Fair trade update: The red pill.

A couple weeks ago I decided to dig into this issue of fair trade.

First, I emailed Bjorn and Liana from SweatFree Communities and was delighted to post her gracious, informative response.

In my quest for answers, I also stumbled upon Ethix Merch, which according to their website "creates custom-printed merchandise, made with respect for people and the planet." I was interested.

I found their list of team members and after reading a bit about Aria, I knew I wanted to pick her brain.

I was a bit nervous. She seemed like the poster girl for fair trade and here I am, just wondering is it okay to shop at Target? Can I still ask for Gap gift cards? What in the world is a girl like me supposed to do next?!

And guess what? She wrote back! Not only did she respond, she really dove into my questions and gave me straight-up, honest answers. I enjoyed the information she provided (who knew to differentiate between union made or worker cooperative when thinking fair trade?! Not this girl.), but even more, I truly appreciated her heart and her perspective. I really resonated with her caution to be full of grace towards other and to keep from letting An Issue cloud my view of others. What great advice!

Check out her response below. I think you'll love her refreshing, approachable attitude. And if you're like me, you'll wish you were friends with her. (ALSO, as a total aside, I noticed that Aria's Solidarity Exchange program supports Ben and Jerry's ice cream! Ummm...another reason to eat ice cream?! I can get into this.)

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Hi Sara,
Thank you for writing to me, asking these questions, and caring! Kevin, my co-worker and the co-founder of Ethix, would say that you have clearly "taken the red pill" (a reference to the Matrix movie). In other words, you have awareness about the abuses of our current supply chains and you will never, ever be able to make another purchase without wondering how an item came to be made. Fortunately you are not alone! There are many people all over the world working to improve working conditions, environmental standards, and all around rethink the status quo.

I've enjoyed your blog immensely, especially your honest and open style. If I made time to keep a personal blog I like to imagine I would have a similar tone :) I was happy to see Liana's reply and tons of great links! She is definitely a movement leader to pay attention to, (and we're excited to have an interview with her up on our blog in a couple days!). Sorry I have had a lot on my plate and wanted to make sure I had time to think through my response to the issues you raise.

First, I think it's so important to recognize everyone has such unique experiences in coming to the point of "taking the red pill" (to use Kevin's analogy). While I might have had the opportunities to organize outrageous protests and still enjoy marches and the like, I think it's extremely dangerous to take a judgmental attitude that this is somehow better than someone who shops at Walmart because they have had a different life, (though honestly this is definitely something I sometimes struggle with). My sense is that you are very aware of not wanting to come across harshly because you know it's impossible to be "perfect" in an objective sense of the word. This is a rare gift, because I think it allows your views to be heard by people who might often be brushed off by other activists.

That said, I highly doubt I would find your story "boring" - I would actually love to hear more about what first sparked your interest in sweatshops. I only know one other person from Kansas. Her and I worked at a fair trade clothing company in Chicago, and she was in tuned with the issues having studied fashion design there. I'm also really interested in how YOU make decisions as another newly married, 25-year old on a very slim budget :)

Second, here are some initial points as I think about your questions. You'll see that it mirrors the criteria we use for Ethix products more or less:
-I buy union made, or worker-cooperative made whenever possible, because I think this is the best system currently to know real worker empowerment is accessible.
-I buy local products as much as possible. Sometimes this means just "Made in the USA" because there's a better chance labor laws were upheld, but mainly because I know this reduces shipping distances and energy/CO2. Sometimes this means local food from a CSA farmer or farmstand, or food from a local restaurant instead of a chain.
-I buy organic or recycled items whenever possible, and I also try
not to shop (it helps to have a long decision making process to slow you down!). The Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity's Restore are my most frequented spots for household items (they are also luckily in my neighborhood so I'm not driving way out to the shopping mall).
-I buy fair trade when I need things that can't be produced locally- and I try to think beyond the certification to find companies practicing "direct trade" with farmers.
---I also try to consider animals with my purchases- so hormone free dairy, meat from a local farm where I can go see the cows grazing, and very few animal products in general. I haven't purchased leather or fur or down in a very long time. Lots of my friends are vegan, but I'm comfortable with a diet that includes meat for now because my body feels healthier with the protein/fats and less gluten.

I know that some items I purchase will not fit into any of these categories. For example, we recently purchased a house and needed to insulate the attic. I really wanted to hire a local company that used recycled newspaper cellulose that's made an hour away. We were trying to borrow money from a community loan program to complete the project, but it was taking a long time for all the pieces to come together. My dad visited for the holidays and suggested he and my partner take on the project by purchasing cellulose from Home Depot. I felt badly not giving the business to a cool local company and spending money instead at a big box store. I was disappointed the cellulose wasn't made in Mass, though it was made domestically. But doing it ourselves saved about $3,000, and it's done! We're using less gas now to heat our home- and that's awesome. But if someone developed criteria for the "most ethical" choice we should have made in the situation, it very well could have been to wait, borrow the money, and do it more locally...

But we're always going to face these challenging decisions, now that we realize our impact. The best you can do is gather as much information before the deadline for your purchase, and then in some ways I just go with my gut, for whatever that is worth. Sometimes my gut says that I should get a box of Good and Plenty’s - which are anything but ethically made or GOOD for me - but I just eat them and move on :S Maybe soon I'll start a licorice company to sustain my habit in a better way?

I hope this helps give a little insight into my process! And I look forward to continuing a conversation. Please call anytime to chat.

Oh and one last thing- I hope you will consider being a part of our affiliate program, Solidarity eXchange. You can learn more at www.solidarityexchange.com; setting this up is why I first was hired at Ethix, and it's an easy way to help us spread the word so more people have access to ethical products.

take care,

* * * * *
p.s. I know I've been throwing a lot of (awesome!) information at you lately. Next, I'll look further into some resources both Liana and Aria mentioned and report back. Over and out.


Austin & Terri said...

I am thoroughly impressed at these responses you've gotten. Not that I don't think you're amazing, because I DO, but I can see how much they (and you) truly care. Love you friend!

eis271828 said...

Hi Sara,

Thanks for these, and all your other, posts. They've been a joy to read the past couple of months. In addition to praise, I just wanted to make sure Aria was fine with her phone number being included for the world to see... =)

Sara said...

Terri--I know! Isn't it so encouraging? It's been the best way to continue this conversation.

eis--oh a million thanks! It is her business phone # (available freely online) but I removed it anyway. Transparency can be so tricky. ;) Thank you for catching that!