I’ve been thinking about freedom a lot lately. These thoughts first began when we left for a five-day vacation on Monday. Because we are homeschooling, we were free to take that mid-week vacation without having to take the kids out of school, find out what work they’d be missing, deal with make-up work when they came back, etc. I often forget how much freedom homeschooling gives us. Many people probably look at my life and see the limitations that come with being with my children all day. But what I give up in personal freedom I make up for in family freedom (which is a great trade-off, if you ask me). And because we are middle-class Americans, we also have the freedom to take vacation days from work, the freedom to afford gas (though that’s been more painful as of late), and the freedom to enjoy some downtime with family and friends. It can be easy to take those freedoms for granted.
During our vacation, we visited a shop that sells only fair trade goods from around the world. (Much like Ten Thousand Villages, if you’ve ever been there.) While we were there, I picked up a free publication put out by the Fair World Project (www.fairworldproject.org) that explains a lot of the differences between the Fair Trade model and the Conventional or “Free” Trade model. It also details some of the industries that face the biggest challenges or that need fair trade practices more than most.
For instance, my beloved chocolate industry, for the most part, has been built on the backs of slave and child labor in West Africa. I had learned a bit about this when we went on the Theo Chocolate factory tour in Seattle. (Theo only buys cacao from fair trade farmers, and they showed us the process they go through to procure and produce their chocolate – very interesting tour if you’re ever in Seattle.) But, like so many of us, I sort of swept that knowledge under the carpet of my conscience and continued to consume indiscriminately – ignoring the fact that my choices contribute to the loss of someone else’s freedom.
As I read through this Fair World Project publication, I started to think about a lot of the things I buy. I rather pride myself on being frugal. Most of my kids’ clothes come from Target, and most of the time on sale or clearance. Same goes for my clothes. But what is the cost of my frugality for others? Undoubtedly, for me to be able to buy a shirt for $3.00 means that someone, somewhere, is getting screwed. Did some kid in a sweatshop in Indonesia sew the seams on this shirt? Am I supporting an industry that takes advantage of children and women? There are so many layers in between the cotton being grown for that shirt and me swiping my card at the checkout to buy it – from the pesticides used to farm the cotton to the unfair labor practices of the factory that produces it. I don’t see any of those layers when I toss that shirt in my shopping cart. I step into a clean, pristine store, filled with new, attractive clothing, and get a thrill when I get a good deal. We are so far removed from what we buy and where it comes from, it’s truly shocking to think about it.
I am not an economist. I don’t pretend to understand how all of this works. But I do know enough to know that “free trade” isn’t free. If we really want to be a people who claim to love freedom, we can’t ignore how our economic systems and practices affect the freedoms of people around the world. It’s so easy – SO easy – to turn a blind eye and go about our business as usual. Heck, I’m realistic enough to know that even after this blog post, I’m not going to go buy 100% fair trade goods overnight.
But I can do a few small things right away. I can shop at thrift stores more, to at least put the “reuse/recycle” principle to work and put less of my money into the corporate machine. And I can (gulp) commit to buying only fair trade chocolate. It’s definitely more expensive. But really, I’m a middle-class American with enough expendable income to take a vacation; I can certainly shell out a few extra dollars to help ensure the freedom and fair treatment of a fellow human being. How can I really enjoy my daily handful of chocolate chips, knowing that some kid may have suffered for them? Knowledge precedes volition, and volition leads to action. I’m ready to act.
I once read a quote that said, “Freedom is only good as a means; it is not an end in itself.” I just love that. People often talk about freedom as if it’s the end goal, when really, it’s a tool. If we don’t choose – in big and small ways – to help make sure all people have the freedom to work and learn and live in at least relative comfort, what good is the freedom we have? What have all those thousands of men and women given their lives for?
Freedom definitely isn’t free. But perhaps the lifestyle choices we make can help buy others’ freedom. What better way to honor the sacrifice of thousands of fallen soldiers than to use the freedom they fought for to ease the burdens of people who have no choice?