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My 36 Slaves (Issue 26)

By Kirstin Cant

It was a casual Sunday afternoon. I went to the supermarket. I needed sugar.

I got to the plethora of sugar options on the shelf and stared. And stared.

I picked one up. I put it back. I couldn’t bring myself to buy it.

Why? Not because of all the options before me. It’s because I know that all this sugar in front of me isn’t produced in ways I agree with. Sugar production has historically been an industry made possible through exploitation and slavery, and it continues to be that way today. I’ve known that for a while, but that day in the supermarket it made me unable to purchase sugar. But I needed sugar. What to do? Driving across Auckland to the Trade Aid store to purchase Fairtrade sugar doesn’t seem a great ‘sustainable choice’ either. I went home sugarless. But I knew that soon I’d need sugar and be faced with the same dilemma.

More than anything, what surprised me about this sugar-debacle was myself. I’ve always ‘cared’ about ethical and sustainable consumer choices, but often it becomes merely idealist with an I’ll-buy-fair-trade-coffee-if-it’s-in-front-of-me thrown in on the side.

So what’s changed? I’m not exactly sure, though one thing stands out. I discovered I have 36 slaves working for me – in fact, I probably have more. I learned this through a website, slaveryfootprint.org, that analysed my consumer choices and estimated the number of people in forced labour who produce the products I purchase. That hit hard.

I found out the areas we’re using modern-day slaves to support our consumer lifestyle. I found out not all products labelled ‘free-range’ or ‘fair-trade’ actually are. Many companies have realised there’s money to be made from this ‘fair-trade thing,’ so if they put on the words ‘organic,’ ‘free-range’ or ‘fair-trade’ people feel good and they can hike up the prices – but unless its endorsed by an ethical organisation like Fair Trade (which have standards you have to meet), there’s no guarantees. Not only this, but there are a whole lot more everyday products than I first assumed that perhaps aren’t fairly-traded. Think about it: if you go to a fair-trade store you’ll see all sorts of things other than sugar, coffee, and chocolate. There’s cinnamon, dried papaya, coconut oil, couscous, rice. There’s soap, jewellery, clothing, toys… If these products are fair-trade, it make me wonder: are the products in our supermarkets, clothing stores and toy stores not fair trade and slave-free?

So what does all this mean for me and what does it have to do with my desire to follow God and see his Kingdom come? Deep down I think God’s been doing a bit of stirring – I’m seeing his love for this entire world and creation changing the way I have to live. I’ve found myself unable to ignore this question: “How can I live sustainably and ethically in a way that honours all of God’s creation?”

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a weakling who struggles to do this. It doesn’t come naturally or easy. I’m selfish and buy things that are convenient, not fair. I drive to work. I own a smartphone. I don’t always recycle. The other day I tried not to use plastic bags at the supermarket and then ended up with my arms full of groceries (cos I forgot my reusable bags) – I dropped and broke some items on the pavement. And sometimes the whole thing just makes me feel overwhelmed and I don’t want to care at all!

So I’m still on a journey and I’m learning that daily choices matter. With that in mind, and with a dose of grace, I’m trying to:

  • Get informed about products and let that information change my purchases

  • Make sacrifices of time and effort, choosing inconvenience for me but fairness for others

  • Invite friends to consider their consumer choices and find people who will encourage me to keep trying

  • Allow God to break my heart for those trapped in slavery that he cares so deeply for, which involves reading and hearing things that make me uncomfortable and teary

  • After making selfish choices, get up the next day and try again


For me, it begins with (and ends with) my Father in heaven, whose Kingdom I want to see come on earth. A Kingdom that’s just, fair, full of compassion and abounding in love, where all people are free, a Kingdom where his people know that Jesus is Lord and that he’s prepared to turn over the tables in the marketplace and not allow greed and consumerism to destroy us.

Are you brave enough to find out how many slaves work for you? www.slaveryfootprint.org

For discussion

What does God’s Kingdom of justice – where no one is a slave – mean for you?

In what ways do you already live intentionally fair-trade and consumer conscious? What ways do you struggle or have never thought about before?

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