Smile Politely

The Moral Complexity of Shopping

Suppose you are shopping for bananas and find two that are equal in every way except for price. Which banana would be the morally responsible one to buy?

This is a trick question, of course, because it is likely that one is a Chiquita banana and the other is a Dole banana, and the moral choice would be to buy neither. Both were likely harvested and packaged by workers being treated like chattel, and the profits will likely go to someone who looks a lot like Boss Hogg.

A case could be made for buying the less expensive one, in order to reduce the profit of Boss Hogg, and also to increase the amount of money in your own pocket, that you swear you will use for charity. But let’s face it, Boss Hogg will still make money, and you will probably just blow your extra money on something unnecessary, like bottled water.

But it isn’t your fault, really. Large, historical forces beyond our control conspire to remove social justice from purchasing choices. Free trade was designed for us citizens of the First World, and it tries very hard to hide the social costs of our cheap products, as well as the environmental effects of our consumption. It takes work to see the connections between our actions and their secondary effects in the wider world, and work can be a total bummer.

A simplified history of global free trade from the other side might look something like this:

• Indigenous people who live on sustenance crops are pushed off their land by war, empire, terrorism, multinational companies, local strongmen, drug lords or other bad people, or unfortunate circumstances.

• Indigenous people move from destitution to merely being poor by working at multinational companies, who can treat them like slave laborers since they have very few other options.

• Multinational companies, freed from the constraint of needing to pay workers living wages, can now make stuff incredibly cheap, and thus be very profitable.

• Multinational companies sell cheap products in the First World to enthusiastic consumers.

• Enthusiastic First World consumers now have more money than they would have, since things cost less than they should, and they are free to buy even more stuff.

• (optional) Some people in the First World feel bad that there is poverty in the world, and donate a small portion of their extra money to charity, which makes them feel good about themselves.

Some smart people in the Fair Trade movement have noticed that this is an inefficient system to help the destitute of the world. They have come up with a system they believe is better: help poor people by directly paying them fair wages for the things they produce. Sure, it’s counterintuitive from a free trade perspective, but it does have the advantage of combining social justice with shopping.

Of course, there’s a catch. When you pay people fair wages for their work, the price for their goods is higher. This may feel like apostasy to American consumers (asking them to pay more for the same product), but it does take us back to the banana decision in the store. If one banana was produced by a multinational corporation that enslaves workers, yells at children unnecessarily, and uses its profits on gambling and hookers, while the other was produced by a simple man who desires only to feed his well-behaved children, help others in his community, and spread happiness and joy in the world, an extra 20% for the banana doesn’t seem so bad.

Still, the choice isn’t usually so clear cut. Even when a Fair Trade emblem is on a product’s packaging, it is hard to see past the higher price, make the connection to social justice, and let go of the sneaking suspicion that Boss Hogg is going to find some way to make money off the transaction. How can we be sure that Fair Trade organizations really do pay fair wages, support healthy work environments, respect cultural identity and ensure environmental sustainability?

Luckily, I was recently in Colombia, and had a chance to visit Frutos De Los Andes, a fair trade producer that makes dried fruit sold in our very own Ten Thousand Villages here in Champaign. I can’t personally vouch for all Fair Trade organizations in every country in the world (although I would be happy to volunteer to tour them all), but I can say that Frutos De Los Andes did not appear to chain their workers to their stations while we were there with our cameras.

What they do instead is employ women who are heads of households who do not have much opportunity to work, and pay them 22% more than the normal wage. They also provide resources for their workers to finish their education and move up in the organization or find better paying jobs, so they are not slicing fruit their whole lives. In addition, their fruit comes from small producers who grow their fruit organically, and in environmentally sustainable ways. They also pay their suppliers within a few days of getting the fruit, instead of the standard two to three months. Also, their dried fruit is just so dang delicious.

They say that sometimes a banana is just a banana. When you see an International Fair Trade Association (IFAT) or Fair Trade Federation (FTF) emblem on a product of any kind, it is more than just a banana (or whatever it is). Aside from being a cheap sexual innuendo, it is also a way to support human dignity.

So go shop for Fair Trade products at Ten Thousand Villages, Common Ground Food Coop, and Strawberry Fields. You’ll feel better about yourself. And tap water is often healthier than bottled water anyway.

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