Monday, November 22, 2010

Don't get me started! No, wait... carry on.

As you consider how you might like to get started in your pursuit of greater justice in your life, perhaps you will allow me to tell you how I got involved in all of this.

A few years ago, I was sitting in a morning meeting with my colleagues at a large international humanitarian organization. The recent news on the radio had been about Nestlé, which had been accused of buying cocoa from plantations that used child slave labour of such an extreme variety that children were literally dropping dead from exhaustion. Naturally, I found this upsetting. Nestlé is ubiquitous. Even if we narrow the affected product lines down to only those that contain cocoa, the list is still substantial. Hot chocolate, flavoured non-dairy creamers, ice cream, various chocolate bar flavoured "milk" drinks and, of course, chocolate are all on the list. When I raised this issue at the meeting, there were of course the nodded heads that one might expect. When I suggested that this news piece should perhaps influence our purchasing decisions, it seemed the nodding stopped. When I suggested that we should perhaps consider giving up chocolate, there was a collective gasp of horror. I had crossed a line and the discussion was over.

Which brings me to this series of questions, which I have great difficulty in softening for the sensibilities of the delicate reader. So here we go: how bad do things have to be before we care enough to change our personal preferences? Are abused and enslaved children not a good enough reason to hesitate before picking up a product that really isn't good for us anyway? What is the difference between using African slaves in 1800 and using them in 2010? Is it only the location that is the problem? If people who work for a humanitarian organization react this way, how can we hope to influence those who have less awareness of the world around them?

Today, a cursory Google search on "Nestlé, child labour" will bring up a host of articles. Some focus on the trespasses of corporations like Nestlé. While mostly presented by various labour rights groups on their websites, the same quick search will also bring up articles in major newspapers about the ongoing problems in the cocoa industry. In addition to these more advocacy-driven pieces, you will find lengthy reports by major corporations on how their Corporate Social Responsibility platforms are now revolutionizing labour conditions, ensuring that children go to school, enjoy fine dining at local bistros, study music with the masters and are on the fast track to NASA and the Olympics. Well... maybe a slight exaggeration, but the tone is no less Utopian. How are these results measured? Who is doing the investigating? Who would fund the investigation and be sincerely seeking honest reports?

I find this enormously frustrating. I have chosen to advocate for Fair Trade chocolate because I am sure that at least the people doing the certification actually care about the quality of life of the workers. No system is ever perfect, and obviously there are gaps. But at least these gaps are the exception, not the rule.

I eat less chocolate in general these days, and while I occasionally suffer from shameful lapses in judgment, I hope that I am at least doing less harm. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. God help me!

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Getting Engaged - Where do you start?

Kermo had a couple of good questions, which I think merit some further discussion.
Given the sheer volume of choices and compromises which have some kind of social impact, what would you say are the most important ones? If you had to choose just a handful of socially responsible behaviours, what would they be?
How do we pick our battles? Some people appear to do it all - conserve water/electricity, wear hemp, eat local vegan fare, cycle, live communally and so on. While these are all laudable actions, too often their zeal intimidates mainstream citizens who feel they can't do it all and don't want to go through life feeling guilty. When people disengage completely, it unfortunately means that the contributions of these few social champions (for all their good work), can be entirely obliterated by the over-consuming, over-using, over-driving citizens who take daily baths in their jacuzzi tubs, eat exotic foods out of disposable packages, disinfect everything chemically and purchase their plentiful luxury goods from corporations that are known to have labour and environmental problems. Some of these individuals are just selfish, short-sighted people who live for today and don't care what's left for future generations. I'd like to think that these sorts are in the lonely minority, and that many of us just don't know why or how they should care and already feel like they have enough to worry about.

So how can we start? In the words of my oft-insightful husband, where is your passion? What matters to you? Is it that you want your children to be able to swim in the Great Lakes? Are you a union member dealing with an autocratic management? Have you been through rough financial times that left you dependent on food banks, such that you are more aware of the urban poor? Or was it international travels that has left you with a lingering longing to help your global neighbour?

My very strong recommendation would be to sit down with the beverage of your choice and think - what matters to you most? What bothers you the most? It may be turning to winter now, but hopefully the dandelions on your front lawn and laundry hanging out back will no longer be eyesores, but welcome signs of spring. If not, perhaps this can be your first step. If you're already happily air drying, then perhaps it's time to take a look at your kitchen and figure out some ways to improve the sourcing of your edibles. Or maybe it's time to look at local charities and get involved a bit at a time. But just a bit for now if that's all you can manage. Take a deep breath. It's going to be okay. You can do this.

I'm interested to know what small change you're willing to make. I realise that this is still early on, and that you're all busy people (and I really have no stats on readership), but I welcome your comments however brief.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Conversation Begins...

If you're just joining us, please take a look at the previous post and the excellent comments therein. I hope that you all know that your thoughts are extremely valuable, questions are welcome and participation imperative. Obviously I can't answer everything, but perhaps someone else will have the answer you need.

Debbie - you raise an interesting point. Do we sometimes need to sacrifice our rights to ensure justice for others? It seems likely that in a global environment where so many of us take more than is our fair share that sometimes we need to give up what we see as rightfully ours in order to be fair to others. Having the agency to make that decision is, of course, indicative of our position of power within the global economy, but perhaps that is all the more reason to consider our actions.

You say that you're not an activist, but might I suggest that your definition is somewhat narrow? The archetypal "activist" may be of the unwashed anarchist variety, but I suspect that this perception effectively alienates more mainstream law-abiding people, keeping them from speaking out about things that would otherwise be very important to them. By virtue of participating in these kinds of conversations and being willing to consider some of the questions that may be raised herein, you are being active. If there is one barrier that I've run into in my discussions with others about living justly, it is that people often feel overwhelmed by the problems (and associated guilt) and end up disengaging and ignoring the problem. We will all have different levels of involvement - we all have our limitations - but perhaps the point is to push ourselves where we can.

Which brings me to Kermo's point. I agree - life without chocolate, spices and (for me) coffee is positively dystopic. But then, wars have already been fought and entire nations subjugated in the quest to acquire most of the things on your list of delectables. We could spend weeks just discussing some of the complications with each of the things you mentioned (and perhaps we will), but again - that you think about the origins of these things you pick up on the shelves of your grocery store is already a colossal leap forward.

So what now?

To connect your comments about slavery and chocolate, might I direct your attention here: Tracing the bitter truth of chocolate and child labour.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Living Justly - Baby Steps

What does it mean to live justly?

We all have a sense of justice. Often we only allow it to extend to our basic desire for personal justice - from the who-got-the-biggest-brownie rivalry of early childhood, to who deserves the last seat on the subway at the end of a busy work day. While sometimes trivial, this childish sense of outrage comes from a deep awareness that life isn't fair despite our intrinsic feeling that it should be.

The purpose of this blog is to investigate what it means to live justly. How can we make changes in our daily lives to consider the rights and needs of our global citizenry in an equitable manner? What are the ways in which we are creating injustice and how can we redeem these transactions?

While this is not intended to be an exclusively faith-based discussion, in the interest of full disclosure, it should be said that I am a politically left-leaning, theologically centrist Christian, and often I will draw from my interpretation of the Bible to investigate the central questions around living with justice. Rest assured that even if you are from a different faith, agnostic or are an evangelical atheist, there is still place in the discussion for you.

If you decide to follow this discussion, I hope you will be prepared to say and do courageous things to bring justice, peace and mercy to those around you. Let us begin:

Your alarm goes off at 7:00 am – much too early to be considered civilized, you think. Grumbling at the injustice of it all, you push down your 400-thread count cotton sheets, nearly knocking over the fresh flowers on your nightstand. You throw on a T-shirt and stumble into the kitchen where your reliable and beloved coffee maker has your morning brew all ready for you. You pour yourself a bowl of Rice Krispies and top it off with a banana – all part of your complete breakfast. Probably at no point in your morning meanderings have you considered where all of those things came from or who produced them. You probably didn’t think of a farmer in his sun-baked cotton field, a coffee picker in the sultry climes of a plantation or the harvester stooped in the lush greenery of a rice paddy. And yet, in those first few moments of your day, you have met with the potential to invest in six Fair Trade commodities. 

Obviously there are many ways to be both just and unjust. Perhaps the issue dearest to my heart, however, is Fair Trade. While it isn't perfect, it is an attempt to address some of the key injustices in our global commodity chain. I have lots of thoughts on this, but I'm hoping that someone out there in the ether will tell me what they think about the above. Where do you feel you can engage with this? Where do you feel overwhelmed? How can we make it better?