As a liberal-minded English major at Colby College, I took several classes that encouraged me to question the effectiveness of international trade and its impact on the world. It wasn’t until my senior year, however, that a class called Environmental Justice pushed me beyond my comfort zone and brought these issues to life. Studying this social movement, which advocates for the equitable distribution of environmental burdens and benefits in society, urged me to confront the reality of how our products are produced.
Prior to taking Environmental Justice, I understood capitalism in theory as a system based on private ownership, free market, and profit maximization. In Econ classes, I had studied product markets and calculated price and quantity equilibriums, but these numbers represented little more to me than plots on a graph. My Environmental Justice class injected humanity into the otherwise pragmatic study of economics. A “unit” on a labor market graph became a real person with a face and a name. A “price” on this graph became the real money this person earns by doing real work.
In a capitalist society, businesses traditionally strive to maximize profit, and by definition operate at the lowest possible cost. As a result, outsourcing production to exploit cheap labor has become common practice. No one is forcing you to stare this reality in the face. Most of us have the privilege of remaining blissfully ignorant to the injustices behind the products we buy. It isn’t comfortable to think about, so we choose to turn a blind eye.
The reality I first confronted in Environmental Justice became truly tangible when I started work with Adelante Shoe Co., a mission-driven startup that pays Guatemalan craftsmen over the Living Well Line to handmake leather shoes. For the first time, I saw a solution to the frightening disconnect between consumers and the products we purchase. Here was a company with the beautifully simple idea that an international manufacturing business could treat its producers fairly without compromising profitability.
Although Adelante’s concept is not radical, its implications certainly are. If we as customers are able to connect with the products we buy and the hands that make them, we become more responsible for our actions. Adelante has shown me that I have agency in choosing companies and products that put people first. Facing the reality of international business can be discouraging, but I now realize that the first step to positive change is awareness. I challenge myself to think before I buy because I know that behind each purchase is an individual with a story.