Can Fair Trade fix the problem?

Coffee consumers

In my last post, I took a long look at my three brief weeks working a temp job in Seattle.  The whole experience troubled my conscience, as I realized, increasingly, that many of the things I consume—things I cherish, like books and coffee—are produced by laborers under less-than-ideal conditions, and that I will never actually meet the people who produce and manufacture what I consume.  It’s a symptom of the growing gap between the producing and the consuming classes.

We feel guilty about this, I think, deep down.  We are increasingly aware that somewhere, some nameless people are working very hard to pick our coffee beans, or bind our books.  We hear of unjust labor practices in faraway places.  We hear of sweatshops and slavery.  So we buy Fair Trade coffee and look into where our clothes were made and try to shop intelligently.

Here’s the thing: we don’t do these things because we believe it will solve the problem.  No.  Me buying Fair Trade coffee will not address the root of the problem.  It is band-aid slapped on a gaping wound in our society.  We know this, I think.

Coffee producer


Rather, I submit that the main reason we “shop smart”, or whatever you want to call it, is to assuage our own guilt.  We want to consume, but we also want to disassociate ourselves from the injustices that make that consumption possible, because they make us feel bad inside.  This is a futile exercise.

What is the shape of Christian fidelity in the midst of this quandary?  How then should we live?

I want to argue that although paying attention to how we shop is important, it doesn’t address the much deeper issue at stake here—the gap in community between consumers and producers.  This problem is deeper, more basic—more radical.  And radical problems require radical solutions.

Way back in the beginning of things, we Christians had a powerful and effective solution to this problem: community.  Members of the first Christian community in Jerusalem were required—required!—to share all of their possessions with each other.  Those who held out, God killed.  I’m not kidding about this.  Look it up.

Paul and James alike, in fact, are outraged by any kind of rich-poor divisions within the communities they address (and, by extension, our own!).  In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes:

“When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!”

James, similarly:

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”

Now, here’s the fascinating thing about both of these passages: even though Paul and James are both upset over unfair discrimination within their communities, both of these passages assume that rich and poor were eating in the same room.  They were, in short, in communion with one another.

That’s certainly more than we can say about our church communities today.  How many churches have you been to where the gap between the incomes of its richest and poorest members was at all significant?  There are wealthy churches, there are middle-class churches, and there are poor churches.  Though we confess the same Lord, we choose to associate by class.  There’s something wrong about that.

OK.  So . . . that’s my diagnosis.  What’s the prescription?  C’mon, people, let’s hear some ideas: how do we go about addressing this issue in our churches, in our neighborhoods, and in our homes?


About mikezosel

I got a BA from the SOT at SPU. Now I sling espresso, serve donuts, and, uh, blog. Word. View all posts by mikezosel

6 responses to “Can Fair Trade fix the problem?

  • ben adam

    Here’s an idea: the people living in the suburbs come out of their homes to meet their neighbors for the first time. They hug in the streets, and tell each other stories about their youth. They begin to share resources together. First, they share small things. Then, they move upward. Pretty soon, single people move into the houses of families. Small families move in with elderly neighbors. They sell their old houses for the price of however much they have left to pay on their home loan. This means poor folks can afford their nice, old suburban homes at a discount rate. Several of the houses as well as every lawn receives dismantling. Gardens are planted with indigenous plants only. They buy a community bus to take everyone to work. Each person takes a turn driving it. The nice thing is, since they all rid themselves of personal cars, they no longer have nearly as high of bills. The group rate they got on health coverage lowered their bills even further; plus the shared checking account which pays the deductibles never seems to run out of anonymously given funds. Since they are saving so much money across the board, they only work 3 days a week. Since they work different schedules, the adults on their days off provide free communal daycare to everyone else’s kids. Pretty soon they realize, they can power the entire community with several solar-panels. The electricity they do not use, they sell back to the power companies. Electricity becomes free for them. They set up an internet network that covers all houses, but at a fraction of the cost to have individual networks in each house. Funeral costs spread out over the entire community for one of its beloved members proves non-devastating for her grieving husband who donates the money she left behind to get a school bus to take the kids to school, practicing life after death. When the poorest family returns from a trip to Belieze with the richest family, they bring back coffee for the entire community. That is when they realize everyone’s money should be communal property only for purchasing necessities that cannot be made within the community. This probably would not work though since people suck and are mean and only the strong survive. Yeah!

    ben adam

  • Alex

    Hey thanks for the interesting post. I agree that it’s a problem that our churches are so socioeconomically separated within out own cities. But I have a hard time swallowing the pill that states that fair-trade is only a band-aid that doesn’t solve the problem.

    The people who benefit from fair-trade jobs do just that- they benefit! They work for a fair wage that enables them to take better care of themselves and their families. I don’t understand the problem with fair-trade. Perhaps you could elaborate on this? Is your issue with the fact that the producers and consumers are not in community with each other?

    P.S. As I understand it Ananias and Sapphira lost their lives for lying… not for keeping some of the money back. What do you think?

    • mikezosel

      Hey Alex!

      I would definitely agree that workers benefit from Fair Trade, just labor laws, and so on. But you’re right to say that I think the much larger problem is that of the lack of community between consumers and producers. Producers are, in fact, invisible to most consumers. Fair Trade helps, perhaps, but it can’t solve this problem.

      And I take your point about Ananias and Sapphira. Bekah actually raised the same point with me in conversation the other day. But certainly the fact that they held some of their money back in the first place contributed to their predicament?

      Thanks for your comments Alex!

    • Noah

      I think the other problem with Fair Trade is that it actually doesn’t necessarily provide a high enough wage, and that it’s a short-term solution. Even though workers get more, they aren’t getting much. The added money from Fair Trade products is better than the insufficient amount they’d receive otherwise, but it isn’t much, generally speaking. Fair Trade is also only a temporary system because the problem could be addressed more effectively by helping farmers to change crops. Left to their own devices this is hardly feasible, but with some outside help a transition to more profitable crops would likely be more effective. Hard to say. Also, Fair Trade represents such a tiny percentage of the worldwide market for goods (eg coffee, chocolate, etc) that it really doesn’t represent an adequate solution to the problem by itself. I guess where I’m going with this is: Fair Trade is good and you should buy Fair Trade, but it is naive to think that it will solve the problem. And that’s without even addressing Mike’s concerns about community.

      • ben adam

        Honestly, not a one of us has really touched on the true problem of fair trade. We all secretly know it, but sometimes it is hard to see it. The problem with fair trade is that it is really nice capitalism. What are we saying when we say “the laborers will receive better pay”? We’re affirming a hierarchically structured economy that places laborers below managers, managers below executives, and executives below demagogues. Basically, what we are saying is that the people who buy and sell commodities, white-collar workers who spend more time crunching numbers than they do crunching through orchards, are paid grossly more money, live in grossly better conditions, and enjoy a disgustingly higher standard of living than those who do the actual work of producing the very products we love. Increasingly, those laborers receiving “fairly” traded wages rarely own the means of production. Instead, giant corporate enterprises contract domineering owners to pay their workers a little extra so they can stamp a happy sticker on their product that makes us not feel so bad. Meanwhile, those laborers own a little less than the few possessions and services their “fair” trade wages can buy them. They become subject to the will and control of farmers and manufacturers who spend very little time on their farms and in their factories while still raking in most of the profit from the slim labor they exerted. I hope this makes sense. Fair trade, free trade, same thing.

        -ben adam

  • ben adam

    I think that if you read the Acts 2 and Acts 4 stories as ones presenting the early church as participants in a community emulating tribal gift economies where redistribution means formulating the social, relational bonds necessary to maintain cohesion, then the Ananias and Sapphira story means they received condemnation for both crimes: lying, which breaks the community, and withholding funds, which breaks the community.

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