By David Chiles
There are few things we U.S. citizens value more than options. Look at our malls or grocery stores, and you’ll find a multitude of options from which to choose what we want. And how much we want. We can have it all.
How can this be a bad thing? After all, we work hard to access our options, right? We are fortunate enough to live in a country that provides us many freedoms, and perhaps chief among them, the freedom to choose.
But consider Concha, a woman in Mexico who sews pants for a living. She works in a U.S.-owned factory, called a maquiladora, and everything she produces is exported to be sold in our discount stores. For her labor, Concha is paid about six dollars per day, $36 per week. At this pay rate, she must live in a squatter’s community that lacks running water, paved roads, sewage, or a sufficient number of schools or health clinics. She has children, but can’t afford to send them to school beyond the sixth grade. Without schooling, her children’s only career option is to work, like their mother, in the factories.
I love my options. When I go to the store, I can buy many articles of clothing produced by Concha and women like her. I can buy televisions produced by her neighbor (the average US household has more TVs than people). I demand my options, and businesses provide them by keeping the costs of production low, by paying Concha her six dollars per day. Concha has no choice but to use her money for basic survival, for food. I have my options because Concha has none.
This is a long argument boiled down to its essential element. I don’t want to give us the option of missing the point.
Is there another way? We can practice simplicity, limiting what we accumulate. This won’t lead directly to a better life for Concha, and our friends will probably ask what will happen to the workers when even these measly factories close. Simplicity, of course, isn’t an end but a means. It frees us to reestablish our priorities. If I’m not living to accumulate things, for what am I living? Think of the options this presents, such as all the ways we can contribute to making our community and our world a better place.
When we need to buy things, we can also consider fair trade. A drawback of shopping fair trade, an alternative system that ensures the Concha’s of the world are fairly compensated for their labor, is that it limits our options. There aren’t as many stores where we can shop or products we can purchase, and often things cost more, so we can’t buy as much. The fair trade industry is growing and can further expand, but only if driven by our demand. So let us forget for a moment the governments that exploit their people, the businesses flouting human rights. Let’s ask ourselves where we fit into the picture.
We can exercise our option to buy as much as we want, wherever we want. Or we can exercise our option to live with integrity, removing clutter from our lives while making decisions that affirm the dignity of our brothers and sisters.
The choice, of course, is ours.
Currently a member of the Annunciation House Board of Directors, David Chiles served as a volunteer with Annunciation House from 1998-2001. David is currently the Director of the Wolfington Center at Cabrini College in Pennsylvania. The Wolfington Center works with faculty, students, and community partners to promote a just and compassionate society.