Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Something about economics (revised)

So, for those of you whom I've met recently, or for those of you who just might have missed something over a number of years together, I'm not necessarily a person of strong tact. The tact I do have is not only weak, but also in short supply. I've been advised that my last blog post, while impassioned, could also be perceived as judgmental, condescending, and the like. I want to preface this revised by post stating that my intention is to only to share my own questions, concerns and struggles with the issues I am wrapped up in and seek advice, response, and critique. In that light, I encourage you to read this revision and note that the original post is still intact and dated June 29, 2009.

Something about economics (revised 7/1/2009)

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 clothes I would prefer not to be caught dead in: khakis and polos from Boomerang Thrift in Jamaica Plain or gifts from Mom that she found on the sales rack at Kohl's. 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 restaurants, 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 by working for 10,000 Villages, right? Working here, while living in Dorchester, is a complicated, messy situation. Although all of our items are fairly traded and made using environmentally sustainable practices, I can't help but see that they are most decorative, impractical luxuries that the people I live near can even think about buying, let alone afford to. And my job description is essentially "to increase sales... so we can buy more and help more people". Our business model even suggests that encouraging materialistic practices (see more on this shortly) is the cure for reducing global poverty. That's a hard practice for me to buy into (but I literally have, haven't I?), and I have to hope that there is something beyond Fair Trade as a cure for the world's ills.

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. 10,000 Villages is somewhat of a gem in the midst of a field of horse poo; you can't walk into our store without a salesperson explaining the vision behind what we do and why it's important.

I would encourage people to shop at a place like 10,000 Villages under particular circumstances. Many of us, or our friends, are getting married. Perhaps setting up a registry with a shop like this is a wise choice; people can buy a new couple all sorts of nice things for their house, that aren't made in sweatshops somewhere, and maybe in navigating the registry web site they'll learn a little about Fair Trade and think about the implications of their other economic habits. It's also a wonderful place to buy birthday cards and plenty of practical thing.

Prompted by comments below, I've re-edited this portion of the post (for a second time) on 7/5/2009. But when it comes to the excesses I see go on under our roof, I have all sorts of questions racing through my brain. Recently, a woman purchased $900 worth of goods. She couldn't carry it all! When she came back for the rest, she decided there was $300 more that she couldn't live without. In two days, she dropped $1,200 on our store because she didn't know to say "No". I don't know where she spent the rest of her money. I don't know if she has the cash on hand to make purchases like this on a regular basis, or if it's driving up her debt. Initially, on this blog, I voiced a desire for her to spend that money other places. But, the truth be told, she might have done that very thing! I think my frustration, grounded in pure assumption, was dangerous and misplaced. I am still very concerned over our company's marketing strategies, which fit into an overall economic model that seems to manipulate consumers into saying "Yes" when in fact they could be saying "No" or "I'd rather send my money in a different direction". The customer in question affirmed our store's vision and respected -- even loved -- the way in which we work. But she also couldn't say "No", and our job is to take that momentum and fuel it, to generate more sales. The fact that she could not say "No" bothers me; and the fact that we encouraged her to keep saying yes bothers me even more. However, the fact that she came into our store and loved our program and vision was a huge encouragement. So, it's tricky, to say the least.

With that in mind, my thoughts about economic structure muddy the water even more. And this is where things sound really controversial, so please just bear with me and consider where I am at and what I am wrestling with. 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 card account 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.

Yet, at the same time, we live in a society in which we are permitted some level of economic participation, albeit on the terms of those who control the system itself. However, we are learning that we, as consumers, also have some measure of control with our purchasing power. If enough people insist on Fair Trade options in stores, and put in the hard work of making those options a reality, they can be there. And if enough people make a convincing case for the Gospel and against materialism, hearts and lives can be changed. While the Revelation of John suggests difficult things about our economic place, it also encourages us to live faithfully in light of the fact that, at the culmination of everything, Christ is King and will sit on His throne. The Gospel message commends us to live in the light of His Kingship today, and maybe a part of that is making responsible decisions about where and how we spend our money in a world where fair and unfair are both options.

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. What you have hit upon is... touchy to say the least. All this has been percolating through my brain for the last six months or so (ever since the Simple Living forum). Needless to say, that forum challenged a good many things I thought I knew and turned many of my ideals to mush. It was one of the best things that could happen to me.

    Ultimately, what I've discovered is that we're screwed. Damned if you do, damned if you don't concept. This economic system that we have created has become possessed and enslaved us, and yet we still think we control it. But that's a side note.

    The application I have come to is threefold. 1. Live simply. Buy only what you need. 2. Buy local when possible. Stuff like coffee or shoes or computers can't realistically be produced locally, but food and other stuff can. Even with stuff like coffee, shoes, and computers, you can usually find locally owned retailers, so keep that in mind. 3. Buy ethically. All that stuff that can't be obtained locally needs to be bought from bigger, scarier, more global companies. That's where the Better World Shopper guide and research and stuff come in.

  2. But we're still screwed. This doesn't solve anything because the real problem still remains. We're preaching a method of buying poverty to death. We're saying that if the rich spend enough money, and we divert it the right ways, the poor will be able to eat and thrive. However screwy and twisted this thinking may be, it is economically sound. It goes directly against any kind of call to Simple Living that we may attempt to make, but it works in the system. Damned if we do, damned if we don't. If we don't spend money on "ethical" products (because we don't need them, etc), then we won't be represented and all the funds will be spent in less ethical ways. If we do spend money, then we aren't living very simply. Damned if we do, damned if we don't.

    It just sucks, eh?

  3. I don't know, Ben. You can't really say (about the woman that came in and bought a bunch of stuff at 10000 Villages) that she shouldn't have spent that much and that she should have taken some of that money and spent it in other places.

    First of all, you have no idea whether she did go right to the farmer's market the Food Project puts on right after going to your store, and then wrote a big fat check to her local charity. There's just no way to tell.

    But that's really beside the point. Do I think spending 1200 in one store, particularly a store that doesn't sell anything that's a necessity to life, is excessive? Absolutely. But when you start criticizing people for what they buy with their own money, it's a slippery slope. Why stop at "don't spend an excessive amount of money at a fair trade store"? Why not, don't spend money on anything you don't need? I don't know anyone who doesn't have stacks of books in their room, who doesn't go on the internet, who doesn't have a cell phone and maybe a couple beers on the weekend. Why spend time alone or with friends when you "should" be using it to better society? This is obviously excessive, but the thing is, you just can't really say one thing without implying the other.

    I'm not saying that I think people should not think more about what they spend their money on. I think dropping 1000 dollars like it's nothing is a borderline crazytown move. There's a culture of stuff that permeates our society now, and it sucks. I'm just saying that you can't make a big statement like that without trying to examine what something like that would really mean as to what we "should" or "shouldn't" do, in order to be living ethically.

  4. Hi Kait,
    here's some counterthoughts, clarifications and reconsiderations.

    I think my concern over the customer at our store, and her purchases, was more than just the sheer amount of money she dropped in our store alone. It was also the attitude behind the purchase; she just didn't know how to say no!

    You're absolutely right: I made a judgment call about where she spends / spent other money she has (or where she may or may not have racked up some debt) and I can't speak to that. So I'll retract that and tweak it a little bit.

    The bottom line is that I was saddened to see her come into our store and spend so much on things she clearly (from her words and attitude) was not going to put to any use; it just looked and sounded cool. My biggest concern with any economic behavior is when we are buying things solely because they are consumable (besides things like food).

    I think right my confusion in my job is the way we use marketing to make products consumable -- e.g., they look good, feel good, and play on shoppers' tendencies to buy stuff that they don't need. As ethical as 10k Villages might be, it seems that in order for it to survive and thrive it has to play by the larger rules of the economy, rules that I fundamentally disagree with.

    This applies a lot further beyond Fair Trade / Free Trade / any trade... should someone own towels? Sure. Are there some easy fair trade towel options? I don't know about any.

    Should someone own 18 sets of towels because each one has a cool design, if they are just going to sit in a closet and gather mothballs? Probably not.

  5. Hey Bryant,
    in response to your comments. Can you clarify your ideas of "damned if we don't"? The whole concept of damned if we do seems to be self-evident; my conversations with you suggest that you're struggling with the complicity people of faith have with an often-brutal economic system.

    I fail to see how we're damned if we don't comply, though. Some scholars would argue that people of faith will either consent to the prevailing economic system in place; or be pushed out of it and marginalized, and therefore have no funds or voice to contribute in the first place. This is actually affirmed by a lot of Anabaptist thinkers (though not all). Would you care to engage this line of thought?