A Fair Balance

September 1, 2013

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 8:1-4, 13-15

Reading the United Church Observer magazine and checking out its website is always interesting. I’m one of those people who stack my magazines when they come, and then take them with me to doctors’ offices, on planes and ferries, etc. It may take me up to 6 months to get to them, but it’s always worthwhile when I do. When I was thinking about Labour Day Sunday and what I might reflect on, I found a couple of articles in the United Church Observer, as well as one in Mandate, our Mission and Service publication, that touch on how we as Christian people can approach issues of justice related to the work of others. I should mention that while Mandate is a publication of the UCC, the Observer has an independent editorial board and operates at arm’s-length from United Church governance. One article that caught my eye in the Observer was called “Buy.Wear.Toss”, about the real cost of cheap clothing. Some of you will remember news stories about the fire in the Tazreen Fashions factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh last November. 112 workers died in the fire, in large part because the factory had not maintained safety standards. The factory sewed clothing for major international brands, including Walmart and Joe Fresh. Ironically, this all happened on “Black Friday” weekend – the annual shopping extravaganza in which people in the U.S. will line up for hours and even trample each other to get shopping bargains. “Proper safety regulations in the Tazreen factory would have added about 10 cents to the cost of each garment sewn there, estimates Kevin Thomas. He’s the director of advocacy for the Maquila Solidarity Network, a labour and women’s rights organization based in Toronto.” (http://www.ucobserver.org/features/2013/05/buy_wear_toss/ ) What is appalling about this story is how common it is. Despite pledges from numerous companies to do better, the cost of cheap goods to those who make them continues to be high. Whether it’s the poor people of China who risk terminal diseases to melt the precious metals out of discarded electronics, or the millions of men, women and children who labour in sweatshops all over the world for inadequate wages in unsafe conditions, there is a price to be paid for that $6 T-shirt or dollar store wrist watch. The article goes on to say: “When Canadian consumers expect low prices from large retailers like Walmart, Old Navy, Joe Fresh and now Target, factories must sew clothing at the lowest cost possible, keeping wages low for garment workers (factory workers in Bangladesh are paid less than $50 a month). Manufacturing clothes also depletes environmental resources, such as oil for polyester and water for cotton. …Americans threw out 13 million tons of textiles including clothing in 2010, of which 15 percent ended up being recycled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “ I imagine figures are proportionate in Canada. “We own more clothing than ever before,” says author Elizabeth Cline in an interview, busy promoting her 2012 book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. “We’ve really just got sucked into the buy-and-toss cycle of shopping, versus building a wardrobe over time, that long-term strategy of shopping.” One of the challenges, of course, is that it takes a good wage to afford better quality, longer-lasting clothing. The $60 “Made in Victoria” organic cotton T versus the $6 “Made in India” special is out of reach for many consumers – and ironically, the cycle is perpetuated by these large companies who keep wages low by discouraging unions, so their employees can’t imagine affording to buy anything other than what the companies offer. Crazy, isn’t it? Low wages for Canadians, low wages for overseas workers – hardly seems, right, does it? So what can we do? The article suggests ten ways we might approach this issue. Here are just a few: • “Look for quality clothes that will last. • Ask questions in the stores where you shop about how the clothing is manufactured, suggests Kevin Thomas of the Maquila Solidarity Network. “People writing letters to stores has an impact.” • Seek out clothing companies that consider the environmental impacts of their products. For example, Patagonia, a supplier of outdoor clothing, offers a repair service for broken zippers, and shoppers can return worn-out clothing to the store for recycling. • Buy clothing designed or made in Canada. (Ruth C. was telling me about a store she stumbled across in Duncan, where the owner makes all the clothing and will tailor or design whatever you request to fit. There are similar store all over the Island. ) • Shop at stores that offer more ethical fashion choices, including Mountain Equipment Co-op and fair trade shops like Ten Thousand Villages. (This way you’ll know that the workers and artists who made the clothing will benefit from the items you buy.) • Donate used clothing to local groups and charities like a daycare or homeless shelter (or the church Thrift Store). These smaller organizations may face competition from for-profit companies like Value Village in collecting used clothing. OR – like many people I know, buy a good portion of your wardrobe second-hand from a local consignment store or charity shop. You’ll be contributing to local employment and not contributing to the cycle of disposable fashion. • Mend your clothes when they need a simple fix like reattaching a button, or see a tailor for more complicated repairs. (I noticed that Juan de Fuca Rec Centre offers courses in basic sewing for those of us who are a little challenged in this area.)” In our shopping, we can be aware of the words of the Apostle Paul from our reading today. We can keep in mind the principle that “the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” (vs 15) The uncomfortable truth is that we live in a culture of “too much”. Perhaps it’s time to consider having a little less, so that others might have a little more. I know that this is not easy – I know that many of us struggle with how to balance our needs and the needs of others. I invite you simply to be aware of the difference between wants and needs, and consider choices carefully, in the Spirit of Paul’s words. For a different take on issues of work and justice, we can open up the latest issue of Mandate magazine. An article introduces us to a new mission partner called MiningWatch Canada. The article says it’s “a cross-Canadian initiative supported by environmental, social justice, Aboriginal, and labour organizations to alert Canadians about threats to public health, water and air quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and community sustainability posed by mining policies and practices at home and around the world.” (p. 11 Mandate, August 2013) In different parts of the world human rights defenders, environmental activists and union organizers are targeted for harassment, violence, and even murder by militias hired by mining companies. In many places, villages have been destroyed or made uninhabitable by pollution from mines. In other parts of the world, and here in Canada, resource-based activities create an ethical dilemma. For many, this is how they earn a living – and in Canada at least, it may be a much better wage than in another less ethically-complex field. That money is invested in communities and charitable institutions – like our churches. On the other hand, the activities of mining companies have negatively affected the lives of many. And just to make it more complicated, many of us have investments in mining through our pension funds or RRSPs. We want the money we have earned through our work to grow so that we have enough to live on in our retirement; but what happens when that increase in value is due to appalling conditions elsewhere? Another Observer article states “In a February report, the Peruvian government’s ombuds office counted 147 ongoing socio-environmental conflicts across the country and cited mining as the leading cause (conflicts in which grassroots organizers have been shot and killed by police, among other things). And yet, Peru’s mineral wealth and mining-friendly laws continue to make this Andean nation a top destination for international mining corporations — many of them Canadian. Nearly three-quarters of the world’s mining companies are registered in Canada, and about half of the world’s mining capital is raised in this country. Most Canadian citizens are unaware that they, too, profit from foreign gold mines. The Canada Pension Plan and several public and private pension funds — including The United Church of Canada’s pension fund — own substantial stocks in Canadian mining companies with foreign operations.” (http://www.ucobserver.org/features/2013/06/big_gold/) The UCC has been challenged on this for many years. Our partnership with MiningWatch is a good beginning, as the organization was able to bring a Canadian mining company to the table for the effects of its polluting practices in Papua New Guinea, and is currently preparing a petition for the House of Commons in October calling on our government to establish Canadian courts as a forum to take cases related to Canadian mining companies abroad. Nothing about these kinds of issues are black and white, but perhaps again we can take the advice of Paul when writing to the Corinthians: not that we should suffer unduly by the choices we make around our work and the investment of the money we earn, but that others receive their due – whether it be in monetary terms, or safe water and air and soil, or freedom from persecution. One of the great insights of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s was that our work is one of the ways we honour God. Another insight following on that is that the use of the resources earned by our labour is also one of the ways we honour God. In a world as interconnected as ours is, the choices you and I make impact the lives of people on the other side of the world – people like you and I who work hard for a living, to support their families – who want to be able to live and work and spend both their working years and their elder years in health and safety. All of us have been or are workers – whether we have worked at home and in the community without pay, or in the workplace for wages. All of us want justice and fairness in our working lives. The words of Paul challenge me. I look at my closet and think, “What does this say about how I view my own wants and needs compare to the needs of others?” I look at my investments and ask myself how I can be responsible without sacrificing my future wellbeing. I look at the wage I earn by my work and ask myself, “Am I sharing enough from my abundance with those who are struggling? Is the wage I earn at the cost of someone else’s well-being?” These are hard questions – questions for all of us. God grant us grace, insight, compassion, courage, and a thirst for justice, that abundance and need be balanced, and that all may have enough. Amen.

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