I’ve been contemplating buying an orange t-shirt all week.
Spring has finally arrived in full force in Milwaukee (or at least, spring has arrived for two consecutive days) and the warm temperatures have me itching to ditch my grey woolen sweaters for all things cottony and colorful.
I go back and forth in my head:
“You need a t-shirt! Just go buy a tee, Old Navy is right down the street from your office!”
“Noooooo, you don’t NEED a t-shirt, you WANT a t-shirt. Get a grip, Westra. If you absolutely must indulge, order from Sudara, don’t just go to Old Navy.”
“But, I really could use an orange t-shirt AND a white t-shirt because my one from last summer has a stain on it…and…why does this even matter? It’s just a t-shirt!”
Ethical consumption. The struggle is real. I get it.
Somedays are better than others. Days when I need new jeans are the worst, because it’s already hard enough to find pants that fit well, and ethically made too? I just don’t even think I can handle it.
So why bother at all? It’s inevitable that we, as consumers, will purchase goods brought to us by slave labor and unethical trade at some point, so why care make an effort to invest in fair trade at all?
When I come to that impasse within myself (and it happens quite often) I think about starfish.
You may have heard the story. A person walking along a beach, thousands upon thousands of starfish washed ashore around them. And stopping every few steps the person tosses a starfish back into the ocean. Eventually, they meet another person who shakes their head and wonders why the starfish-tosser is making an effort at all, “you won’t make a difference at all.”
But the starfish-tosser knows the deeper truth, that though they may not be able to throw all the starfish back into the sea, they have made a difference for the few they have thrown back in.
There is inevitably going to be slavery and suffering and exploitation in the world. People are broken and greedy and we do terrible things to one another because of that. However, just because some broken, greedy people are out there setting up systems of consumption that exploit the poor and vulnerable doesn’t mean I should just mindlessly participate in their system.
Fair trade matters not because it’s changing the entirety of the clothing/jewelry/coffee/etc. industry, but because it makes a profound difference in the lives of those people whom it does help.
Purchasing fair trade chocolate instead of a Snickers bar may just seem like an annoying, insignificant choice, but for the child who is able to attend school instead of harvest cocoa beans in The Ivory Coast it’s life changing.
Purchasing fair trade coffee may seem like you’re just paying an extra couple of dollars for your daily caffeine fix, but for Rwandan farmers, it’s providing opportunities not only for financial development but for relationships utterly destroyed in the genocides to find nothing short of resurrection.
Picking up a funky beaded bracelet as a gift for your mom, or sister, or friend may seem like a small choice, but for the mother in Haiti who has the opportunity to raise her child rather than give them up for adoption due to poverty, it changes her whole life.
Fair trade matters because there are always people behind our products, and just because you can’t help all the people or overhaul the whole system doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help the few people you are able to help.
Additionally, fair trade enterprises offer entire communities hope and resources in ways charities and relief organizations do not. Rather than providing a single family or child with education or chickens or food, companies who invest in creating opportunities for business according to fair trade standards bring sustainable wages so people can purchase or plant food, they bring access to health care, education for children, holistic development in the community.
While charities provide important emergency relief, creating business and industry can actually lift a community out of poverty altogether and make the community self-sustaining.
When you make the choice to go fair trade, you dollars make so much more impact than just lining the pocket of a corporate CEO, they develop communities, keep families together, give children access to education, and so much more.
Like a pebble dropped on a lake, the impact seems small but the ripples reach far and wide.
And maybe, just maybe, that makes it worth the extra dollar per cup of coffee…or holding off on that orange tee shirt.
My fair trade look of the week:
Dress: Thrifted, vintage
Earrings: Inverted Capiz Earrings, Trades of Hope
Scarf: Nepali Aqua Scarf, Trades of Hope
Bracelets: Offer Hope Cuff and Haiti Signature Bracelet, Trades of Hope