Sarah Kroger: Seeing Ethical Trade Firsthand

‘If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.’ —Saint Teresa of Calcutta

I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade. I remember learning about the Church’s teaching on social justice several times throughout my academic career. I found it interesting, but it was never something that was personal to me.

I thought social justice was something I could be a part of from time to time, like volunteering at a soup kitchen or with an organization like Habitat for Humanity. But overall, social justice seemed like a much bigger issue, one for the Church to deal with as an institution. My small life and my decisions as a consumer surely didn’t have that big of an impact on the world, particularly when it came to shopping for clothes.

I was completely naive to the fact that by blindly giving my business to certain clothing companies, I was participating in a consumer culture whose main goal is to make as much money as possible, whatever the cost. I knew nothing about these companies’ business practices, let alone how their clothes were made or how they treated their employees.

The first time I heard about sweatshops and child labor was when I was in college. I remember stumbling upon a website with a list of 50 or so clothing companies whose practices were found to be “questionably ethical.” I couldn’t believe that some of the major companies I had supported without a second thought were guilty of allowing deplorable working conditions and paying unjust wages. It finally became personal to me. I felt responsible for supporting the immoral actions of these companies. There had to be another way.

In 2013, I was invited to go on a trip with Catholic Relief Services to Ghana, Africa. It was one of the most influential experiences of my life. Throughout the trip, we had the opportunity to visit several fair trade projects organized by CRS. One of my favorites was a project that employed women to weave baskets and purses. By working with CRS, the women were paid fair wages and provided a clean, safe work environment. They were able to support their families in a way that was previously not possible. This is the power of ethical trade.

Because of the consumer culture in the United States, it’s easy to fall into a habit of buying things just to “keep up with the Joneses.” In the past, clothes were like an addiction for me. I was obsessed with the idea of having all the latest fashion trends. As a result, my closet and dressers were filled with so much clothing that there was no way I could ever wear it all within a year.

After returning from my trip to Ghana, my perspective completely shifted. I had witnessed people with just one piece of clothing live with total joy and satisfaction. I started to realize I had an unhealthy attachment to clothing. It’s something I’ve had to fight ever since, even going as far as doing “clothing fasts” where I only wear 7 items of clothing for an entire month.

The fact is, ethical trade is a pro-life issue. We are all consumers. We all purchase goods, and every single thing we purchase is attached to a human being in some way. As Catholics, we have a responsibility to recognize that where we decide to spend our money effects lives.

I will be honest: Shopping for clothing ethically 100% of the time is difficult. It’s extremely easy to turn a blind eye to a company’s practice when you’re in need of an outfit quickly. But thanks to the internet, ethical shopping has never been more accessible. It’s not difficult anymore to find a variety of stores that make quality, ethically made products. By supporting ethical trade, we uphold the dignity of life.

We are all a part of the one beautiful, messy, broken body of Christ. When one of us suffers, the entire body suffers. This is not an issue that can be ignored. It must be a part of our daily lives.

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