Distant Neighbours

In April 2013, a garment factory called Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh. 1,129 people died and 2,500 were injured. They were men and women, many of them young, who had been forced to work despite the fact that the building had been known to be unsafe.

Shocked by the injustice, I promised I would never buy cheap fashion and support the horror of forced labour and exploitation. So when I went shopping with my friends, I would smugly say “I’m not getting anything in Primark. They use slave labour “, and complacency continue down the high street, pleased to be doing my bit for justice.

It was a few years later that I stumbled upon “The True Cost”, a film that exposes the pandemic scale of exploitation in the fashion industry. It turned out that Primark didn’t have the monopoly on injustice. Rana Plaza factory had also been manufacturing for Mango, Matalan, Walmart and Monsoon Accessorize among others. And that wasn’t the end of it.

I discovered that pretty much every single mainstream clothing brand is using desperately underpaid, mistreated people in poor countries to produce garments that we on the other side of the breadline continue to consume. And we’re not just buying clothes; we’re buying the idea that it’s possible to create a T-shirt for $5 without someone else paying a much higher price for it than we could imagine. It’s not. We’re buying the idea that a constantly evolving world of styles and colours at our fingertips is sustainable, for the planet or for ourselves. Perhaps the most insidious lie we’re buying is the idea that there should be no basic standard for human welfare; it’s acceptable for a young woman  in Cambodia to work eight hours a day for £3 even though I wouldn’t be happy to live a lifetime on British minimum wage of £7.50 per hour.

As I began to research the fashion industry, I fell down a rabbit hole of harrowing stories and scary statistics. The violence, poverty and exhaustion experienced by garment factory workers, most of them women, are horrific. But worse still were the ignorance and apathy of consumers. Once again on my ethical hobbyhorse, I became more and more disillusioned and upset by the myriads of excuses and arguments I heard from people about why fair trade wasn’t possible or important enough to deserve attention, the polite nods and “Yes it’s terrible” responses followed by H&M shopping sprees. Christians were the worst. I was exasperated. How could so many people care so little about such a vital human rights issue? What about God? If His followers  couldn’t commit to the cause of justice, where was He?

I began to search Scripture for answers, and very quickly, three things became clear:

  1. There is a bigger picture. As easy as it is to rail at the system, to vent anger at the people who support it ( which is most of us ), the truth is there is a very real Enemy who delights in oppression and in seeing its continuation. Jesus said that the devil comes to steal, kill and destroy. If theft, death and destruction are what he leaves in his wake it’s not hard to see he’s been involved in the fashion industry. Being aware of that makes us spiritually minded activists, doing everything we can to change the material issues while directing our anger where it is deserved.
  2. I am not the first person to be frustrated by injustice. The Psalms are full of prayers for God’s intervention in cases of suffering and exploitation, with especially frequent mention of orphans and widows.
  3. God’s character is unchangingly good and just. He loves justice. ( Psalm 37:28 ) His heart is broken by suffering and oppression.

What is clear is that God’s response to injustice involves us. Jesus, the greatest humanitarian of all time, laid out a simple framework for how we should live our lives as His followers: love your neighbour as yourself. This principle forms the foundation of all our actions, of every rights movement, every activist endeavour, every shopping trip.

Interestingly, the person Jesus said this to asked the same question many of us inwardly ask when we’re faced with yet another ethical issue: “Who is my neighbour?”. It was in response to this question that Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. A Jewish man is robbed and left for dead on the side of the road, his plight ignored by his countrymen and even holy men. It is a foreigner, a man from a race the Jews despised, who has compassion and helps him. Jesus said “Go and do likewise.”Because everybody is your neighbour, regardless of how different their background or experiences. You become a neighbour when you reach out have compassion on someone you didn’t need to help.

My own fair trade journey has been everything from frustrating to exciting. I’ve encountered pitfalls: cynicism, arrogance, cost, inconvenience. I’m slowly finding ways around them and realising that it’s possible to shop ethically on a budget – and I am being blessed in return as I confront the flaws of my culture and character and choose compassion over materialism. God is teaching me that I don’t have to own a lot to look nice and express myself through my style. Most importantly, He is teaching me to align myself with His  heart of compassion, to see the bigger picture beyond myself, not to judge others for their choices because the roots of injustice are far deeper and more complex than I ever knew.

And isn’t that what it’s all about? Being a disciple of Jesus. It’s about walking His road and applying His principles in an everyday modern life.

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