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Buyer Beware: Covert Missionary Operations

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This is the second post in a series called Buyer Beware on business models I generally don’t support.

Ethical Business as Christian Conversion?

This topic is bound to be a sensitive one for many of my readers simply because the fair trade movement is dominated by Christians. As a Christian raised in the Evangelical tradition, it’s particularly important for me to address it as an insider rather than as an external critic. 

Lots and lots of fair trade companies are founded and run by Christians and there’s nothing wrong with that. But an unfortunate combination of naivete about global economics, the importance of local cultural and religious traditions, and our history of economic imperialism can turn good intentions sour very quickly. Some companies see “ethical” business as a means to Christian conversion. And that’s no ok.

Social enterprise – and the fair trade model in particular – arose in the US out of the Christian missionary tradition when, in 1946, Mennonite Christian Edna Ruth Byler went on a mission trip to Puerto Rico and realized she could provide a larger market for the artisan goods she discovered there by making them available to US buyers. I admire her passion and tenacity to found and maintain one of the most respected fair trade companies in the country, Ten Thousand Villages.

Mission work connected, and continues to connect, Americans to people around the world who benefit from linking up with vendors and marketplaces that support preexisting small businesses and build local infrastructure. That’s great. But I think we’re often too quick as Christians to turn our justice work into proselytizing work before we’ve met any needs or cultivated honest and equal relationships, and that’s devastating.

Here’s what I believe, plain and simple:


In the case of Christian social enterprise, that reward is often the satisfaction of saving souls. But considering your evangelism sales pitch before you’ve even gotten to know someone is not putting people first. That should be obvious, but too often it’s not.

For myself, I want to embody Christ so thoroughly that my words and actions point to my faith without me having to pull out my Evangelism 101 handbook, guide people through the “Roman Road,” or recite the Sinner’s Prayer. If I’m doing this Christianity thing right, I’m in conversation with people, not preaching to them.

Think about it this way: Jesus is the perfect embodiment of, well, Jesus. When he healed the sick, they knew who he was and what he believed, but they weren’t required to jump through any hoops to benefit from the miracle. Jesus doesn’t take back his gifts or withhold healing. And neither should we.

Here are some things to look out for when learning about a company’s ethics. If they require these things from their workers and partners, run!

Required Reading:

I read a company’s mission statement several months back that enthusiastically exclaimed that all of their employees were required to undergo spiritual coursework every week if they wanted to work there. Keep in mind that this was a development project in an impoverished village where work was scarce.

Telling people they must commit to exploring a new faith to keep their job, particularly when that job is their only option, amounts to coercion.

Creating a Diversion:

I also know of organizations that exist solely to cover up mission work in countries hostile to Western, Christian missionaries. I get the appeal of this type of work, namely that we shouldn’t let governments stand in the way of speaking truth – and it doesn’t come without real danger – but

before we start sending over spies, maybe we should ask why some countries don’t want us there. 


I suspect it has a lot to do with economic and cultural imperialism.

When most people think about imperialism, they think of the British Empire, which, at its peak, controlled nearly one fifth of the global population. But, while the age of imperialism may be over, the practice is alive and well.

Colonialism and imperialism are calculated moves to ensure maximum wealth and power for the dominant nation through the control of resources and manipulation of people and culture.

It’s the anti-Robin Hood strategy: steal from the poor and give to the rich. Great Britain isn’t the only nation to have done this. America benefits from it, too (I suggest you read the Wikipedia page).

Big business interests have ravaged South and Central America by disrupting local economies with an influx of factories and cheaply made goods.

In its early years, Wal-Mart even paid for South American students to attend free market classes in order to disseminate its economic principles to their home countries, thereby giving Wal-Mart easier access to manipulate their economies to its own end. Meanwhile, the US government “intervenes” repeatedly in foreign affairs for its own social and economic benefit.

Previously colonized and currently imperialized countries don’t trust Westerners. They don’t want us marching in there and telling their citizens what to believe and how to behave, and for good reason. Certainly, it’s not correct to conflate all forms of Christian practice with Western imperialism, but

I think it’s fair to be wary of Americans who come in not just to start businesses but to evangelize a way of life that, historically speaking, almost always includes exploiting the poor and stealing resources. 

All that to say that there are complicated dynamics at play when we start bumping up against other countries and other cultures. We need to recognize our complicity in undermining infrastructure and make sure that our social justice work fixes systemic issues. By all means, live out your Christian faith through social enterprise, but do it with sensitivity and constant self-reflection.

TL;DR: I don’t support “ethical” companies that, through their branding, marketing, and mission statement, make it clear that they are more concerned with converting people than with meeting their needs through dignified work and high quality products.

Additional Reading:

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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Rebekah Jaunty

Tuesday 9th of February 2016

Fascinating! This is a great series--- I'm genuinely looking forward to the next three installments, all of which will cover things that get my goat.


Tuesday 9th of February 2016

Kudos for delving into this sensitive topic. Expertly written Leah. You make some very provocative and necessary points!

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