Judging by the economic state of the Global South, we have created an inverse relationship between consumerism and the economic well-being of those who produce our goods:
- Environmentally it is destructive: Pollution
- Societally is it degrading: Sweat shop labor
- Psychologically it is damaging: Lack of well being
- Philosophically it has created a humanitarian crises: Absence of corporate responsibility
There are countless reasons to do away with the consumptive model, yet what if there was nothing wrong with consumerism but the way in which it was directed? How might our perception of consumption shift if it was directed with a purpose? Would buying a product be seen as polluting and empty if it was sustainably sourced and attached to a cause? Based on the work of thousands of fair trade participants, it would appear not.
Our consumer mentality is currently ingrained with a penchant for immediate gratification. We crave the possession of that which we desire in as little time as possible. This desire has grown from a luxurious byproduct of mass production to a ravenous necessity of the modern era. Speed and efficiency are the measure by which all modern-day enterprises judge their success. We are so wrapped up in the desire to be immediately rewarded that we have begun to believe we can successfully apply that evaluation to all aspects of life. If you look at the truly monumental achievements of human culture, however, you will see that they must be experienced at a sustainable pace to derive their intrinsic benefit. Symphonies are not meant to be played forte and prestissimo throughout their entire duration. Great paintings are not meant to be scanned like a resume. The beauty of a rose cannot be appreciated through a deep gasp of its aroma. Fundamentally, a true appreciate of life in art and the art of life comes about by purposefully experiencing the situation before us. To live otherwise will be as confusing as a 3-minute rendition of Bach’s Tocatta and Fuge.
Let us take the previously mentioned statement as fact. Let us assume that fulfillment and beauty are not necessarily linked with speed and efficiency. What does that leave us with when understanding our society? What aspects of our daily life are able to be experienced slowly and with meaning? Looking at the average lifestyle of countless human beings, we are left with very few moments that contain a sense of purpose. Things are done for no other reason than that they must be finished before the next situation presents itself. Living a life filled with this rapid change undoubtedly makes everything seem meaningless. A sustained experience of emptiness will leave one with a sense of disconnectedness, antipathy for one’s surroundings, and a restless desire to fill that empty space in our life. All of these outlooks are characteristic of modern consumerism. We are a society without purpose and therefore regard for the experience of those around us due to our dependency on efficiency. This is readily apparent by the horrid working conditions in Amazon distribution centers. All of this is a byproduct of blind consumption. How might we be able to shift from senseless purchasing to an action that fulfills our life? How can we restore the sight of the trading experience? Simply by bringing meaning back into a purchase, by connection consumerism with poverty alleviation.
I briefly covered the impact fair trade principles could have on producers in my last article “Fair Trade Made Simple: Pt. 2,” yet I never touched upon what changes that might have on the person who buys the product. An individual who deeply resonates with the spirit of fair trade is likely to feel an inner satisfaction that results from making their purchase. This is not related to the selfish gratification that plagues our society, but is a recognition of the meaning attached to what they did. Value can be derived from an act that previously held no more meaning that microwaving a meal or driving to work. This is not something to be underestimated in a world filled with aimless growth. Fair trade business practices have the ability to reconnect an individual with their humanity in a very small way. Even though this may play a minor role in the overall scheme of a person’s life, it will undoubtedly evolve into a habit which draws them back and continually supports the lifestyle of foreign artisans. If we of the fair trade community made it a point to demonstrate the impact consumers had on the lifestyle of impoverished artisans, it might act as an accelerant for the expansion of fair trade business models. In fact, recent studies show that consumers are more likely to purchase fair trade items if they are presented with avenues which directly redress economic injustice.
We can therefore see a two-fold connection between fair trade and the benefits it has on the consumer. On one level it provides them with a high quality, handcrafted product. On the other it imbues a sense of meaning into an action which would have otherwise added confusion to their daily existence. The next time we display a product or order a new collection, we should stop and think about how we can help others derive a sense of meaning from what they might buy. We should ask ourselves, how can I use this to inspire meaning in the life of another?