Redeeming Consumerism: Seeing the People Behind the Product

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Research shows that Third Culture Kids (TCKs) don’t just process information when they read or hear a news story. Because TCKs have experience living in another culture they absorb a news story in a different way – they put themselves in the place of the story. They see the sights, they smell the smells, they hear the chatter of the foreign language, they feel deep empathy with the people involved.

I am a TCK. I grew up in Nigeria, West Africa and spent some teenage years just outside of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. I was raised to care about the world and current events but I have a very hard time now watching or reading the news. Because of my life experiences when I read a news story I feel transported to that place, and sometimes the emotions that come along with that are just too much. That is why I connect so deeply with the fair trade movement. I have lived in a third world country and watched people that I cared about struggle to survive. Paying people a fair price for the goods they make is not just a vague concept to me.

My early childhood years were spent in an environment much different from where I live today. I struggle sometimes to explain it to my boys. There is no way they can understand the dusty African ground, the jubilation that came with the first rain of the season after months of heat and dust, the joy of sitting in a mango tree and eating the fruit as the juice runs down your face. My kids are used to unlimited running water and electricity. I remember the time of day when the generator had to be turned on and off in order for our house to have electricity. I remember the huge barrel at the top of a tower that collected rain water for our use. My kids are used to walking into a store and having limitless options and access to pretty much anything they want; food, toys, clothes, movies. I remember shopping at markets with tables of raw meat swarming with flies, produce piled on cloths on the ground, and milk being sold out of buckets. The only new toys were the ones that kids back from furlough brought with them, causing jealously for those of us who had no hope of getting a new toy until we got to go on furlough too.

I cannot adequately explain my childhood to my children, but I can instill in them the idea that people are connected. I can help them understand that spending our money here in America can empower someone who has a more difficult life than we do somewhere else in the world. That is why I love the Fair Trade Friday Club and it’s purpose: to  tackle poverty through job opportunity and empowerment rather than enablement. 100% of the proceeds support the artisans, more than 500 women and their children from all over the world.

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These beautiful earrings were sent to me through the Fair Trade Friday Earring of the Month Club. They were hand made by Waeh Me who is 26 years old. According to her bio on the Refugee Project website Waeh Me spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Burma before relocating to Houston, Texas. She probably suffered religious and ethnic persecution. Buying earrings that she made helps her provide for her 4 children. She is 10 years younger than me and has already had more challenge and hardship than I will probably ever see in my life time. There are many more women with similar stories to Waeh Me’s, women who want to care for their family and give them the best possible life that they can. Women who struggle every single day just to survive that day and make it to the next.

How much do mass produced earrings cost at a local big box store? The Earring of the Month Club is just $12.50 per month and every month a different pair of handmade, fair trade, lovely earrings will show up in your mailbox. You can save them for yourself or send them as gifts to friends (you can choose that option when you sign up on-line, they can be shipped to different addresses, how cool is that!).

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I have worn my earrings a lot this summer. Every time I put them on I finger them and think about Waeh Me. I say a prayer for her asking God to encourage her and bless the work of her hands. I pray that her children are healthy and happy, just like I want my children to be. Every time someone complements me on my earrings I have an opportunity to tell them about Waeh Me and encourage them to be a part of building up women like her through buying fair trade.

I hope you will go and look around the Fair Trade Friday Club website. There are various options for monthly clubs to join as well as individual products to purchase if a monthly club is not a fit for you.

(The Fair Trade Friday Club is a ministry of Mercy House Kenya.) 

Redeeming Consumerism: An Introduction

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It sometimes takes me by surprise that I have now lived in small town southern America longer that I have lived outside of it. There is much I love about American and southern culture and small town life has some distinct benefits but I still often feel like a fish out of water. There are still things that I don’t understand and that feel very foreign to me. One of the challenges, and benefits, of being a Third Culture Kid (TCK) is that I never feel truly at home in any one place or culture.

One thing I have struggled with for years is the culture of consumerism that is such a part of the fabric of American life. I have swung the pendulum from participating fully without guilt (buying as much as I could for as little money as I could without regard for the human or environmental cost of my consumption) to being paralyzed with guilt over every purchase and every dollar that I spent. Over the years I have come to a more balanced view.

I have been given a life in a country of extreme wealth. Our family, with my husbands modest teachers income, is extravagantly wealthy compared to 80% of the world’s population who live on less than $10 a day. I am able to feed my children nourishing food, give them clean water, and bring them to a doctor when they are sick while every day 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. This life I have been given is not a mistake and it does not need to be a source of shame or guilt. But it is a gift. And I believe that with this gift comes responsibility.

I still remember the first time I stood in the aisle of the grocery store and chose not to buy chocolate chips or chocolate candy because that store did not have any fair trade options. It was a small decision but it felt monumental. It was the first time I decided I would not buy a non-essential item for my family if I knew that my money for that product was contributing to slave labor. As I walked away from the store without my favorite treat I felt joyful and empowered. I realized that every time I spent money I was making a choice. So I began to do research and my journey into Fair Trade began.

Americans are consumers. I am a consumer. I like to buy pretty things for myself, others, and my home. But I can choose to consume responsibly, thoughtfully and not at the price of others. That is the premise behind the global Fair Trade movement: a movement whose goal is to help producers in developing countries to get a fair price for their products so as to reduce poverty, provide for the ethical treatment of workers and farmers, and promote environmentally sustainable practices.

As a Christian I believe that all God is making all things new and that I get to be a part of that. So why not take part in redeeming how we consume?

That is the purpose of the Fair Trade Friday club. Fair Trade Friday is a monthly subscription. A small cost gets a box of fair trade goodies sent to your door automatically every month. Of the money you spend 100% of the proceeds goes directly to the women who made the items in the box so they can provide for their families, feed and educate their children. When we buy Fair Trade we get to push back against the 22,000 children a day that die due to poverty. We get to be part of bringing redemption.

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Fair Trade Friday has various subscriptions available (you can check them out here) as well as an Earring of the Month Club (which I will give more details about in another post). I encourage you to check out their website and look around.

If you have never considered the cost of consumption may I encourage you to begin to ask God to begin to work in your heart. Find some blogs, check some books out from the library (The Story of Stuff is a good place to start). Have courage to be educated about the cost of consumption, not in order to become guilty or ashamed but to become empowered. To begin to see your part in the exciting work of redeeming lives through redeeming the way we consume.

God can do anything, you know – far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us. -Ephesians 3:20 The Message. 

I will be posting more about this topic in the next week or so – sharing more of my journey, giving more information, answering questions, and showing you my lovely fair trade earrings.

Have you considered fair trade products? Do you have any questions you would like to see answered in a future post?

(The Fair Trade Friday Club is a ministry of Mercy House Kenya.)