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.
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.