Emily, 17, is a high school senior.
This past July, I traveled to Nicaragua with a group called Witness for Peace in order to learn about how the economic policies of the United States affect Nicaragua. The delegation focused on fabric and the economics behind the mass production of fabric in Nicaragua. The majority of this occurs under free trade, an economic policy that removes regulations and barriers from trade between nations. Unfortunately, this causes many injustices, most of which happen overseas where production occurs. We learned that maquilas, or sweat-shops, exist with terrible working conditions and no benefits, and most individuals do not earn enough to care for their families.
Fair trade provides a living wage to the producer of the item that is being sold. A living wage is a price that not only covers the costs of production but allows a profit to be made by the producer. In this way, he (or, more commonly she), is able to live and support his family. This also keeps women away from long hours in a factory and living closer to their fami-lies where they can care for their children. Fair trade is based on the idea that a product can travel more directly from producer to consumer, keeping a connection in a global market.
During my travels in Nicaragua, I visited two factories. One factory was a free trade, Taiwanese-owned factory that produced North Face and Patagonia jackets. The other was a fair trade factory, owned by Nicaraguan women, which produced T-shirts and other clothing items. The differences were clearly visible just by walking through the door. The free trade factory was enormous, with 15 assembly lines and 15people at each line. Red fibers from the heavy Patagonia jackets flew up everywhere, and while some people were wearing face masks, others were not. It was hot, and all you could hear was sewing machines sewing and people working hard. The fair trade factory was much, much smaller. The women working inside were talking to each other. There were ceiling fans, and it was so much cooler. There was also music playing in the background.
Coming out of that day, I thought, “How am I going to be able to wear my North Face jacket when I’ve seen the people who make them? Do I boycott a company to protest conditions of workers? Do I want to support this company?” The answer I eventually arrived to was no, don’t boycott any particular company. The alternative jacket would be sewn in a factory by people who I had never met or seen before, but who would be living in the same conditions that I had experienced. Unfortunately, with many products there don’t yet exist fair trade alternatives to buy.
But more Fair Trade products are coming on the market, and we do have options to support economic justice with our buying decisions. I’ll be volunteering to support the Fair Trade Market at St. Francis on Oct. 26-28, which will sell fairly traded crafts, coffee and chocolate.