Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Money, Morals and Trade
distributed 11/30/01 - ©2001

On September 13, "Curry in a Hurry" -- a Pakistani restaurant in Salt Lake City -- was damaged by arson. What began as an act of racist terror was transformed into a sign of hope and caring by an outpouring of support from the local community. Residents turned out in droves to patronize the eatery, which had its busiest day ever on September 14.

Those Utah folk were not just buying dinner. They were making a statement of solidarity and friendship. Their cold, hard cash conveyed warm, soft emotions.

The story made Time Magazine, and is worth repeating here, because it speaks of the goodness in human character. We find hope when people rally to support their neighbors. We are heartened when people put good intentions into the way they spend their money.

The Utah story is not unique. We have all decided to buy something, not strictly on the grounds of price or quality, but because some other good is accomplished through the purchase. A candy bar to support the school band. Lemonade from the kid with a stand on the corner. Third-world crafts from SERRV. Vegetables from the farmers' market. Fair-trade coffee.

On the flip side, we might avoid doing business with a firm that has lousy environmental practices. Many people shun products that are known to be produced in foreign sweatshops. An anti-sweatshop movement on college campuses is guaranteeing that clothing with school logos is produced under appropriate working conditions.

The way we spend our money has moral and ethical content. We want to know that our purchases are accomplishing something good, or not supporting something that we find distasteful.

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It is difficult to bring those moral considerations into the marketplace.

Most of the products that we buy are anonymous. We have little knowledge of where they were made, or under what conditions they were grown.

The practices of advertising and retailing generally encourage us to believe that a shirt is just a shirt, and that it should make no difference whether is was made by union workers or in a sweatshop. A tree is just a tree, and it should make no difference if it was harvested sustainably or if its harvest was part of the destruction of Indonesian rain forests.

Not only do we need to be diligent in making our own purchasing decisions, we also need to have systems in place which provide consumers with necessary information, and which allow our standards to be expressed through the entire chain of production.

That sort of value-aware system in international trade is under attack.

Recent international trade agreements, such as NAFTA and GATT, have measures which are being used to block the use of "process standards" -- standards relating to how a product is grown, manufactured or extracted. Under such interpretations, only the characteristics of a product (its purity, size or design) could be considered in the regulation of international trade.

The trade agreements are trying to enforce the notion that we just buy "things," and one thing is just the same as another. The agreements insist that it does not matter how the tuna was caught, or how the coffee was grown, or how the shoes were made. The agreements claim that an imposition of such environmental or labor standards is an interference in free trade.

The agreements insist that considerations of justice and mercy, environment and health must not intrude in trade negotiations. Accepting that premise weakens us morally, and virtually guarantees the spread of environmental damage and unjust practices.

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Next week, the US House will consider HR 3005, which authorizes "fast track" authority for the US President to negotiate trade agreements. Under fast track, the administration negotiates international agreements, and the Congress can only vote "yes" or "no." The legislative branch is not able to reject or amend particular provisions of agreements.

Under fast track, an agreement that prohibits "process standards" -- that excludes consideration of moral values about the things that are traded -- can be more easily pushed through Congress. Under fast track, our calls for environmental and social justice can be more easily silenced.

Shouldn't you let your congressperson know how you feel about fast track?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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