Monday, June 29, 2009

Something about economics

Recently, I was hired as a part-time Sales Associate at Ten Thousand Villages, in Brookline, MA. The store is located about 5 miles from home, although the bus commute can take about 25 minutes on a good day and closer to an hour or more on other days.

Before I moved to Boston, a wise professor and friend encouraged me to do two things once I moved into Dorchester: get a job within walking distance of home and spend almost all of my money in my immediate neighborhood, a place that would clearly benefit from some financial investment -- and where my money would have an immediate impact on the well-being of my neighbors, who own, operate, work at, or shop at the surrounding businesses.

Now, I find myself waking up around 7:30 AM most days and donning reasonably nice khakis and polos (okay, they're thrifted... from a shop 6 miles away in a neighborhood that is Boston's version of Fishtown) or gifts from Mom (made by sweatshop labor and sold at bargain basement prices by Kohl's), and shoes to match. By 8:30 or shortly thereafter I am on the 15 or 41 Bus and driving down the thriving main drag through the hood, Dudley Street, until I get to the station and switch to the 66 Bus. The 66 is my ticket to Oz, where I am daily reminded that we are definitely not in Kansas anymore - rather, we have crossed Roxbury, drifted through Mission Hill with the blink of an eye, and find ourselves in Brookline: the home of clean streets, parking meters, nice restaraunts, a Stop and Shop and Trader Joe's within a mile of each other, and all of the comforts of a cozy downtown. Most of the people are vaguely aware that there is a land on other side of that gray area we call Mission Hill, but few mention it. Conversations about my neighborhood make it sound as though its as far removed from Brookline as my neighborhood in New Hampshire is.

But, my trip to Brookline is redeemed by the 4-6 hours I spent advancing the cause of Fair Trade economic principles by working for 10,000 Villages, right? After all, the people that come in are mostly of middle- to high-class socio-economic standing and some of them can afford to drop over $1,000 a day on a handful of items. One says, "After all, I'm supporting something good". And I can't help but think, as I say "Thanks for your purchase, and we look forward to seeing you again real soon!" with a bright smile, "Lady, you just bought a bunch of stone frogs to make your pretty, quaint little house look even cuter. And the sad thing is, you can't feel bad about, because the crap you just bought - however useless - was fairly traded". And my job description is essentially "to increase sales... so we can buy more and help more people". How is encouraging materialism in North America the right cure for the poverty of the developing world?

Clearly, the money made from these sales is helping people to have jobs - sustainable, good jobs - in places where they wouldn't have work. The marginalized women, lepers, disabled, religiously discriminated - all find a place of affirmation and encouragement in the co-operatives we work with. In a globalized world, where our next-door neighbors are connected to us just as much as those who labor in the fields and factories of El Salvador, Pakistan and Ethiopia, stepping back from fair trade buying and focusing on purchasing (or even producing) locally produced goods raises as many questions as buying products made in the worst of conditions, sold by companies practicing the most devious procedures.

So, what if we only bought 'practical' fair trade items - dishes, clothing, food products? The food product question really throws me for a loop, although it makes a whole lot more sense to me than a $300 metal figurine from Haiti (as much as I love the people from Haiti, my time there at least taught me that buying a $300 metal figurine is not the best way I can be of a positive contribution to changes in that nation). In my store, we sell coffee, tea, and chocolate - all originating, mostly, from Latin America and Africa. We also sell a cookbook called "Simply in Season", about cooking using only foods that are in season in order to cut down on exporting food from foreign countries (or even the other side of the US), due to the environmental impacts of food shipping.

Oddly, the backbone of Fair Trade is coffee -- which we don't have a choice in the United States except to import. And, oddly enough, it's an addictive substance. I need a 16-oz mug in the morning unless I've gotten 8 hours of sleep. Usually I need little bits throughout the day, too. Last year, I would get migraines at 4;00 PM sharp if I skipped my coffee dose. Are you addicted to coffee? If not, how many people do you know who can't live without it? The last time I checked, the Christian community is not supposed to be encouraging addictive behavior; yet we are proponents of the Fair Trade movement, which is arguably a pretty big drug dealer (let's skip the bullshit, folks). But it's okay, it's providing jobs to marginalized people worldwide.

Why can't we just live without those products that have to shipped hundreds or even thousands of miles? Why can't we settle for what organizations like the Food Project in Dudley are selling at their farmers' market every week? Heck, they employ people who wouldn't otherwise have jobs - and some of those people would otherwise be selling drugs (although not coffee) and/or turning to violent alternatives this summer - in my neighborhood, not someplace thousands of miles away.

Now I've raised some controversy, I want to take a step forward (in admitted hypocrisy) and wade a little bit deeper in. The level of complicity that we all have with the global economy reminds me very much of the passages in Revelation that talk about men and women taking the mark of 666 in order to participate in the day-to-day goings-on of the world around them; scholars tell us that taking the mark is not that different from a modern-day social security number, or a bank account -- the very numbers that allow us to participate in society. If we looked around at the effects of most of our economic decisions, we would see how much damage we wreak on the worlds. Our banks and most of our biggest corporations are involved in coups, environmental destruction, and all sorts of destructive practices around the globe.

They are not the harbingers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yet we continue to fill up our cars with gas, and live in all sorts of other ways that presuppose the suffering of others. If I get a socially responsible credit through Bank of America, and plan to use it to buy solely fair trade products, it's still with Bank of America. I have, in effect, taken the mark in order to feed those in distress - something John, the author of the Revelation, still criticizes and warns against. Without the marks of today, participating in an economy - even the fair trade elements of it - would be impossible; we wouldn't even be able to go get a sandwich without cash or credit in our pockets.

I have many other thoughts about Fair Trade and its implications. And, despite all of these struggles, I'll continue to push forward with my internship and my part-time job, because I want to believe another world is possible in which economies can reflect God's justice and mercy. The growing success of Fair Trade in places like Jamaica Plain, Mass., and Media, PA, might one day have an effect of considering corporate leaders to reconsider the way in which they do business - not to mention the condition of the heart behind it. And maybe we can get to a place where we are not the only ones buying the expensive art work for the sake of materialism; perhaps it comes as part of a more dimensional trade between a North American family and the family who produced the piece. What I mean is that I don't want to just buy fair trade stuff, I want to meet and eat Communion with the men, women and children who produce it!

For example: We often think of Africa as this dirty, poor, messed up place - but sleek white and pink Kenyan stonework reminds us of the richness of the culture and joy of the people. Many of us critique the United States (with sound reason at our backs), and are quick to point out our government's corruption and the materialism of our people. But I'd like to believe the same richness that allows joyful, beautiful Kenyan stonework to be crafted with delicacy and convey a beautiful message of hope and relationship is also found in some places across the United States. I'd love to get my hands dirty making a craft and being able to share its story over a meal with a Kenyan stoneworker.

Now, brothers and sisters, let's reason to together and spur one another on toward good deeds, always going deeper and pushing one another to critically wrestle with the implications of our decisions and life choices.

Thanks for your readership,
-- BC


  1. I really enjoyed this - thanks Ben. Definitely a lot to think over.

  2. Working and living in separate communities seems to be exposing you to the inherent inequities; I applaud you for your effort to learn and understand. I've got to think that buying trinkets at 10k Villages at least creates some awareness in the minds of the customers and a small change for the members of the coops that produce the items. The economics of our current trade system are complex and difficult to change. Perhaps the best way to create change is to demonstrate that change is indeed possible in an alternative market such as "Fair Trade".