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My Faith Journey to Fair Trade

By Jackie DeCarlo

jdc-dancing-with-kuapa-by-lwr

Photo: I’m celebrating Fair Trade with members of the Kuapa Kokoo association.  Photo credit: Lutheran World Relief

Through this blog, I have been able to invite several friends and colleagues to reflect on their spiritual paths and how those intersect with Fair Trade.  In the coming weeks we’ll be hearing from folks like Serena Sato, who works at SERRV and participates in a small Christian community in Madison, WI, and David Funkhouser of TransFair USA who is also an ordained Episcopalian minister.  It seems right for me to add my own personal experience.  I’m sharing a slightly modified part of a talk I gave to a Unitarian community when I worked for FTRN a few years back.  It tells part of my story and shares my motivation as a Fair Trader.

….There is an official definition of Fair Trade that speaks of it as a partnership based on dialogue, transparency and respect. For me at the level of the soul, Fair Trade has the power to improve lives both spiritually and materially. “Buying Fair Trade is like giving a glass of clean water to a thirsty person,” a cocoa farmer told me once.  Her Fair Trade association– Kuapa Kokoo — had sold at that time enough cocoa at fair prices in Ghana to dig 96 water wells, open three schools, and provide her village’s first “places of convenience,” what you and I call “bathrooms.”  When we buy Fair Trade, we help make those kinds of developments possible.  And we get high quality, beautiful or tasty products in own hands, our own homes.

This is a great irony for me as a person:  Basically my job as a consumer educator is to convince people to shop.  First off, I hate shopping.  Second of all, I am a Quaker.  Not the folks on the oatmeal boxes, Quakers have a tradition of simplicity.  We are supposed to look for the God within everyone, not what shoes somebody has on her feet or what brand of coffee is in his cup.  We aren’t supposed to be concerned with things of this world.  Yet these kinds of distinctions for me have been such an important part of my spiritual journey.

In Quakerism we use “queries”, which is just an old fashioned word for “questions,” to investigate our motivations, to clarify our intentions, to promote reflection.  I like the queries related to “Personal Way of Life” from the Baltimore Yearly Meeting:

  • Do you live in accordance with your spiritual convictions?
  • Do you seek employment consistent with your beliefs and in service to society?
  • Are you watchful that your possessions do not rule you? “

The questions for me become: Am I promoting materialism? Am I suggesting that you need to buy more, just in a politically correct way? Am I contributing to the kind of over-consumption that led to the recent global economic recession?  Here’s how I answer those queries for myself.

About a decade ago I was traveling around Central America and Mexico.  I had gone through some tough times and was getting some space from the US trying to figure out what I believed in, what mattered.  I was “taking a year off.”  But in a complication I hadn’t expect, in these very materially poor countries I kept coming into contact with people who wanted to be part of popular American culture.  Everywhere I looked:  American magazines, fast food, Tommy Hilfiger, and television.

I have been in some remote places in the world, but wherever there is electricity, there is a television.  Consider the implication of this.  All over the world, way up high on mountain tops and down in flat rice fields, people are seeing not only our sometimes simple-minded sitcoms and reality-shows, but they are also watching our commercials.  They are learning our materialism, our over-consumption.   And, because billions of people live on less than $2 a day, many of them want our lifestyle.

This frightened me.  Because I became worried, not only that the planet can’t sustain our kind of consumption spreading, but because millions of people are buying into a system that disconnects them from their individuality, separates them from their mother earth, and seeks to direct their energy and their skills into purchasing power.  The cloud of despair was getting darker for me.

At just about the same time I encountered a Fair Trade coffee cooperative in the highlands of Chiapas Mexico.  I ended up spending four months volunteering for the cooperative.  This was in 2000, when coffee was about .80 cents a pound on the world market, below the cost of production and much below the then guaranteed Fair Trade price of $1.26. I learned about how the fair price for coffee worked to help people out of poverty.   Beyond price, I also learned about Fair Trade as self-sufficiency, dignity, and opportunity.

I also learned that picking coffee beans is some of the hardest work you’ll ever do.  I didn’t have a total conversion and end up living in Mexico.  I eventually left and was on a bus traveling for hours and hours headed back to my middle-class lifestyle.  Somewhere along the way I had an epiphany:  Fair Trade helps prevent impoverished bodies AND it can help prevent the impoverishment of souls.  That is why I dedicated my professional live to helping people of faith and others of goodwill create economic justice through conscious consumption and trading.

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