The average American owns seven pairs of wearable jeans. Jeans, however, come at a price, one which is steeper than the $20 to $100 one pays for a pair.
Jeans are made from cotton, dyed and then handsewn by low-paid workers. Cotton crops now occupy five per cent of the world's arable land, growing on farmland once used to produce crops for the local population. More than just that, growing cotton typically takes enormous amounts of pesticides; the dyes used in making jeans also lead to vast quantities of toxins being dumped into the air, soil and water.
In the June 1998 New Internationalist magazine, David Ranson concludes that our love for blue jeans leads to "invading fertile lands in hungry communities, sucking them dry with irrigation, shrouding them in poison. Cotton uses higher volumes of more toxic chemicals a year than any other crop -- a quarter of the world's pesticides are sprayed on it, causing a million cases of human poisoning a year."
The magazine also noted that in Australia, for every garment factory worker earning an average of $9 an hour, the industry employs 15 "outworkers." These outworkers are mainly non-English speaking women, who work 14 to 18 hours a day in their homes, being paid less than $2 an hour.
Ransom says non-exploitive, "politically correct" jeans made from hemp by decently-paid workers would cost about $300 a pair. But don't worry about buying some. There is no such thing.
In the last article in this series, I noted the Church teaches that there is a right to private property. But this right is not absolute. The right to private property does not include a right to despoil the environment and to profit at others' expense.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. John Chrysostom: "Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs." Reiterating the point, it quotes St. Gregory the Great: "When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours" (no. 2446).
Our right to profit from private property is tempered by our solidarity with all people and by our responsibility to care for the needs of future generations.
A consumer society tends to ignore such responsibilities. It counsels consumers to forget about the future and to forget about the human cost of cheap consumer goods. It provides huge profits for the owners of some types of private property and enjoyable merchandise for those who happen to be born in certain times and situations. But its most lasting fruit is a bitter global injustice.
Pope John Paul articulated a principle he called the universal destination of all goods -- that is, the fruits of creation are meant for everybody. "God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members without excluding or favouring anyone" (Centesimus Annus, 31).
These goods of the earth, however, are not handed to us on a platter. It is through work that the earth yields its fruits. And it is through work that one makes part of the earth one's own. Our work is the source of our right to private property.
Today things are more complicated. Wealth is created not only by people working the land and processing the harvest into finished products. It is also created through knowledge and the development of technology.
Those who have little education and no potential for acquiring it have no access to the most valued source of wealth. They are marginalized. In many cases, virtually whole nations have been marginalized.
As wealth becomes centralized, those without money or education become increasingly subservient. Not only are they left out of the new world order, but even what they had before is taken away. Nations which previously could meet their own needs have lost that ability as their land is taken out of production for local food needs and used instead to provide cash crops for export.
Stores in Canada and the U.S. overflow with luscious fruits and vegetables in season and out, cheap coffee and, yes, inexpensive clothes. This can truthfully be called theft. It gives some people far more than they need while others are left without the basics of life.
The pope said a just alternative to this system of exploitation must be found. But the alternative is not socialism. The alternative, he says, is "a society of free work, of enterprise and of participation" (no. 35). Stronger nations must let weaker nations take their rightful place in international life.
This may be hopelessly idealistic. It assumes those who have wealth and power will surrender some of it voluntarily. Dream on! Even the wealthiest person in the world is scheming to become still wealthier.
But the current trend is toward an even wider gap between the rich and poor. The current trend is toward an ever-more rapid consumption of the world's limited resources. The trend is toward gated communities which prevent the poor and the wealthy each from seeing how the other side lives.
The idealistic way is really the only hope for justice. It requires a major conversion on the part of the wealthy, a conversion which can only begin when the rich come to know the poor, to understand how their own use of economic power has driven the poor into their plight and to believe that we are all in this world to share God's gifts for the good of all.
This is the direction the seventh commandment is calling us. It may be a vain hope, but it's the only serious one we have.
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