August 3, 2016

​A Fair-trade Faith

Making sure we get the most for our money.

Nathan Brown

When visiting churches, I always find it interesting to scan the church’s notice board. Some are pristine in their neatness and currency; others offer a broad and seemingly haphazard selection of past and present events, projects, products, and promotions. But whatever the curating or upkeep of the notice board, they each offer glimpses into the life, ministry, community, and priorities of that church.

While I was attending an event at a church of another denomination a couple years ago, this curiosity led me to linger in front of their crowded notice board. I noticed a single sheet that announced that this local church was certified as a “Fair Trade Faith Group.” It caught my attention and subsequent research found that this was recognition by the Fair Trade Association in Australia as a church committed “to supporting fair trade through using fair-trade products and raising awareness”1 of the issues of fair trade.

The Price of Our Products

Sadly, this caught my attention because it seemed an unusual certificate to display on a church notice board. In my experience of church executive committee, board, or business meetings, issues such as fair trade, and the potential impact of our purchasing and voices, are rarely prioritized. Our healthy focus on stewardship of our resources has been more likely to push us toward seeking the cheapest possible price for products that we might use in church programs, rather than considering the cost that these cheap products might exact from the people who grow, make, or produce them.

While activists have worked to focus our attention on these issues for decades, tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, in which more than 1,100 garment factory workers died, have highlighted the unsafe and exploitative working conditions and low wages of too many workers in our world.

But this kind of tragedy is only the dramatic headline of a much larger problem. Many of our cheap products and foods come from sweatshops or even slavery in fields and factories, primarily but not exclusively in the developing world.2 And many of the world’s largest companies do this because they know that cheap prices are often more important to us as consumers—and large profits more important to them—than treating poor, oppressed, and exploited people more fairly.

Production in the developing world is cheaper because companies can pay inordinately lower wages than a counterpart in the developed world—often to the point of exploitation (consider Deut. 24:14). There is often less regulation requiring safe and humane working conditions, and no need to comply with or pay the costs of environmental safeguards (consider Rev. 11:18). This globalized economy exploits and entrenches economic and political disparity between nations and people. As such, it “depends on the violent branding of the world’s labouring poor,”3 assuming that in some way “they” are a different class of people to “us.”

Stewardship of People

While stewardship of our money—as a church and as individuals—is important, stewardship of people is always more important. And in this regard the Bible has a particular focus on the poor: “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but helping the poor honors him” (Prov. 14:31, NLT).4 Commenting on this explicit statement (among other similar statements in the Old Testament), theologian Christopher Wright points out that “the poor should be treated with the dignity that reflects the fact that they too are created by the same God. Indeed, what we do to or for them we do to or for God”5—referring, of course, to Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (see Matt. 25:31-46).

These passages express the link in both positive and negative senses. In oppressing and exploiting those who are weak and vulnerable—or participating in economic activity that ignores these terrible costs—we actively deny our mutual Creator and thus deny substantive belief in creationism as a core element of our faith in the God we serve. As the faithful people of God this is a question that gets to the heart of our relationship with Him who claims our honor, worship, and obedience.

Similarly, while many of the statements of the Ten Commandment are brief, Ellen White urges that we ought not underestimate the breadth of their impact. For example, the sixth commandment—“You must not murder” (Ex. 20:13, NLT)—summarizes and includes, in White’s reading, “all acts of injustice that tend to shorten life” as well as “a selfish neglect of caring for the needy or suffering; all self-indulgence or unnecessary deprivation or excessive labor that tends to injure health.”6

In her survey, the prohibition against stealing (verse 15) also condemns “slave dealing, and forbids wars of conquest.” It “demands strict integrity in the minutest details of the affairs of life. It forbids overreaching in trade, and requires the payment of just debts or wages,” as well as prohibiting “every attempt to advantage oneself by the ignorance, weakness, or misfortune of another.”7

A Test of Faith

We live in an economic system and consumer society that make it difficult not to do these things. Those of us who are not obviously poor or exploited benefit from the exploitation and oppression of others in many everyday ways, often without realizing it. And even those who are not overtly privileged are still part of a system that profits from so much that is wrong and broken. But many of us also make countless choices every day as to how and what we use and consume. More and more resources are available, such as ethical shopping guides,8 to help us make these choices in ways that can cause the least harm to others while supporting companies that seek better production and people practices.

Some of these choices will cost more, but this is a necessary adjustment to our sense of stewardship. Both personally and corporately, “Christians cannot be Christians without making their economic involvements, local and global, a test of their faith.”9

Writing to the early church, James agreed. He was scathing of those who profited from the exploitation of others: “Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The wages you held back cry out against you. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies” (James 5:4, NLT). It seems James would have appreciated a “fair-trade” church, being a community of Christians who prioritize other people in how they use their money in their individual and collective lives. It isn’t so much about a certificate on your church notice board as about making better choices to help the world be a little fairer to other people God created and loves—and, in so doing, to honor Him.

  2. Recent estimates suggest that 45.8 million people are held in slavery in the world today, many of them working in agriculture, manufacturing, or construction industries:
  3. Tom Beaudoin, Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are With What We Buy, 2nd ed. (Lanham, Md.: Sheed & Ward, 2007), p. x.
  4. Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
  5. Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2004), p. 106.
  6. Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890), p. 308.
  7. Ibid., p. 309.
  8. See, for example, (U.S.), (U.K.), or (Australia).
  9. Beaudoin, pp. x, xi.

Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing, Warburton, Victoria, Australia.

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