Christmas Shopping and the Problem of Cheap Textiles

Janine Giordano Drake

I am struck these days by the candidate social problems that have been adopted by large numbers of American Christians as causes for concern, and those which are more often forgotten about. I am glad to see that American clergy are talking openly about race at Christian Century. On the topic of Ferguson, Dr. Leslie Callahan, pastor of St. Paul's Baptist Church in Philadelphia, comments in a terrific interview with Ed Blum,

"If pastors have not developed their own theological imagination and stimulated their own hope for a transformed world and if that imagination and hope are not present as a part of their normal homiletical conversation, their discussion in times of crisis will be shallow and their witness will appear inauthentic to their congregations."

A hundred years ago, this kind of comment might be categorized as typical of the modern, Progressive, Protestant tradition which defended the (Protestant) Church in a moment of great urban distress. Sixty or seventy  or eighty years ago, evangelicals might have dismissed a comment like this as "liberal," and smelling suspiciously of commie ideas. Today, I'm heartened to see large numbers of evangelicals and liberals together wrestling through the realities of systemic racism and the particular ways in which their Christian faith requires a positive response, and awareness, of the problems of worldly injustice. I am struck by this article in Christianity Today, a major evangelical publication, on on How Evangelicals Can Respond to the Ferguson decision. I also liked this article on the question, "Are you my brother's keeper?" in Religion Dispatches. All over the internet and all over churches in the US, I've seen religious communities uniting around the idea that Christ called people to use their lives on earth to become aware of, and redeem, systemic injustice.

Yet, despite these moments of seeing "Social Gospel" written all over web magazines, sermons, and casual conversations, I see it unevenly developed. American evangelicals seem more aware of of the systematic privileges associated with race (and perhaps class) within the US, but less aware of those associated with nationality. Ministries for fair-trade sales and micro-enterprise development, such as Ten Thousand Villages, are not as popular as one might have expected them to be by 2014. It's more trendy than I would have expected to be environmentally conscious, but less trendy than I would have expected to think of purchasing fair-trade Christmas presents from around the world. Conversations in evangelical publications on the ethics of purchasing are rare, and more rare than I would have expected--even ten years or fifteen ago. For a while, I was finding this quite puzzling.

Yet, I just finished Pietra Rivoli's fascinating book, Travels of a T-Shirt that has illuminated for me how the conversation on ethical consumption is changing. Some of us may have heard of "Planet Money's T-Shirt Project," directly based on Rivoli's book, which was broadcast last December. In both the book and NPR's interpretation of the book, sweatshops are cast as healthy, if temporary, first stages of capital production. Rivoli and NPR each discuss textile sweatshops of today (symbolic emblems of all manufacture) as indicative of unwelcoming conditions, but not as abusive as our pictures of them, nor as bad as sweatshops of years ago. They admit that workdays are long, and health and working conditions could be improved, but emphasize that unions and other labor advocates have been improving workers' experiences. Moreover, they emphasize that most of the people who work in these shops only do so for a  portion of their lives. The paltry money earned and accumulated by young women workers develops the economy in important ways. Rivoli blames the degraded nature of Chinese sweatshop conditions--to the extent that she admits this--on the failure of that country to endorse free market principles; the Chinese government's enforced segregation of urban and rural workers is the cause, in her analysis, of the fact that there are so many workers willing to accept such low wages, and thus that the market is only slowly driving wages upwards. Overall, the authors talk about sweatshops as economically productive, first stages in economic development. They emphasize how the upside of the "race to the bottom" in terms of cost of labor and materials is the economic development of countries deemed too wealthy for sweatshops to remain in place. In the end, while Rivoli's intention is much more nuanced, the book and series ultimately reinforce the age-old message of Adam Smith: that buying mass-produced cheap textiles is really not so bad in the end.

I have no idea to what extent Rivoli's work (and the NPR segment which was inspired by it) have contributed to the continued American craving for cheap Christmas presents, especially clothes and toys. I don't know if the craving for buying lots of presents for friends and family would have changed--or even been slightly curbed--by popular teachings, or religious teachings, which emphasized the ethics of producing and consuming cheap goods. I do wonder, though.

I wondered even more when I got to the conclusion of Rivoli's absolutely fascinating, must-read (yet totally Smithian) book about the economics of producing, consuming, and disposing of cotton textiles in the US, from the 1600s forward. (While I'm critical, I still recommend everyone read this book because it taught me so much.) That is, the last section of the book is a dedicated response to those Christians who have rebuffed free-market economics in the interest of ethics (presumably, caring for the poor through market protections). She responds not with ethics, but Christian history. She points to the fact that all the ancients debated whether or not "trade" in itself was holy or worthwhile. Trade, she argues, has been vilified by Christians on and off for centuries, yet not with good reason. True to her incredibly eloquent thesis, Rivoli concludes that the production and consumption of cheap goods is ultimately about accepting the importance of "trade."

 Is trade a simple thing that is either good or bad, or is there a well-developed theology of trade that we 21st century Americans rarely get access to? If there is, why do Americans see so little of it in most American church experiences?  As I ponder this question in light of Dr. Callahan and other theologians' eloquent responses to Ferguson, I am struck by the extraordinary potential of transformation when religious leaders label something worthy of attention, and the extraordinary loss involved in of forgetting about other important concerns.


Tom Van Dyke said…
A hundred years ago, this kind of comment might be categorized as typical of the modern, Progressive, Protestant tradition which defended the (Protestant) Church in a moment of great urban distress. Sixty or seventy or eighty years ago, evangelicals might have dismissed a comment like this as "liberal," and smelling suspiciously of commie ideas.

Oh, I imagine most still would, except for the "commie" part, an outdated pejorative used today only on the left.

As for the rest of your piece, "is trade a simple thing that is either good or bad?" is the first question to be answered--if economic freedom, enlightened self-interest, and the "invisible hand" are "natural laws" if you will, that they comport with human nature and create more plenty than any other scheme of politics or even religion.

Faced with potential starvation in the spring of 1623, the colony decided to implement a new economic system. Every family was assigned a private parcel of land. They could then keep all they grew for themselves, but now they alone were responsible for feeding themselves. While not a complete private property system, the move away from communal ownership had dramatic results.

This change, Bradford wrote, had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. Giving people economic incentives changed their behavior. Once the new system of property rights was in place, the women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability.

To ignore these "natural laws" [if they are indeed natural laws] would be indefensible ideological folly.

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