Conscious Consumer

As I began my last semester in Seminar, I expected to continue refining the skills this program has to offer: critical thinking, respectful listening and discussion. But with Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” I went beyond highlighting and putting tightly written questions in the margins to being inspired by the rousing words, struck with the possibilities in King’s ideas about activism through consumerism.

King estimated the collective wealth of African Americans in 1963 at some $30 billion a year and encouraged his fellow civil rights activists to harness that economic power and deny patronage to all stores and corporations that did not practice fair treatment. The ardent supporter of nonviolence suggested economic strategy as a means of nonviolent activism—“bank-ins” and “insurance-ins” to support the businesses whose ethical practices matched his and his followers’ beliefs.

As part of a generation labeled as avid shoppers, I had to ask myself what we can do to use our consumerism for good to influence similar nonviolent social change. The answer was easy and, on this campus, accessible every first Friday of the month—Fair Trade. The only Fair Trade–certified college in Northern California, Saint Mary’s welcomes each new month with a Fair Trade Friday, introducing students to the delicious and ethically produced products that derive from the fair treatment of the laborers and farmers who produce what we consume. One Friday, in addition to coffee and chocolate, students were given a fair trade grocery list, created by Catholic Relief Services Ambassador Marlena Maciel ’15, which included a long list of products labeled with fair trade certification and found in the aisles of local grocery stores, including Ben & Jerry’s. You can eat ice cream for a good cause!

“I made the list hoping that students would be able to start having brand recognition when shopping for groceries and choose to use fair trade products more than just one day a month when they are free,” Maciel said. “When you know what is available to you, it’s easier to incorporate that into everyday life.”

Incorporating conscious consumerism into your life is easier than you think. The official Fair Trade USA website lists its partners and has easy tools for exploring fair trade options. And, as Maciel demonstrated, you can look for the fair trade–certified logo in grocery, apparel and home goods stores. Global efforts for a living wage and the welfare of garment laborers, for example, use their websites to educate consumers about purchasing choices and the ethical consequences of their decisions.

By buying Fair Trade and supporting businesses that promote the dignity of the human person, we follow in the footsteps of King, who hoped to awaken businesses to their prejudiced practices and see how vital the people they oppressed were to their success.

As I concluded my final semester of Seminar, I reflected on what the program has given me. Reading skills? Yes. Confidence in speaking? Definitely. A lesson in economics and social justice? Surprisingly and with much appreciation—yes. This is why we read reflections from the past—to be inspired to action for today.

—Holland Enke '15

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