Living in the United States, I think many of us take for granted the ready accessibility of food resources. Supermarkets across the nation offer a variety of food that is not necessarily produced in this country. For example, the United States imports 80-90% of its seafood. A simple trip to your local supermarket when you are craving tuna or shrimp is likely just a couple of minutes away. But do you ever think about the process or individuals who were involved in getting that food to your kitchen table?
When I first heard about ethical consumerism and product labeling, it was the summer before my first year of college. A friend was talking to me about the importance of fair trade labeling for coffee. She explained how fair trade certification kept companies accountable for just payment to their employees throughout the supply chain. This seemed like a beneficial endeavor to me, and I’ve kept it in mind since. Ethical consumerism came up again at my local parish in Colorado where only fair trade coffee is served. I was shocked to learn that engaging in ethical consumerism is a shared concern for both hippy-college students in Boulder and suburban daily Mass-goers in the suburbs of Denver
Catholic social teaching tells us to respect and support human dignity because we were created in the image and likeness of God. Yet our patterns of consumption can inhibit people living from a dignified life.
Human trafficking has become a global phenomenon that puts women, men, and children at risk. For example, in the seafood industry, tens of thousands of people are exploited due to the isolated nature of work on boats and lack of regulations. These vulnerable conditions can lead to forced labor, sexual servitude, and debt bondage.
All hope is not lost. We can use our power as consumers to help prevent and reduce these atrocities by becoming ethical consumers. The Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking (CCOAHT) began a campaign last Lent called “Labeling for Lent: An Effort to Prevent Human Trafficking”. This campaign began as an effort to raise awareness about the reality of human trafficking in the seafood industry. A survey was conducted asking consumers if they would like seafood companies to include labeling on their packaged products to eradicate human trafficking and forced labor in their supply chains. More than 2,000 participants supported such a step.
Personally, I’ve struggled with being an ethical consumer because of my budget. I grew up in an immigrant household were the priority was to feed five people, not to buy products of ethical companies. Real barriers can present themselves when trying to be a conscious consumer. But think about it this way: exploited workers don’t have an option. Individuals are stripped of their freedom and dignity thousands of miles away, and, yet, we as American consumers have the capacity to stop this injustice. I’m not asking you to radically change your entire shopping routine because frankly that’s unreasonable. I am simply asking you to keep in mind our Catholic social teaching on the dignity of every human and be mindful of the products you purchase and companies you consequently support.
In the words of our Holy Father for the 2015 World Day of Peace, “Together with the social responsibility of business, there is also the social responsibility of consumers. Every person ought to have the awareness that purchasing is always a moral – and not simply an economic –act.” But this call is not limited to those of the Catholic faith – anyone can be an ethical consumer.
For more information on how to become an ethical consumer and an advocate against human trafficking, please visit:
Deisy Muñoz Viesca is a policy intern for Migration and Refugee Services at USCCB. She is pursuing a degree in Political Science and Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado – Boulder.
At WeAreSaltAndLight.org, read about creative ways that faith communities are educating and acting to engage Catholics in supporting ethical trade, including a new fair trade program at a Catholic school, a fair trade coffeehouse and retreat by parish teens, and a Catholic university that helped start a fair trade cooperative.