My Fair Trade Journey: Evaluating Personal Responsibility and Consumerism

STUDENT VOICES | CHYNN PRIZE FIRST-PLACE WINNER, FORDHAM UNIVERSITY CENTER FOR ETHICS EDUCATION

By: Tiffany Melillo.

Every day, regardless of what I do, I use forced labor.

No, I am not a plantation owner in the South during the Civil War, nor am I a current factory owner in Asia. Rather, I am a 21-year-old Fordham student from the Bronx. I grew up in a loving, middle-class family with happily married parents, a brother, and a cat. I do not fit the stereotype of someone who uses forced labor, but I assure you that I do.

According to Made in a Free World, I currently use 26 “slaves”, but I am positive that number is low. My consumerism is contributing to a cycle full of injustice. The goods I buy come at the cost of the marginalized both domestically and internationally. Child, forced, or under-paid labor are a woven part of a majority of the items I own, yet, there is only so much that I can — perhaps willing is a better word — do about it.

I am trying to find a way to live a “normal” life in such a manner that I do not contribute to the human rights abuses that are happening every day and help those whose lives have been adversely affected, or ruined, by this social sin[i],[1]. I do not have a solution to these problems, but I know that Fair Trade can help. Throughout this essay I will described my Fair Trade journey and the ethical challenges I have faced throughout it. Firstly, I will describe the concept of Fair Trade.

In short, Fair Trade is respect for human labor. It is not a logo but, rather, it is a movement. Products can be certified Fair Trade by different agencies if they are in accord with certain standards. There has been controversy in recent years about those standards, but at its core, Fair Trade is about supporting the poor in a dignified and sustainable way.

Products that have been traded fairly are transparent in that the consumer knows that the workers received a living wage, no forced or child labor was used, no one was discriminated against due to gender, health, religion, or education within the organization, and the production process was as environmentally sustainable. Rather than putting a band-aid on the symptoms of poverty (e.g. giving out food to the hungry), Fair Trade tries to eliminate the causes of poverty through economic growth and involvement (e.g. giving a job to those who are hungry because they are unemployed so that they can buy what is necessary to support themselves and their families). Though I am an advocate for Fair Trade and have worked throughout college to support it, I struggle to live a truly “fair” life and often ask myself: What is the best way to spend my time?

I want to live a life in which I help others, but I need to be able to support myself first. I decided to attend Fordham because I knew it would be a place that would challenge and prepare me both professionally and spiritually. As a graduating senior, I can truly say that going to Fordham has transformed me more that I could have ever envisioned.

Simultaneously though, the financial burden that came along with my enrollment makes it too difficult to immediately work for a social justice-oriented job full-time. I am personally paying for college and with starting off in debt in the tens of thousands. How am I able to pay this off while helping to lift others out of poverty? One simply cannot give what one does not have.

I wrestle with the answers to questions like, “How much time should I dedicate to a cause that I am passionate about?,” “Does not working for social justice full-time mean I am contributing to the social sin that plagues our Earth?” Before Fordham and working with Fair Trade, I am not sure if I would have considered these ethical questions. Although I do not have the answers, merely asking these questions leads me to think outside of myself.

I was fortunate enough to travel to India this past January to work with Fair Trade artisans, but my Fair Trade journey has started four years prior, at the advent of my Fordham career. I met Professor Kate Combellick of the Gabelli School of Business on Accepted Students’ Day. There, she shared her struggles to live a morally just life and invited me, a soon-to-be freshman, to join her 4000 level, year-long course on Fair Trade.

Fair Trade has made me uncomfortable in many aspects of my life. It is definitely easier not to think about the story behind my purchases. Before Fordham, I was only concerned with how much I paid for a product and how it would “better” my life. Fair Trade has challenged me to think about other people’s perspectives—even people I do not personally know.

My life would be easier and more enjoyable if I did not know that “The cocoa used to make big brand chocolate is regularly harvested in part by children and trafficked laborers in West Africa, where more than 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is sourced[2].” Am I or all women supposed to stop using makeup because most to the mica used in it comes from Jharkhand, India, where child labor is prevalent and there are 20,000 known cases of children used for mining?[3].

Throughout college, I worked with Amani, Fordham’s Fair Trade store, and organized events with the student club called Students for Fair Trade. Meeting the people whose livelihood is dependent on Fair Trade and seeing astounding poverty as we drove and walked around New Delhi and Jaipur made my work with Fair Trade make sense to me.

But it has also raised new questions for me. I understand why people say that “ignorance is bliss,” but it is no excuse not to search for truth.

Now that I have this knowledge, what am I supposed to do with it? I wonder, am I a hypocrite if I am the president of Students for Fair Trade and still buy non-ethically sourced products? Do I need to give up other hobbies and interests because it does not support a Fair Trade life style (e.g. Should I not play hockey unless I can use Fair Trade equipment?) Am I supposed to spend my time finding only Fair Trade vegetables and clothing at the expense of helping my family and friends because there is simply not enough time?

Though I cannot tell you how one ought to live a fully fair life, I have come to several conclusions about ethics and morality through Fair Trade. We all have the power to affect each other, no matter how many miles apart we are. At the end of our distance, are people who are more similar to us than we realize.

With a generous donation, the Fair Trade program has been able to buy $300 worth (₹18,600) of backpacks from a Fair Trade store that provides shelter and education to orphans in India and give them to low-income schoolgirls in the Bronx. Both parties on each side of the transaction are searching for the same thing—a chance to better their situations though education.

The ability to take another’s perspective will help put your own life into perspective. It is easy to get caught in the daily drama of life and overstate one’s personal problems. I realized that I often made assumptions about people and did not fully consider their story.

Caring about people you do not personally know will expand your sense of compassion to everyone you see. It is too simple to judge and make quick assumptions about people we see or people we think we know. When I realized that I do not know the consequences of my actions (e.g. my purchases), I began to wonder what else I do not know.

Tiffany Melillo, GSB ’15 was an accounting major, and was awarded first place in the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education 2015 Dr. K. York and M. Noelle Chynn Undergraduate Essay Prize in Ethics and Morality.

[i] Sins called ‘institutional’ or ‘structural’ are thus social sins.” Social sin refers to sins committed by society as a whole, not just individuals. “Structural” and institutional” sins are examples of social sins.

[1] Aldunate, José, SJ. “Social Dimensions Of The Spiritual Exercises.”Social Dimensions Of The Spiritual Exercises. The Society of Jesus- English Canada Province, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

[2] Thomas, Martin. “Minimize the Guilty Pleasure of Easter Eggs.” 21 Apr. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.

[3] Nesbitt, Huw. “Child Labour: Mineral Make-up Boom Raises Fears over Ethical Extraction.” The Guardian, 10 Mar. 2014.