07/15/2012 10:55 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Scaling Fair Trade


I have often wondered about the scalability of fair trade. It all boils down to how much the consumer is willing sacrifice and pay. Are consumers willing to pay a few more dollars so that workers can have fair wage? Are corporations willing to make a little less money for their stockholders so that workers can have a lunch break? Consumers have a lot of power to dictate how corporations behave, but they often behave selfishly. However, encounters with two different groups have given me cause for hope.

I recently took part in the World Day of Prayer in New York City. One hundred and seventy women from more than 170 countries had gathered together for a week of prayer and action. Rosangelica Oliveira, executive director says, "We want to broaden our knowledge of migration and justice in different local contexts so we can create a response in both our prayer and our action."

After praying together, the women separated into groups of, with each group visiting different nonprofit organization in the city. I was part of a group that visited the National Mobilization against Sweatshops (NMASS). NMASS organizes workers -- native born and immigrant, documented and undocumented, from all backgrounds, to protest against sweatshop conditions. The group that visited them included women from Japan, Guyana, Slovakia, Romania, Scotland, Germany, England, Costa Rica, Papa New Guinea, and the Marhsall Islands.

At NMASS, many of the women were shocked to discover that there were severely exploitive labor conditions in the United States, the land of the free and the home of the brave. In New York City, it is common to see delivery men and women pedaling the streets with food deliveries. At NMASS, the women were shocked to learn that in a recent case in the city, a bicycle deliveryman was being paid $1.25 per hour. In addition to absurdly low pay, deliverymen and women are subject to dangerous working conditions--like driving against a current of careless taxi drivers and exposure to high levels of air pollution from auto emissions.

Our group at NMASS learned about the "Ain't I a Woman!?" campaign. Last year, at a plastics packaging plant in Kearny, N.J., out of a total of 70 workers, 41 were fired for attempting to organize. Almost all of the workers are women, with most of them being Chinese or Latina. They were attempting to organize in order to protest inhuman working conditions -- forced 12-hour days, no sick days, and no bathroom breaks. Most of the workers were women. The plant belongs to the Pactiv Corporation, which is a subsidiary of the Reynolds Group, maker of Reynolds Wrap foil. All of the World Day of Prayer women signed a petition about the Reynolds case. At the end of their visit, the women presented NMASS with a check to bolster their programs.

New York City Urban Project (NYCUP) is a social justice initiative for college students. It is one of the catalytic programs of the nationwide, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. A group of students from NYCUP have been taking baby steps in getting involved in purchasing fair trade and other goods that are made free of slave labor. They have committed to eating only fair trade chocolate, sugar, and coffee for the duration of their summer internship. The International Labor Organization estimates that 20.9 million people are trapped in forced labor worldwide. Approximately 215 million children are working as child labors, of these, 115 million participate in hazardous labor. Most, if not all of the products we consume on a daily basis; such as cocoa, coffee, and sugar are tainted by forced and/or child labor. These shocking facts have caused many of the students to decide to continue their commitment to fair trade after their internships. The common though among all of the students is that every human being is entitled to dignified work. Here's what several NYCUP participants had to say:

"The Gospel calls us away from unbridled consumption to grace-filled stewardship that invests in the freedom of people and not their exploitation. Coffee, sugar, and chocolate are NOT needs. And we want freedom more than we caffeine." - Jonathan Walton

"Our non-essential consumption choices are one of very few areas in our life that affect the world around us by investing into markets while remaining completely within our control. Choosing to buy coffee, sugar, or chocolate that is not slave-free isn't simply illogical, it's irresponsible." - Eddie Knight

"May God grant you enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world. Even though right now only few of us choose slave-free products over greed, it will spread. Sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ started with twelve men. The truth is that God's great design for us has been tainted by our sinful ambition. I don't want to be part of the problem, but the resolution." - Adri Garcia

"People have more power than we think. Every day we are voting for or against exploitation with the purchases of goods that are unnecessary to sustain life. When we give in to our pleasures, self-interests, and convenience, we are endorsing exploitation, slavery, and unequal rights. If we choose to purchase only fair trade goods, we can change consumer demand and affect unfair production all over the world. For me, it's simple. Every day I am voting, and every day I vote against." - Caleb Evington

"We are not called to be perfect. We are called to be obedient. As much as I would like to never buy anything that adds to exploitation of the people who we are all called to love, I don't know how to yet. Buyer awareness not only helps us 'vote' for a change in the market, but it is a reminder of the injustices that are in this world so we can pray. God won't change the world BECAUSE we are giving this up, but as His children, we can be a part of the means of HOW He ends it."
- Lauren Pszonak

My experiences with the World Day of Prayer and NYCUP tell me that fair trade is scalable. Once people come to know the reality of exploitive labor conditions, they become willing to make small sacrifices with their pocket books by either purchasing fair trade goods or making donations to support a world without slavery. I believe that over time, more and more students will catch on and begin making sacrifices so that children around the world can be freed from slavery.