Thanksgiving, Black Friday, human trafficking and consumerism. One of these things doesn’t belong. Which one is it?
It might make you uncomfortable to know this but that was a trick question. These four are actually fairly woven together in a very complicated way. Let me tell you how.
Let’s start with the concept of consumerism. This is such an embedded aspect of our society that we often don’t take a step back to think about what it is and how it impacts our daily lives. Consumerism is, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, an ideology that encourages the consumption of goods. Basically, the more you consume, the better off you are.
This ideology actually sprang from the Depression. Wartime production had aided our country in rising out of the Depression era. This created more jobs with better wages…and more people ready and itching to consume. Soon, the consumption of goods was lauded as a national contribution and a patriotic duty.
A PBS article titled “The Rise of American Consumerism” quotes historian Lizabeth Cohen as saying, “The good purchaser devoted to ‘more, newer and better’ was the good citizen since economic recovery after a decade and a half of depression and war depended on a dynamic mass consumption economy.” To do their civic duty, civilians were buying items revolving around home and family life, in addition to cars and T.V.’s for the first time, to fill their suburban homes at an alarming rate.
As consumers, we learned as a society to consume. The problem is, we have kept that ideology and have taken it to the extreme. We now have up to three times more space than we did fifty years ago, and yet we still can’t fit all our stuff. Just look at the personal storage industry, which didn’t even exist fifty years ago. Now, personal storage is a $22 million industry.
So how does all of this tie into human trafficking? Journalist Noy Thruptkaew has been researching and writing about human trafficking for eight years. On a TED talk she gave, which we highly recommend and you can view HERE, Noy discusses how we have simplified human trafficking down to the concept of a bad man doing a bad thing to an innocent girl. That is incorrect and damaging, she says, because it releases societal responsibility. In reality, 68% of trafficking situations actually revolve around labor trafficking.
Labor trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. These labor or services include products and food that you and I consume on a daily basis. It includes people being trafficked to work on a cocoa farm (which ends up in your Halloween basket), a sewing factory (which ends up on your favorite shelves at your local retail store), or a fishing boat (which ends up in your local grocery store). We purchase these things every single week without a clue to whose hands plucked or gathered or sewed them.
And therein lies the connection between consumption and trafficking. It’s so deeply woven into our ideology of consuming that we don’t even realize we support trafficking each day as we demand more and more and more stuff.
Every week…probably even every day…every person in this country could probably make a list of ten or twenty things they still want that they think will make them happy. You probably could do. We are all guilty of it. When does it end? Have you considered that? What kind of day would it be if you simply said, I have all I need, I am good?
We don’t want to be good at just making you feel guilty. Here are some practical and fantastic ways you can combat the ideology of consumerism.
1. Change your ideology. We realize this is a habit, but it can be done! It takes practice and intentionality. Consider adopting the ideologies of thankfulness, sharing, simplification, and quality time. Catch yourself every time you go to buy something. What lens are you looking through as you make this purchase? Is it just a basic desire versus an actual need? Switch your lens. Consider gratitude. This instantly turns what you have into enough. As you walk through your house, switch your lens from consumption (I need a new desk there, a new clock here, new paint on the walls) to one of simplification (I could weed out half my clothes, donate half my kids’ toys, convert this furniture into that storage, thank you Pinterest).
2. Shop fair trade. We can’t stress this one enough. It’s a perfect place to start. The problem of trafficking and overcoming it can be so overwhelming, but if we start small, we can slowly empower ourselves to be educated. Choose one or two things you consume the most, and simply do your research on the companies that provide those products or services. Do they take care of their employees? Are they transparent about their business practices? Noy said in her TED talk that, “Trafficking happens where need meets greed. I’d like to add that it happens in sectors were workers are excluded from protections or denied right to organize.” Make sure the workers providing your favorite retail stores with food or products are taken care of and have workers’ rights.
3. Practice Generosity. Realize that a much faster and more efficient way to the contentment we all seek is to be generous with our resources. If we began to compare down instead of up, that is to say, comparing ourselves with those in need, we will not only see that we don’t need anything but we’ll also realize we have so much to give! (More ideas on minimizing your life can be found in THIS helpful article).
4. Becoming aware of the consumer-driven society in which we live and how it drives slavery. Educate yourself. Take notice of the lenses you look through as you make choices every day. Realize how simplifying your life can actually be very beneficial. Watch this TED talk to find out how! Educate yourself on trafficking. Don’t be overwhelmed by what you find, but find like-minded people who can help you make simple but significant changes. We can’t all do everything but we can all do something. Together, we can do even more.
5. Be thoughtful about your purchases. This can be easy to say, but hard to do. Try to look at this from two levels. First, do you really need the item you are buying? Is that Christmas gift for your family member a thoughtful one? Could you instead provide a service for them or spend quality time together? Is this extra thing something that needs to take up space? And on another level, is this good company or store to buy from? Some good resources for this kind of research are: Better World Shopper, Free to Work, Slavery No More, Free the Slaves or End Slavery Now.
We have never had more human trafficking than we do now but we have also never had so many resources to educate us on what’s going on and how we can put a stop to it.
“To exist is to consume. But we were designed to accomplish things far greater. The sooner we remove ourselves from overconsumption, the sooner we realize our truest potential.” – Joshua Becker