Doing Economic Justice

Photographs by Zack Clark of child laborers in Honduras, 1999.
Photographs by Zack Clark of child laborers in Honduras, 1999.
Would you want to buy a candy bar if you knew that the chocolate in it had been processed by slave labor? Would you want to buy a rug if you knew that it had been made by a nine year old child chained to a machine? I'm sure your answer would be, NO! We are not people who would consider profiting or benefiting from cruelty to another person. Our country has strict rules about child labor and rules enforcing humane conditions in the work place. But we are linked to hundreds of different countries through the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the other products we buy. The average American is linked to dozens of different countries every day. This means that the relationships we have through our purchasing choices extend around the world. Our choices extend even to countries where the laws may not be fair or where labor laws are simply ignored.

The Golden Rule in Action

According to Jesus, treating our neighbors as we'd like them to treat us (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:27-31) is the summary of the Law and the Prophets. It is also the core of how we should conduct all of our relationships with other people. It may be difficult to consider the conditions of the people who make our clothes or tend the fields where our food is grown, but it is a part of being a responsible adult. If we benefit from injustice or cruelty, doesn't that make us guilty of maintaining the cruelty and perpetuating the injustice? If we save money by buying a shirt or blouse made by people working in conditions so bad that they would be illegal in this country, aren't we guilty of the cruelty ourselves?

For many people becoming aware of this responsibility makes them feel there is nothing they can do without hurting someone somewhere. It tends to freeze them and make them afraid that any purchases they make are suspect.

The U.S. State Department's Year 2000 Human Rights Report concluded that some 15,000 children between the ages of 9 and 12 have been sold into forced labor on cotton, coffee, and cocoa plantations in northern Ivory Coast in recent years.

Some people also are so overwhelmed by this responsibility that they become angry. Angry at being told about the injustice and angry at being reminded that their purchasing choices have consequences. But being frozen out of action or becoming angry is not productive. It is possible little by little for people like us to make certain horrible labor practices unprofitable. If we refuse to buy products that are produced through injustice, companies will produce them in a more fair manner. Our choices can make a difference. Here are a few of the organizations that are making a difference and which give us tools to fight injustice:

Global Exchange is an organization that works to stop the selling of children into slavery on cotton, coffee and cocoa plantations. The U.S. chocolate industry, including M&M/Mars, has pledged to work towards ending child slavery by 2005. However, their plan does not guarantee fair prices for cocoa, which is the only way to ensure that slavery and poverty are brought to an end. Global Exchange is working to help people understand that poverty and slavery are related. The candy you choose can make a difference.

Fair Trade Labeling OrganizationFair Trade Labeling Organizations International is the worldwide Fairtrade Standard setting and Certification organization. It permits more than 800,000 producers and their dependents in more than 40 countries to benefit from the sale of products labeled Fairtrade. FLO guarantees that products sold anywhere in the world with a Fairtrade label marketed by a National Initiative conforms to Fairtrade Standards and contributes to the development of disadvantaged producers.

Rugmark LogoRugmark is a global nonprofit organization working to end illegal child labor in the carpet industry and offer educational opportunities to children in India, Nepal, and Pakistan. It does this through loom and factory monitoring, consumer labeling, and running schools for former child workers.

Rugmark recruits carpet producers and importers to make and sell carpets that are free of illegal child labor. By agreeing to adhere to Rugmark's strict no child labor guidelines, and by permitting random inspections of carpet looms, manufacturers receive the right to put the Rugmark label on their carpets. The label provides the best possible assurance that children were not employed in the making of a rug. It also verifies that a portion of the carpet price is contributed to the rehabilitation and education of former child weavers.

Serrv International is a non-profit organization which promotes the social and economic progress of people in developing regions of the world by purchasing and marketing their crafts in a just and direct manner. It was founded by the Church of the Brethren in 1948 and still tends to work through religious institutions.

Sweat Free Communities are networks for local action against sweatshops. Most clothing and footwear sold in the U.S. are made under highly abusive conditions. Workers in these factories earn poverty wages for long hours of work while being denied the right to freely form or join unions. In recent years, students, faith-based communities, trade unionists and others have worked to clean up these industries, often partnering with the sweatshop workers themselves.

Transfair USA LogoTransfair USA The Fair Trade Certified label guarantees that farmers and workers received a fair price for their product. The Fair Trade price means that farmers can feed their families and that their children can go to school instead of working in the fields.

By receiving a fair price, Fair Trade producers can avoid cost-cutting practices that sacrifice quality. The Fair Trade producers' traditional farming methods result in exceptional products.

Most Fair Trade Certified coffee, tea, and chocolate in the US is certified organic and shade grown. This means that the products you buy maintain biodiversity, provide shelter for migratory birds and help reduce global warming.

What Can We Do?

The first thing that we need to do is to become aware of how we are connected with persons and business around the world. We'll do that by compiling a list of the products we have in our homes now that are from other countries. You may also begin a diary of where the food you eat comes from. Below is an inventory form to get you started.

Printable Inventory Form This is an Adobe Acrobat pdf document.

What issues did your purchases raise? Since we usually can't tell what country our gasoline comes from and we often can't tell where all of our fresh produce comes from, what can we do to make sure that our choices are not causing harm? How can we be more aware of the results of our actions?

I suggest you browse through the the websites of the organizations trying to work for economic justice mentioned above and use them to help you make informed decisions about your purchases.

The issues that need to be addressed in all of our purchases are

  • worker rights and safety: How does the purchase of this product reward companies with regards to how they respect and protect their workers?
  • environmental concerns: How does this purchase or the eventual disposal of this product threaten the environment over which God has made us stewards?
  • sustainable development: Did the production of this product use resources in a way that can be sustained or does this product create problems we're dumping on future generations?

For Further Study

The Fair Trade Federation
Oxfam international
Ecological Footprint Calculator