Integrating Fair Trade with Christian Mission Testifies to New Creation

South Asian woman

A shroud of garbage covered the narrow dirt roads, and tall buildings lined the streets as far as I could see. Within the buildings, entire families shared tiny living spaces smaller than my own bedroom. Their homes lacked running water, electricity, and furniture, and in many cases, they had no doors or windows. Women swept their floors, children kicked up dust in the streets, and men drifted in and out of nearby brothels filled with desperate women, slaves to sexual exploitation.

For years I’ve studied world cultures and grieved over the extreme poverty and exploitation endured by so many. I’ve prayed for the hopeless to find eternal hope and for the destitute to escape poverty. No amount of studying, however, could have prepared me for the experience of walking through the streets of a slum in South Asia.

My senses were heightened as I saw the sights, smelled the odors, and heard the sounds of the slums. Families lived in crumbling shacks. Their children played in trash piles that reached rooflines. Women shuffled out of brothels, and the palpable atmosphere of despair overwhelmed me.

I had traveled there to meet the artisan partners whom I am privileged to serve through my work at WorldCrafts, through which artisans receive the opportunity to earn a sustainable living income and hear about eternal hope through Christ as they hand-make the products we sell.

Fair Trade Testifies to New Creation

The mood and spirit of the slum changed immediately when I entered the clean, secure building of the artisan business with whom we partner. Here, smiling South Asian women greeted me with joy. On the rooftop porch of their building, they served steaming mugs of tea, spiced with cinnamon and cardamom. Their brilliant handiwork—scarves and throws made from repurposed saris—blanketed the roof.

The sari blankets and scarves illustrated how something devalued and cast aside can be redeemed and refashioned into a new creation.

The women explained how they designed the products, procured the materials, and stitched each piece by hand. Each woman proudly held up the pieces she had made and delighted in hearing her work praised. The sari blankets and scarves illustrated how something devalued and cast aside can be redeemed and refashioned into a new creation.

All the artisans working in this business lived in the slums, and many had experienced exploitation. Now, however, they experience meaningful work that provides sustainable income and follows fair trade principles. Their work has restored their sense of self-worth and dignity.

These women expressed new hope and joy as they spoke of their weekly Bible study. First and foremost, they now have personal relationships with their Creator. While working, they fellowship with a circle of women who love and pray for them. The contrast between the smiles on the faces inside the building and the hopelessness on the faces outside staggered me.

Fair Trade as a Christian Conviction

This fair-trade artisan business depends on its partnership with WorldCrafts. Without WorldCrafts, the women I met would have no avenue to sell their lovely products in the United States. I couldn’t hold back tears as I hugged each woman, looked into her eyes, and promised that I would do everything I could to ensure that this business continues to provide refuge and hope for vulnerable women.

Faith-based fair trade organizations conduct business in a manner that restores dignity and empowers workers to transform their homes and their communities.

I returned home with an intense, deep, personal understanding that each product I purchase comes to me either through a fair trade or an unfair trade—through trade that uplifts or through trade that exploits. I grew even more convicted as a Christ follower to care about integrity in trade and to purchase from companies that pay workers enough to provide for themselves and their families.

Mercy and Mission

God greatly values and highly esteems the weakest among us. He repeatedly commands his followers to care for those with great need. In Psalm 82, he instructs us: “Provide justice for the needy and the fatherless; uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute. Rescue the poor and needy; save them from the power of the wicked.” (Ps. 82:3–4, HCSB)

And the passage continues, telling us that the poor and needy “do not know or understand; they wander in darkness.” As they wander in darkness, it’s our responsibility as Christ-followers to shine his light into their lives. What stronger admonition can God give us to be intentional in caring for the least of our brothers and sisters and to work proactively to treat all people with justice and dignity?

We believe that God works in the world to draw people to himself. As his children, we are responsible to serve all the nations in his name and for his glory. Fair trade offers us the opportunity to minister holistically. When Christians care enough to pour ourselves out in order to meet the most basic needs of impoverished people while explaining that Christ alone will satisfy their spiritual hunger and thirst, then God’s love becomes real to those who live and walk in darkness.

Fair Trade as a Missional Lifestyle

Organizations like WorldCrafts exist to honor God’s mandate in Isaiah 58:10 to pour ourselves out to feed the hungry and satisfy the needs the oppressed. Fair trade business practices are especially important when working with people who are oppressed and accustomed to being exploited. Faith-based fair trade organizations conduct business in a manner that restores dignity and empowers workers to transform their homes and their communities. Until every person receives the opportunity to be freed from poverty and hear the message of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, our mission continues.

So, it’s important to consider the products you purchase. Do you know who produces them? Are the laborers paid a fair, sustainable wage? Do you shop with missions in mind?

One way to do so is to purchase products through faith-based, fair trade organizations like WorldCrafts, and help impoverished artisans both earn a sustainable living income and have the opportunity to hear the message of eternal Hope.

Emily Swader serves as the WorldCrafts team leader at national WMU. She is a graduate of Samford University and enjoys spending time with her husband and two young daughters. You can find her on Twitter at @EmilyRaySwader.