Consumer awareness of products’ origins encouraged

Local businesses and organizations and a national campaign encourage holiday shoppers to educate themselves about the origins of the products they buy and the workers who made them.

"Many things that are part of our daily lives, which make our lives more comfortable, we’d be horrified to know how people are exploited in getting them to us," said Chris Cox, manager of the national Human Thread campaign. "For us as consumers, we are woefully ignorant."

The campaign was founded two years ago by Father Michael Crosby, OFM Cap, of Milwaukee, in response to a 2013 garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 workers, Cox said. Workers in Bangladesh still only average earnings of 24 cents an hour, according to the Human Thread website. The persistence of dangerous working conditions faced by low-wage workers in other countries was further evidenced by a recent fire in New Delhi, India, that killed people working and sleeping in a makeshift factory, Cox said

As part of its mission to create a more just economy and sustainable communities, the Human Thread campaign seeks to promote consumer awareness and create solidarity between consumers of clothing and the people who produce them, according to information on the campaign’s website, www.humanthreadcampaign.org. The campaign also demands that companies manufacture their products amid safe working conditions while also caring for the earth, Cox said.

"We want to lift up that veil a little bit" and inform consumers of substandard working conditions in garment factories, he noted. "You can’t make a good product in a bad factory. There’s a long history around the garment industry, and the factories are too often bad."

To that end, the Human Thread campaign distributed thousands of postcard petitions through its affiliates, including the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and the Maryknoll Office for Global Concern. The postcards, which ask for more fair trade clothing options on store racks, were mailed to the chief executive officers of Macy’s and Kohl’s, Cox said. The postcards also advocated for living wages for the workers who make clothes sold by the department stores, he said.

Campaign leaders also presented cards at Macy’s headquarters in New York City last month, he added.

With requests for postcards continuing to stream into the campaign’s office in Milwaukee, Wis., the campaign’s latest effort is proving consumers want to do the right thing and are willing to let corporations know that, noted Marvin Mich, director of social policy and research at Rochester’s Catholic Family Center. Mich first became involved with the campaign when his longtime friend Father Crosby asked for his input in developing the campaign’s theological framework.

Corporations "respond to consumer pressure — Walmart is putting more organic stuff in its stores," Mich remarked. "We (consumers) have a lot of power. We need to utilize it for good."

The Human Thread campaign’s call for Catholics to buy clothes from companies whose workers have safe conditions and are justly paid "butts up against our desire to have bargains at the store," Mich observed. Some people with lower incomes must purchase goods at the lowest prices possible without considering the source of those goods, he acknowledged.

"But many others would welcome the opportunity to buy (products) that are fairly produced and where workers are treated properly," Mich said.

Offering fair trade products to local shoppers is the goal of several Rochester-area organizations and stores that provide alternatives to shopping at malls and big-box stores while also supporting better working conditions for those who make the products.

One World Goods in Pittsford Plaza, for example, is a nonprofit organization that sells products made exclusively by artisans in more than 50 countries, including Guatemala, Mexico and India, according to information on the store’s website (www.owgoods.org). Fair trade means the artisans receive a fair share of the purchase price for their wares, the website states.

The Rochester Committee on Latin America also sells fair-trade products at holiday area craft fairs, including one sponsored by Metro Justice, said Paola Betchart, a ROCLA steering committee member and Worker Justice Center advocate. The products sold by ROCLA are made by artisans in Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador and Haiti.

"We know very little of the working conditions or environmental footprint of products, which we are bombarded with advertising to purchase," she said. "It’s imperative that we demand products with a social conscience made with respect for the environment. In the Rochester area, there are many arts fairs where we can support local artists and purchase fair trade products."

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