THE BLOG
01/03/2014 09:45 am ET Updated Feb 25, 2014

Shopping Free or Slave? Nelson Mandela and Freedom as a Choice

This holiday season, I am wondering if it is possible to feel good about the workers in our "free trade" world. I was picked up and driven to the train by an Albanian taxi driver, and I asked him what it was like there nowadays. "It's like everywhere..." he said, generalizing a bit.

"No," I replied, "but is it better than it was under communism?"

He paused and stared at me in the rearview mirror before answering, as if to check out if I was an undercover agent: "For some better, for some worse... depends... You would be thrown in jail for saying '[screw] the President!' back then. Now you can say what you want." He paused again then turned the tables, staring at me, "Can you say: '[screw] the President!' here?... Not really."

I was reminded of Solzhenitsyn's famous address to the graduating class at Harvard with his shockingly ungrateful attitude to America after being granted asylum from Soviet Russia. In short, he felt freer as a prisoner in the Gulag than he did here, trapped by public opinion.

Watching the movie 12 Years a Slave recently put some perspective on that. Actual slavery, with all its horrific physical and mental abuse, cannot be compared to the intellectual limits, subtly imposed by the media and society. Nevertheless, I tend to believe that true freedom is only found within, no matter what your circumstances.

My thoughts moved to the death of Mandela and his legacy relating to freedom, when the taxi driver started telling me a story to explain his ambivalence to the capitalist dream: "So when I lived in Italy for a while, I had a friend who was stealing every day, and I warned him to stop before he gets put in jail! He said, 'Why? You want me to work eight hours a day for $50? If they catch me, I get a free room and board for awhile!'"

I was reminded of the McDonalds workers on strike for living wages and the Swiss referendum to stop bitty welfare programs, and just give everyone a "basic wage" whether they work, can't work or choose not to work. What if work were something you did because you wanted to -- a free deed? He interrupted my thoughts: "I made $17 since 5 a.m., you think I will become a millionaire in America? No way! But I work so my daughter can go to college, and maybe she won't have to suffer like me!"

I guess this is as close to a "free" deed as it gets: He works for his daughter. This freedom is internal -- it is a choice not to give up and to work for someone besides yourself.

Nelson Mandela surely asserted himself on Robben Island, confined all those years. His rigorous self-discipline kept him in shape: body, soul and spirit -- so that he emerged like a coiled spring, held back and then released with that calm smile that exuded peace and confidence around the world. He developed his capacity to lead within himself as a free choice.

It is our free choice to express ourselves, even in the way we shop for presents or, if we are so fortunate, through your investments. The story of seven Chinese slave-workers caught in a fire may again shock us awake, like the collapse of factories in Bangladesh. These fine craftspeople that died are among many thousands stranded in Italy and elsewhere, making high fashion clothing for the wealthy. Perhaps ignorance is bliss, but it is hard to avoid knowing.

Companies like Indigenous Design, on the other hand are setting aim-high goals for fairness, in their case supporting workers in Peru and Ecuador with living wages. One day consumers will decide to freely choose fair trade products, and another day, investors will follow suit.

Freedom may begin with an internal shift of attitude, even for those enslaved, but as brothers and sisters, when we begin to shop and invest with our conscience, we will all feel more free and at peace.