Buying habits with real leverage

Humanitarianism is one American hallmark, and consumerism is another.

The first of these soars highest when it is wholly indiscriminate. The second requires an approach that's highly discriminating.

And it gets tricky when good citizens operate at the crossroads.

Being a successful consumer commonly means getting favorable deals on items and services of quality and with durability.

But it also means - or ought to mean - making a good-faith effort to ensure those deals aren't being gained at the expense of workers who were mistreated somewhere way back along that mysterious supply chain.

It's not enough to assume that your favorite retailer is doing the right thing. Or to assume that your government is able to keep the playing field level.

Washington can deplore the way a nation treats its populace, but still trade with it liberally on the grounds that such trade will usher in American-style freedoms.

In the bleaker corners of the world, workplace injustice seems too deep-seated to budge. Consider the slave ship recently found bumping along the African coast.

What can individual consumers do now, pending the establishment of global standards and the kind of clear fair-trade labeling described in our lead story?

Some self-education and smart buying can foster the kind of global trade that lifts workers up rather than keeping them down.

You can aim your patronage.

One resource: Co-op America, a fair-trade advocacy group based in Washington, offers its "Consumer Guide to Ending Sweatshops" for $2.95 (call 800-58GREEN), as well as a pair of free online resources (www.sweat shops.org and www.greenpages.org).

Reach us at work@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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