Fair Trade

November 22, 2007 Length: 10:10

The poor in many other countries often rely on skills handed down to them by their ancestors. But what about the poor in America?





I’ve got a whole box of stuff here. This is tissue paper, it’s wrapped around little papier-mâché Christmas ornaments from India. And they’re all hand painted and there’s so much detail. I’m looking at one, it’s got a band of colors on top and another band on the bottom, and the middle is painted blue, and it’s dotted with—there must be a hundred little stars, and one, two, three, four, five angels, smiling with their wings stretched out and touching each other.

I bought this at a shop near me that’s a fair trade shop, sponsored by the Brethren Church. And they’ve got stuff there from everywhere. I got a bunch of these Christmas ornaments—here’s another set of them. He’s some little gourds from Kenya, and I thought, but there’s no hole in them, how’d they get the rattle inside? I guess it just dries and then it’s the seeds make the rattle. And this has been extensively carved and dyed and there’s an elephant and a rhinoceros and a zebra walking around the edge of it.

You know, it would take me a couple of days to do this carving. Again, we’ve got these gourds. Here’s a big one, listen to this; I don’t know what this thing is called. [Rattling sounds] That’s kind of loud. When I bought it, the lady said, ‘That’s the Ricky Ricardo.’ It’s a large gourd. And someone has gone to the trouble of taking those little tiny pinecones, the kind of seed-size pinecones, and sewed them together around the ball of the gourd, and made a net, so that when you turn it, this net of little tiny pinecones rubs against it and makes a rattling sound.

That’s the tip of the iceberg, of what I’ve got here. A little papier-mâché heart, painted in gold and red, and some more little carved and painted animals, here’s a very nice pillow cover with appliqué cat faces, made in Vietnam. A hand-dyed scarf from India. This is the one, though, that I had something to say about. You can hear this is a ceramic box, a lidded box, it’s stoneware, it’s not a real crisp white, it’s a slightly creamy-colored, and it’s painted all over with blue flowers and leaves, and it’s from Vietnam.

This store handles all these objects as a way of helping poor people in other lands band together, sell their crafts, and make a fair wage for them, which is why this is called fair trade. So they negotiate a good price, a fair price, for these things, and then import them and sell them in the US. You can get clothing and pocketbooks, musical instruments and jewelry; I’m wearing a nice necklace of glass beads from India.

Well, here’s the thing that interested me: I looked on the bottom of this ceramic box, and it has two stickers. One says, ‘Made in Vietnam,’ that’s for the box, and there’s another one that says, ‘Made in the USA.’ And I wondered what would possibly be from the USA. Well, there’s a little plastic-wrapped square of soap in the box. Lavender sage soap, it says, with all natural ingredients. So I thought, well, I guess there’s a co-op in the US like these other workshops overseas, where they’re making these soaps. But I found that this is the only thing I could find in the whole store that was made in the US. However the soaps are made by a company that makes all-organic, no-animal-product soaps. But that actually is not what the work of the cooperative for women. The fair trade cooperative is made of women who are, it said, either homeless or substance-addicted. And what they do is they package the soaps. They take the soaps out of the box that comes from the factory, and then they put them inside other things. Like a beautiful little box here, a heart-shaped box that was made in Vietnam.

Does that strike you as kind of strange? I mean, I can look around that store and I can see beautiful things made by very poor people everywhere in the world. I see design. Women mostly, I think, are represented here, and some woman had a wonderful idea for this green and purple pillow with three little cat faces across it; it’s just so charming. The batik scarves, the musical instruments, even this wonderful stoneware, which, I’d like to have some more of that stuff.

Women in other lands are creative. They’re artists. They’re expressing themselves. They’re making things that are inherently beautiful. And they’re able to work hard and to ship it halfway around the world and actually get some income from it. The only thing that I know of that women in the US are doing is repackaging. And that doesn’t surprise me too much. It’s hard to imagine a group of poor homeless women in the US getting together and making quilts, or batiking scarves or making musical instruments. We kind of don’t expect that. We kind of expect that the people you know, no matter how wealthy or poor they are, they’re just not going to have much in the way of creative skills.

And that’s a shame. I mean, there must be so much that our mothers, grandmothers and great-great grandmothers knew that we’ve forgotten, and we just have no way of recovering.

A related story is, I read once about a guy who was studying the ways that people make their own housing if they’re very poor. What do they use to make shelter from? And he went back to the area where the tsunami had been, a couple of years ago; he went back four months later, and he said people were already rebuilding. Where their land was, they had cleared off the garbage, they had cleared off the rubble, and with their own hands they were building homes again.

And he said, ‘Then I went to New Orleans a year after Katrina. Nobody was doing any building. Nothing had been cleared. People were sometimes still waiting to receive their trailer.’

Now a factor there that may be, we have to acknowledge, that if you have this sort of wild card of home insurance, it complicates how much you think you ought to clear off your land and start building a new place. Maybe you have to leave everything in the state it is until all the verification is done and then you have to have them do it, and it might just complicate it if you built for yourself.

At the same time, you know, people for the most part would not be *capable* of building their own home. How did we lose these skills? What happened to cause this?

One thing, I think, is that our culture got so wealthy that we changed from being the kind of society where people make the things that they need, or buy things made from somebody they know on a local basis, to being one where nearly everything you own, you buy and somebody else made it. And the more that happens, the more you forget how to make stuff. You’re no longer seeing people in your neighborhood making cheese, and carding wool, and making things from scratch.

There’s a loss in the sense that we got wealthy enough that we didn’t have to produce our own beauty. So we have lost our artistic capabilities. We’ve lost that wonderful sense of initiative and accomplishment, when you could make your own beautiful stuff. We’ve lost a lot of wisdom that way. And I think that loss of creativity is one of those things you just take for granted, because that’s the way we grew up; we don’t expect to be making things. I guess one of the only ways we see this kind of creativity in Orthodoxy is when people are paining icons.

Anyway, I just wanted to talk about that, because was something I kept thinking about driving home, on the way back, that there are poor women all around the world, and poor men, too, who are able to express themselves and to continue to pass down these century-old traditions that go back and back, about how to actually do things. And we in the US are impoverished and ignorant. For all our wealth, for all that we can buy whatever we want, we can’t have the thing that we can imagine, we can only buy what everybody else is buying. And if we are not able to buy it we just couldn’t have it at all. I think that we’ve lost a great deal.