We found ourselves on a Fair Trade vineyard near Stellenbosh in South Africa. A worker came to tell us of the many advantages Fair Trade had brought. They had bought their own land and indeed some of the vineyard. Their children got education right through to University and there was also education available for them. But there was more…moments later and just a few hundred yards away we were standing by a fence in their village. On their side of that fence were beautifully painted houses and carefully groomed gardens. There was a little school and a play area. There was colour and beauty and all of that freedom and ownership we had just heard about was bursting with life. But on the other side of the fence…was the neighbouring vineyard. There was literally the thinnest breadth of wire dividing. And on that other side there was dirty, faded, paint peeling houses. There were rough dust and dirt paths between them. There was no colour, no energy, no pride and no sense of hopefulness.
It was a stark contrast. It was the most challenging piece of land I had ever stood upon. The choice was clear and stark. Buy into one side of the fence and there is a sense of care and justice for the workers. Buy into the other and there is simply exploitation, disregard and neglect of workers and their children. When my students stand in their local Co-op to buy coffee, sugar, tea, chocolate or whatever they now know they now have a visual aid to help them decide what products to buy. Their decisions have suddenly become a whole lot bigger and a whole lot clearer. There is a thin line between justice and oppression and we stood right at the sharpest part of the fence. Which side will we be investing in? What side of the fence best describes the redemption of heaven? Which side is God most thrilled with? What does it mean in our everyday shopping for us to bring God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?
God advises his people constantly about the dangers of wealth becoming a greed that distracts from more eternal. In Isaiah 3 he sits in judgement on the rich using and abusing the poor for their own decadent comforts, “it is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” Ezekiel tells Israel what her sister Sodom’s sin was, “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” The rich/poor divide in our world is something God ranted has about for thousands of years. It is not his way and it doesn’t happen in heaven; a heaven we pray in the Lord’s Prayer will come to earth.
In the book edition of How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, U2 front man and political activist Bono spells it out, “Shopping is politics. You vote every time you spend money.” He points out that of course trade is good BUT only when it is fair. The Hewson (Bono’s real surname) family are not just talking about trading fairly. Bono’s wife Ali has just launched a Fair Trade fashion line. Edun is a partnership between Ali’s vision of world revolution through what people wear and New Yorker Rogan Gregory’s fashion designs. Street fashion with a story that doesn’t make us guilty of greedy exploitation and a style that is deeper than the outward appearance. So Ali in recent interviews echoes her husband, who I suspect might be echoing her all along, “The revolution is happening in your house, in your purse, in your wallet, how you spend your money...Shopping is politics."
We could wrestle in cerebral and spiritual discussion about these things for some time. It is scandalous that in trying to switch America on to justice issues like debt relief, HIV/AIDS and trade issues both Bono and Ali have had to prove what advantage it would be to America rather than the good idea of ridding the world of poverty, injustice and millions of senseless deaths. In Making Poverty History Bono has been showing how good it would be to America’s security as well as the advantages for trade. In the concept of Edun one of the aims is to prove that it can be profitable so that other companies, whose bottom line is greedily increasing profits, might see the benefits. This is the vomit of the modern malaise of selfishly getting more with no moral or ethical conscience to give. In the end though where Ali in particular and Fair Trade in general hit the nail on the head is in every day actions, not in the intellectual ether.
For Ali there is a dilemma. As a mother she doesn’t want to think that another mother’s child was exploited in making her children’s clothes. She doesn’t want to think that she or her children wear the stories of injustice. Companies who leave factories and the souls of their workers desolate to set up elsewhere in order to save a few cents per t-shirt is not a story that she wants her children to be wearing. Clothes that say we in the west walked over the poor to feed our greed might look good but they should feel bad. The whole of Africa had 6% of world trade in 1980 and by 2002 that had dropped to 2%. To increase Africa’s trade possibilities and give jobs to the people of that continent is a more lasting way to make poverty history than debt relief and charity though we should never give up on those. African writer Ben Okri wrote, “Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals live by and tell themselves and you change the individuals and nations.” Wearing clothes with positive and life changing stories could be infectious.
The United Kingdom have been trail blazing in the Fair Trade market. There was a 50% increase in sales last year alone with sales topping £140m for 2004. The number of Fair Trade certified products rose from 150 in 2003 to 834. Café Direct the Fair Trade marked coffee has now 19% of the gourmet coffee market. It is only a decade since charities like Christian Aid encouraged people to campaign in their local supermarkets to have Fair Trade coffee on the shelves. It seemed such a small token of activism and yet today all major chains carry various Fair Trade products and the Co-op’s own chocolate brand for example is totally Fair Trade.
In the UK there are no excuses. The stories in your shopping bags (environmentally friendly of course!) can be intravenously purifying the blood of the nation’s soul never mind your own. There is no need to go to Africa or central America to change the world. That is good news and bad. The good is that we can all do something today. Making your impression can be tangible. It also means that there are responsibilities and no chance of hiding your head in the sand. To not make decisions about changing what and why we buy is making a decision to keep the poor, poor. To make poverty history is within the grasp of this generation. As Bono said at the Labour Party Conference back in November, ““We are the first generation that can look extreme and stupid poverty in the eye, look across the water to Africa and elsewhere and say this and mean it: we have the cash, we have the drugs, we have the science -- but do we have the will? Do we have the will to make poverty history?” Do we? And do the American people have the bravery to do what the UK has done so far and put Fair Trade on the map of the land of the free.