Reflecting on Nathan George’s “Trade As One” Seminar at the Justice Conference

You know that moment when you do something cool, like attend a great event? It could be a concert or a movie or a family celebration. You come home and while you know you can’t relive it you want to dwell on it a little more. And even if you could go back, you wouldn’t because you know it would lose that special quality of the moment. Still, we think about it, we listen to the album, the soundtrack, flip through pictures and talk about it with our family and friends. Well, I attended the Justice Conference last week and to avoid “consuming” the event, I’m trying to reflect on it as I place a high value on that practice. Reflection is part of my prayer life, part of my mapping what’s next, it’s part of my ministry and the exercise of blogging is my attempt to create some conversation and community. Every now and then, I think I have to say all this – thanks for reading.

The second workshop I attended was Trade As One founder Nathan George –
However encouraged/motivated I felt from the previous workshop (posted about here), I was quickly brought back to earth listening to Nathan. in fact, I felt worse than how I did when I woke up that morning from a few hours of sleep. In fact, it felt more like when you’ve been up all night with a crying infant and your older children poke their fingers in your eyes so you can make them breakfast. There’s that thought of, “How am I going to get through the day from this starting point?”

Fair Trade, Buying and Living Ethically – here we go.
Nathan opened up with these quotes:

“We the lucky billion, now spend most our lives seeking even greater and subtler refinements in what we perceive to be our quality of life.” nicer clothes, better music, more comfortable furniture, more interesting holidays, more convenient technology, more unusual variation of food, a more secure retirement. It does’t get much better than this.

Our grandparents, let alone the generations prior, would look at us win amazement. They would see us living like kings and pharaohs, with every conveniences we dealt with, every basic human need met, and our arguments on what needs to improve going to ever greater refinements of all this. They would hear us complain about interest rates, not being able to afford a larger house or a renovation and having a degree of uncertainty that we will be able to live this lifestyle when we stop working. A few generations ago, no one stopped working unless they were dead, let alone spent their latter years in physical com rot with decent health care.”
Paul Gilding, The Great Disruption

This is the workshop that may have messed me up the most.  How do we get through if this is our starting point or new reality?  This quote gives incredible perspective. Though a bit over-stated and not true of everyone, it’s hard not to see yourself somewhere in there.

Here’s another:

Like most people, I am convicted by this. I have been for quite some time. It feels like each day we get new stats, anecdotes and sometimes guilt trips. You could go crazy thinking about this stuff. Even the most innocent of thoughts like, “I should read The Great Disruption. I’m sure Amazon has it. Oh wait, that’s more consumption and I definitely have too many books. E-book version, who gets the money from that? Am I taking away money from the laborers, eliminating printing jobs probably. I should order it through my library, walk over to pick it up, but am I not just feeding a system that is just going to turn around and tax me more? Forget it, I should just watch some tv, take a nap, eat some Oreos …”

You really could go crazy. The truth is my heart breaks over the idea that what I am buying/doing/living right now is hurting someone else. That’s not a guilt trip – that is needed knowledge that I can’t get over. Further, I understand that I am only partially to blame for this but I also understand that it means I can contribute to the solution … at least somewhat. Also, while I do not consider myself to be an “environmentalist,” I am very concerned that we are not proper stewards of God’s creation. For instance we are told that our global population is currently using 1.5x the amount of natural resources the earth is able to provide. I’m not talking about pollution nor damaging effects to the environment, I’m concerned about our greed – mine first.

I am drawn to the idea of fair-trade. Not simply for the idea of “clearing my conscience” however (a term that would take too much time to unpack here). I am drawn to practices like fair-trade because I want to be a person that honors God and lives in a way that demonstrates genuine care for others. This is right-living, i.e. righteous living, i.e. just living, etc.

I like the idea of fair trade, I buy it “when I can.” Which I think is a polite way of saying “sometimes.” Which in truth, is not as often as I wish. The most consistent fair trade product I have purchased is coffee … by far. I’ve been buying fair-trade coffee for the last 5 years easy. It’s better quality, it’s distribution is fairly streamlined, which allows it to be fresh. Some of these bags of coffee come with great stories like from Land of a Thousand Hills and One Village (the coffee I choose to freely endorse on this blog). Now, the question I ask myself, would I buy fair-trade coffee because it’s ethical or because I believe it tastes better to my snobby coffee palette? May God be my judge but it’s always felt natural.

The second fair-trade product I buy is chocolate for similar reasons. However the difference with chocolate is that  we have many more options of great chocolate that are not fair-trade (in comparison with coffee). I generally buy fair-trade chocolates as gifts for my wife but I admit I do wince at the cost usually being at least three times a similar product.

And here’s the coming fear – I, like many, am not sure today how I can buy fair-trade products in the basic necessities on a constant basis. So the question can buying fair-trade be a sustainable lifestyle habit? Further, if buying fair-trade costs even twice as much, it’s not possible for many of us. I’m not sure that’s even fair to the customer.  Honestly, while it may be a blind spot for me, it doesn’t feel as obvious, simple or natural as buying fair-trade coffee.

Can I admit that without receiving a beating with clubs? If not, please make sure you are beating me with fair-trade clubs that have been ethically made out of God’s creation and that you have purchased the necessary carbon footprint offsets. If using metal clubs, please insure they are not made from “blood-metals.” And if you are going to harshly attack my concern with fair-trade products in the comment section, please be sure to use a fair-trade computer/device/ i.e. “digital clubs” ;)

The truth is, my wife and I talk about this all the time – how can we honor God and others with the way we live? We also see this as an important time of building life-long practices as a young family – we have three and our oldest isn’t even 5 yet.  We really believe these conversations are crucial in shaping our family culture.

Everyone has their own context, their own strengths, opportunities and limitations. Though we are not living paycheck to paycheck, we are trying to be wise and generous with our finances. Further, we have chosen to live off one salary during this season of life. While this affords us a family “luxury” it is also carries a different type of “price.”

It seems to lack integrity to say that we should put off trying to buy more fair-trade during a different season of life. Trying to live more ethically (and justly) seems like an odd thing to procrastinate on.

Nathan offered these practical next steps:

Calculate your carbon footprint.

Reduce debt.

Restructure your financial plan.

Every time I play with those online carbon footprint calculators, it tells me that I have single-handedly destroyed parts of the Arctic. I swear I don’t drive an SUV nor use AXE products. In fact, I drive my family crazy with turning off the lights (“God gave you eyes that can squint!” and turning down the heat, “God gave you hoodies from American Apparel” – and those darn hoodies better be good enough because they are expensive.)

Fortunately, besides our mortgage, we don’t have debt so working on our financial plan is where we’ve been spending our energies. We do have some indulgences like cable tv and … um, well we have two cats … (“Honey, the fair-trade guy at the Justice Conference says we gotta get rid of the cats!”). I can’t really think of many other indulgences but in looking at the budget, it feels like the only thing we can cut out these days is tithing to our church (“We’re so holy!”) and recycling gifts for birthday parties our kids are invited to (“We’re so popular!”).

Kidding. Truth be told, we’re finding some things. Nothing great, nothing huge but the conversations though sometimes tense,  have been good for us. And I think we have come down to two conclusions:

1. Let’s keep moving forward in buying more ethically. We can’t overhaul our entire grocery list but we can do things incrementally.
2. Let’s think in lifelong family practices.

Check out Trade As One’s site  – a lot worth considering.

And this video is only 2.5 mins.  And there’s an incredible line at the end, “If each person who goes to church purchases just one fair trade product, it would lift one family out of poverty for one year …”  May it be true.

They have this subscription service of fairly traded, ethically produced products that we are considering signing up for. While, it hasn’t been an easy black and white decision to do it, the questions raised have been worthwhile.  We want to do better, want to honor God, live justly, and serve others.

Your thoughts?  One of things we keep saying is having community in this conversation is extremely necessary.

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