write-up on them in the spring. They blend some fair trade and organic coffee into their batch, and they do have one fair trade labeled coffee. But for the most part they take the proceeds that would go to the fair trade bureaucracy and put it into their own farm partnerships. The organization actually goes down to the farms for service trips on a regular basis and can report back to their customers with pictures and film evidence of the good being done. Not many CEOs can claim that, fair trade or not.

  2. Ethics Girls says:

    re:”I equate it to the “Organic” label, that attempts to tell us that its foods are healthier, but per popular discussion, many people realize that “Organic” foods are not automatically the healthier choice for you, but are instead an advertising ploy to charge you more. (I am not saying that all Organic foods are unhealthy or the worse choice)”
    the organic movement never began as a “healthy” option for humans – the begins of this movement were for a more holitic approach to farming & actually how you treat the soil. In supporting organics, you are supporting an sustainable approach to farming that is actually using less oil, so will be the one to watch in our transition through Peak Oil. Also its a healthy option for the agricultural workers – things like bananas, cotton & tea use a heavy amount of chemicals in conventional farming – if you want to pick tea in between 4ft high tea bushes sprayed with chemicals thats fine but should you expect someone else to do that. I think organics in the media has been mis represented – it is about a whole approach in the supply chain not just about what it means for the consumer.

    re: fairtrade – i dont think the movement would as a whole claim this is the answer – its just less bad for the farmers in the conventional markets. the label is connected to the product & not the company. The supply chains are rigorously check as any other label. As a consumer it is definitely important to check out the companies that are behind the brands. My guess is that its just difficult for all of us to know what the right thing to do is – i think its a mix of things. You might not like the big companies such as nestle – but we cant really argue with the fact that in changing all their kit kats over to fair trade will make a significant volume increase to fairtrade farmers. so do you boycott them for their issues of baby milk in africa or do we buy their kit kats – that is the question?!!!

  3. Darrell says:

    Isn’t the decision to use or not use Fair trade a personal statement rather than a realistic effort to change the world. Perhaps it won’t change the world, but just maybe it will change me.

    Now, as to all the happy children in countries often thought of as poor, most of my experience with them has been connected to war, but even then I saw some who were resilient and optomistic. On the way up if you will.

    Western civilization has changed course in the last 5 or 6 decades from the trancendent individual to the common good, or communitarian approach. Of course the common good is always defined by those in power. We once had a consensus of morals and values in the West. Yes, I know whose morals, whose values? Well, that’s what I mean by consensus. We have traded that for a heartless, soulless, valueless, morally bankrupt society. To me, not a very good bargain. It’s all been intentional of course, but that’s for another day.

  4. Michael says:

    This is a great article and I think you are right to make the comment on guilt. Perhaps it is wrong to appeal to guilt in order to motivate people to do what is right. If our actions change because of guilt we are no more liberated inwardly, nor to we become better people.

    However, hasn’t guilt and shame done us much good? I would argue that the reason why many people in the west enjoy such relative peace and security is not because everyone goes around loving each other. (That is truly supernatural when it happens) But its also not just because of laws and law enforcement (If that were the case there would be armed police officers or citizens around every corner protecting everyone all the time). The reason we are often so safe, perhaps, is because many people would feel an intense shame or guilt over harming another person. Or perhaps it would ruin their pride in “being a person who doesn’t do things like that”. Either way it’s an ugly motive.

    Then again, the fear of getting caught and punished does help a lot also.

  5. Toxic Max says:

    This guys says it better than I wrote it:

    • Joanna Miller says:

      Thanks Max. Fascinating. I’ll put this up tomorrow for people who don’t see it today in the comments.

  6. Chad Mitchell says:

    This was my favorite one so far. Thx!!

  7. Mary says:

    After our class on Faith and Justice, I wanted to approach our church about beginning to serve Fair Trade products.

    I just don’t know where to start, and am pretty tired and busy right now.

    Any suggestions?

    • Joanna says:

      I’d recommend starting by contacting Equal Exchange’s Interfaith Program. They could give you a quote on their products, which include coffee, tea and cocoa. They offer wholesale prices to faith-based organizations.

      New Life partners with either Equal Exchange or another group like Pura Vida, I can’t remember. They’d be good to get in touch with for info on pricing and how to get started in general.

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