OPINION | Star Wars and Fair Trade vs. Free Trade

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Two local Ninja-Jedis. Photo: Terry Buhler

By Lisa Hilton-

Each of us has a light side and a dark side. This is part of why Star Wars holds an appeal for us… we can relate.

I am reminded of this on a daily basis, by each of my three children. No matter how hard I try to teach them to be fair, to share with each other, to be kind to each other, it seems each of their little dark sides manages to rear its ugly head on a daily, if not hourly, basis. And then at other times, their little light sides amaze me with their random acts of kindness and compassion, and their spontaneous “I love yous.”

Adults, though more subtle with their greed, selfishness, and self-centredness, have just as much a propensity for the dark and the light as their smaller selves.
One example of hidden adult inclinations masked by terminology and rationalization is the term “Free Trade.” Sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? Both the Liberal and the Conservative parties ran a platform during the last election promoting Canada’s involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. So, if Canada’s two most popular political parties are for it, who could be against it?

Once we understand what we’re actually talking about, we begin to see how each and every purchasing decision we make essentially moves us in one direction or the other—towards the light of just and fair international business relations, and the hope of a peaceful and sustainable future for our children, or towards an oppressive, self-serving regime (dare I say, an “empire”) controlled by massive and greedy corporations, their owners, and the governments they pay for.
Free Trade essentially means “freedom from regulation.” If a market has no tariffs, duties, quotas, or restrictions of any kind, it is considered “free.”

There exists no truly “free” market anywhere in the world today, and there is a very good reason for this any good parent, teacher, or responsible citizen understands: safety and protection. Before all of the economists of the world scream “protectionism” and refuse to read on, let us consider just one more important concept. Perhaps, just perhaps, there are some things, and beings, more valuable than money and profit.

Nobody wants unnecessary rules and regulations that get in the way of purchasing what we want, when we want (or selling what we want, when we want), but when there are rules in place to protect the environment, workers’ rights, or a country’s ability to provide a livable minimum wage for its people, taking these protections away looks more like slavery than freedom, especially for the workers at the bottom of the Free Trade heap.
When huge corporations hire people whose main job description it is to get prices even lower, at factories that are known fire-traps, with no fire-extinguishers in the places they’re said to be, sometimes even with chains on the doors or bars in the windows, in countries with no livable minimum wage, it is mind boggling that this can be described as Free Trade. Ignoring the rules and regulations that protect workers, and inhibiting the formation of protectionist laws and unions in countries where they are so desperately needed, is the name and game of Free Trade—despite the philanthropic sentiments that are written so eloquently into their agreements.
When questioned about what they are doing to protect workers’ rights, many companies will reference Voluntary Codes of Conduct. An honest analyst, who has actually researched these Codes of Conduct and their impact on the real world, will inform you they aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. When something is an “option” and not an enforceable law, it’s pretty difficult for it to impact anyone. All of this so we can candy-coat the obscenely low prices we’ve gotten used to. Another problem with insisting on getting prices lower and lower, is we end up with massive excess and a glutted system.
Currently, around 600,000 tonnes of clothing/textiles are entering Canadian landfills every year, 95 percent of which could easily be re-used or recycled. At our little local clothing store, there are items regularly coming in with the tags still on, that obviously have never been worn. This is where my family story begins.
About 100 years ago, my great-grandmother decided she needed a new dress for the local yearly barn dance, where she was fated to meet my great-grandfather. She decided to go out and get a job. She worked at that job for at least two or three months before she had enough money to buy a pair of shoes and the material for that new dress. Then she asked the local dressmaker to sew it together for her, and in return, she worked a month or two for her. Within three or four months she had her new dress.
How long does it take us to acquire a new piece of clothing nowadays, and how long does it take us to pay for it? Maybe one or two hours at minimum wage? And $20 might even be considered expensive in our current marketplace, especially in the children’s clothing world. In 1927, it cost between $7 and $12 to buy a ready-made party gown, and a simple everyday frock was $5 to $10. Then, just a couple of years ago, H&M came out with a party gown that costs $5 for an item shipped around the world, and not tailored locally. Whatever happened to the concept of “inflation”? Isn’t the cost of living supposed to be going up, not down?
For our store, it costs $7 to ship one clothing item from Montreal to Williams Lake. How are clothing items going through multiple levels of production, multiple pairs of hands, and multiple countries, and cost less than this? How is it possible to pay anyone fairly, at any of those levels for less than it costs to ship one item across our own country?
Who is driving the system? The workers? The corporations? Who is it that wants us to buy more and more of this unnecessary stuff? And who is willing to buy it?

The answer is surprisingly clear and empowering: it is us, the consumer, who ultimately drives the system. Without somebody buying their stuff, companies simply cease to exist. And consumers have spoken loud and clear: we like it new, and we like it cheap.
In the early 90s, North America was still making around 50 percent of its own clothing. Now North America manufactures only three percent of its clothing. Most companies like to deal with countries compelled by Free Trade agreements to keep their labour and environmental laws to a minimum, so products can be made cheaply and in massive quantities. Why are these the products most consumers choose to buy? What does this say about our values and the side we choose to be on?
Fair Trade is an attempt to say there is something wrong with this system. There is something wrong with a building collapsing on and killing over a thousand workers in a garment factory that was illegally built, and is producing even more cheap clothing that will end up in the landfill in a year’s time.
Fair Trade is an attempt to say workers’ rights and the environment are worth more than the right to get the cheapest prices humanly possible, while filling the pockets of the world’s wealthiest CEOs.
Fair Trade is an attempt to say we choose the light side over the dark, and we choose to pass a world full of light, rather than of darkness, on to our children.
No human being, just like no corporation, is perfect. Fair Trade is an acknowledgment of that fact, and an attempt to do better.
Just like the Jedi needed to train intensely, so do we need to educate ourselves intensely to know which side we are truly on. And with Anakin as our example, even when someone has spent a whole lot of their life on the dark side, it is never too late. The empire can be resisted at any age or stage of life, and the more of us willing to support and educate each other, the better.
Though the empire is strong, the force is stronger, and the sooner we all join the light, the better we’ll be.

Born a Williams Laker, Lisa managed two seasonal Ten Thousand Villages stores, and currently co-owns and operates Alternative Kids Clothing in Williams Lake.

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