Millennial Evangelicals and the Fair Trade Movement
Published in 2015
For fair trade activists, this is the busy season. On April 24, people and organizations across the globe asked retailers, “Who made my clothes?” wearing their garments inside out to expose the tags and sharing their photos on social media.
It was the second annual Fashion Revolution Day, a call-to-action event founded by Carry Somers, owner of British fair trade brand, Pachacuti, in reponse to 2013’s Rana Plaza garment factory collapse that killed 1,133 people and injured hundreds more.
In its first year, #fashrev represented the number one global trend on twitter and, thanks to the efforts of a growing fair trade community, this year brought meaningful engagement across social media platforms.
Now, we’re just a week away from World Fair Trade Day on May 9, and the fair trade community and the wider umbrella of conscientious consumers are at it again, finding new incentives and new angles to promote the fair trade cause. Though the movement is not an expressly Christian one, it should come as no surprise that Evangelicals, and particularly those of the millennial generation, are taking up the banner.
I should know, because I was one. I grew up in a conservative Evangelical household, where Biblical Literalism was the default and the Sinner’s Prayer was the key to being saved. By college, however, I’d become disenchanted with a culture that felt too insular, too judgmental, and too materialistic to really follow Jesus’ call of radical humility.
It wasn’t until I bought my first pair of TOMS shoes, however, that I began to question who made my clothes. I didn’t realize it then, but I had joined the fair trade movement.
During the inevitable spiritual identity crisis that came with questioning the worldview I was born into, I held onto the basic principle that Jesus modeled humanity and community for me, and that my calling – rooted in me so deeply that it would remain a part of my identity no matter what I concluded at the end of my spiritual questioning – was to work for justice and peace in the lives of others.
Evangelicals are uniquely equipped to join social movements because they hold activism, or faith in action, as a key component of their religious experience, and they’re often quite successful in the movements they undertake. As demonstrated by the rise of the religious right in the 1980s and more recent anti-abortion protest movements, Evangelicals’ tightly bound church communities and emphasis on seeking ultimate Truth, for better or for worse, are a powerful rallying tool.
They also prioritize personal relationship with Jesus, which manifests itself in a desire to study and experience God’s Word for themselves. This predisposition to self-examination informs the discussion within the fair trade movement even when a Christian perspective is not explicitly stated.
Evangelicals of the millennial generation employ the tools of their heritage to propel the fair trade movement forward. Young evangelicals may be critical of the materialism and political narrow-mindedness of older generations, but they haven’t lost the Holy Spirit fire.
They’re motivated to find solutions to injustice and poverty in a globalizing world. And, though their explicitly religious rhetoric represents a relatively small portion of the fair trade conversation, they’re a vocal bunch.
I spoke with a number of fair trade bloggers and organizations rooted in the Evangelical tradition and their answers to the question, “How does your Christian worldview motivate you to pursue a fair trade lifestyle?” display a nuanced, thoughtful approach to global justice.
Let’s Be Fair blogger, Dominique, states, “If I say I value justice and love, I need to strive to live out those values in all things. So serving children in Africa is an act of love but it is not greater than serving my neighbor.”
Jen Lewis, owner of fair trade shop, Purse& Clutch, describes her journey this way: “For me, the first step is educating myself. The more I learn about who makes my clothes, the more I begin to see the effects of my actions and purchasing decisions, and I can more clearly see the opportunity to show love in a very behind the scenes, thankless way. And isn’t that typically the best way to show love to others?”
John Barry, co-founder of charity, Jesus’ Economy, a fair trade shop and development project, sees his involvement in fair trade as a direct result of globalization, saying: “The world is now interconnected. Each of us is dependent on our global neighbors, including the goods they supply. But much of the products on offer in the U.S. are made using practices that oppress other people, keeping them impoverished instead of lifting them up. Fair trade provides the alternative needed.”
A popular paraphrase of Jesus’ words in Mark 12:30-31 is “Love God. Love neighbor” and millennial Evangelicals are determined to live that out, expanding the term neighbor to mean anyone we have the power and resources to help. In a globalizing world, that increasingly means everyone.
There’s still a long way to go, of course, and fair trade activists, Christian or not, must continually examine their intentions and systems to ensure that our attempts to help are effective and empowering. The fair trade movement, like any other cause, benefits from critique, but the energy and sincerity of Evangelicals will do much to propel justice forward.
I recognize that a lot more could be said on this topic and that millennials, Evangelicals, and millennial Evangelicals are vast, diverse groups. I would love your comments and thoughts on this topic. Are there other reasons that millennial Evangelicals may be interested in conscientious consumerism? Do you think they’re doing a good job?
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.