Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Summer Resolution: Fair Trade, Sustainability, and Communitarian Living

As a young activist one of the first things I notice in social justice circles is the significant absence of an understanding of the necessity to link the struggle for social justice with that of environmental justice. There is also an overinsistence on political change with insufficient weight granted to the subsequent need for economic change. It is unrealistic to expect political progress without first targeting capitalism for what it is; a system based on capital, money, and profits. And, it is equally as impossible to weaken that foundation of capital and profits, without first seriously questioning and altering our consumption habits in western society. How can we claim to be activists without first changing the most basic and fundamental elements of our lives? These fundamental aspects of our lives, such as the products we buy, the clothes we wear, and the food we eat must necesarily be the starting point. Before we change the world, we must first change ourselves, change our lives, and change the habits that define us as uninformed and unconcerned consumers.

These two factors, the environmental emphasis, and the necessary focus on our consumption habits, bring the question of fair trade into context. Fair Trade is a form of commercial exchange where the buyer goes directly to the producer, offers a fair and much higher price for the product than traditional corporate buyers, in a context where both sides seek to build a relationship based on equality instead of exploitation. But Fair Trade doesn't stop there. It encourages social exchange and solidarity between the producer and consumer communities, most often an international connection, including ongoing contributions for the building of strong production and manufacturing capability for the southern producers and/or farmers, self-sufficiency and food sovereignty on both sides, and all around community building. In many cases, fair trade entrepreneurs even go as far as helping southern communities set up their own schools and hospitals. And, perhaps most important of all, fair trade demands a necessity to create awareness and to provide education to northern consumers of the what, where, why, when, and how of what they are consuming.

Supporting and understanding fair trade here in North America can generate a lot of personal happiness and satisfaction in living a non-corporate, and sustainability oriented lifestyle. It is not just a matter of figthing against the system, but of rejecting the most basic elements that bind us to it. On a daily basis, if we are drinking Tim Horton's or Starbucks coffee, or handing out plastic bottled water at solidarity events, then we are simply not identifying the problem at its roots. By keeping our corporate life habits unchecked and unchanged we are supporting NAFTA, we are supporting free trade, we are behaving hypocritically as our indifference and disregard continues to feed the system of consumption that perpetuates the very injustices we are fighting against in the first place.

Part of our political position must be a staunch opposition to free trade, and fair trade is the exact opposite, the direct alternative to free trade. Fair trade, however, more than a poltical philosophy, is a lifestyle choice, almost a spiritual choice. And so because our alternative lifestyle choices are relevant at such a personal level, whether that be buying fairtrade, living green and sustainable, boycotting corporate products, or even making the move to being vegan or vegetarian, they allow us an opportunity to be proud about the way we live, and to be happy in the struggle. Being an activist, fighting for social justice of any kind, or simply living a progressive lifestyle often requires a lot of discipline and sacrifice, and sometimes that level of committment can be very difficult. But our dedication to social justice should not be a committment beyond recognition of our happiness, and it is not selfish to want things for ourselves, as long as they are not ignorant or detriment to the greater good. Being happy is the first step, first and foremost because it is human nature to desire it, and because happiness is humanity's most valuable gift, but also because we can never be fully effective in the struggle without it. We have to fight for what we believe in with dedication, but we have to attain fulfillment while doing it.

A very important characteristic of the sustainable movement is its strength in existing through a collective identity and orientation. People love to, and want to feel like they belong to a greater common entity. That is why we must talk to neighbours, we must discuss with our co-workers, friends, and family on a daily basis, we must exchange ideas, stories, and solutions to help broaden the fabric of our social project. All of our social justice, environmental, sustainable living, anti-corporate initiatives, etc., must be based on complete and uncompromised inclusion. Fair trade is about creating a link between northern consumers and marginalized southern producers, but we also need to emphasize the more simple connection from people to people, the action of an equal, reciprocal exchange. We must be a people of community and togetherness who complement the growth of each other's livelihoods in tangible and positive ways. These actions for a communitarian way of life, are proof that a smaller-scale, grassroots, and symbiotic economy can not only sustain, but enhance the collective threads of our human community. The sustainable movement, while creating a very profound and deep-rooted sense of belonging, participation, and community, allows us to become the living agents of what we believe in.

By and large, the only people within capitalism, within right-wing ideology who are political, are politicians, the rest are just consumers. The industrialization of the food system and of nearly everything we consume dictates, for example, our easy and convenient consumption of Tim Hortons's, our drinking bottled water and burning away plastic daily, feeding the petroleum dependency in the process. When we buy our groceries from supermarkets and megastores and continue to bolster the control of agribusiness and corporate food giants, we are propeling mass manufacturing, environmentally destructive packaging, and processed foods, consequently fueling the needless and irresponsible depletion of our natural resources, and spurring the ever flowing and ever growing government subsidies for corn and soy monoculture which continues to exacerbate the international food crisis to dangerous limits. Therefore, when we are unionists, or grassroots activists, environmentalists, or simply concerned citizens or families, even if we have altered our political consciousness, and we continue to allow our consumption habits to go unchanged, greedy, heedless, and completely unsustainable consumption habits, then we are only going halfway, only considering 50 % of the equation, and we fail to identify the crux of the problem, we fail to identify it as the affliction that it is.

You can make a difference by not buying corporate and processed foods as much as possible, by rejecting genetically modified vegetables, by reducing on plastic and packaging of all kinds. You can make a difference by reusing, by bringing your own bags and containers to do groceries, by eating only foods that grow from the earth, as much as possible if not entirely, and by buying local products, and supporting local organic farmers and sustainable community initiatives. We are not advocating drastic sacrifices or commitments, simply small and gradual changes in our daily habits.

You cannot force people to be right-wing free-market ideologists, but everyone has to eat, everyone has to wear clothing, everyone has to consume in some capacity. Good humans have their political and moral values, but capitalists own the system. That is what they have over us, that is how they hold us by the tail, but our consumption is our choice, and we absolutely have to take back that tactical advantage.

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