Monthly Archives: August 2016


Caveat emptor and Christian Stewardship

August 08, 2016

Author: Christopher Cox

Category: Learn

sweatshops garment industry

It’s an old Latin phrase meaning “buyer beware.” Wikipedia tells us:

The phrase caveat emptor and its use as a disclaimer of warranties arise from the fact that buyers typically have less information about the good or service they are purchasing, while the seller has more information. The quality of this situation is known as ‘information asymmetry’. Defects in the good or service may be hidden from the buyer, and only known to the seller.

One consequence of this notion is that once the buyer and the seller have agreed to the terms of the exchange, the responsibility for any fault or for any harm done by the product lay entirely with the buyer. Similar to items sold “as is,” caveat emptor presupposes that the buyer inspects the item and finds it satisfactory prior to purchase. Certain home purchases and most used car sales fall under this umbrella. If you did not inspect the house thoroughly, better ask around for a good contractor as you will be paying to repair the leaky roof. If you bought a used car “as is” and discover that the lemon needs a new transmission, prepare to pay the mechanic. If you purchase a defective lava lamp at a garage sale, the purchase is final, and you own a fancy new paperweight.

Now, imagine if we extend the limits of caveat emptor more fully into our lives as consumers, such that the consumer assumes responsibility for all the faults and harms in the supply chain for the purchased shirt or blouse. In that instance, we could say that the person who wears garments from H & M assumes responsibility for the 14-year-olds who worked 12-hour days for “for the lowest minimum wage in the world (about $3 a day)” to make the shirt or blouse. It does not seem unreasonable to say that this consumer, under caveat emptor, bears moral responsibility for the purchased product. That same consumer assumes a moral responsibility for the environmental havoc wrought by the reckless discharge of chemicals used in the manufacturing process of the same shirt or blouse for that H & M garment. Having purchased that short or blouse means that I now bear responsibility for a polluted, lifeless river, a child exposed to carcinogens living near the field where the cotton was grown, or the devastating loss of life in a factory tragedy.

Disney label at Rana Plaza

Disney label at Rana Plaza

In classical understandings, there were once three professions: lawyers, physicians, and clergy. To this day, all three have certain privileges enshrined in law. All three were understood as “healing arts.” The clergy healed the soul. The physician healed the body. The lawyer healed the communal relationship. Maxims like caveat emptor aimed to protect, or where broken mend, relationships in the community.

Similarly, our faith suggests that we would do well to heed caveat emptor in this broader sense. If we extend the notion in terms of Christian stewardship, Jesus warned, “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Mt 6:21). We may own the things we buy, but they also begin to own us.  Every purchase we make has moral consequences. Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’, said: “Purchasing is always a moral– and not simply economic– act.” Indeed, then, every purchase is caveat emptor, buyer beware, for this has impact on your soul, on your spirituality, on how you relate to God, neighbor, creation, and even that garment worker in some distant land.

We believe as Catholics that being in right-relationship gives true and lasting joy. Being in right-relationship with God, with family, with neighbor, with the garment worker, and even with my enemy is a critical expression of my lived faith. A richer understanding of caveat emptor means that, before I buy, I want to know the locations of supplier factories to enable independent monitoring and verification of conditions for workers. It means that I want workers to receive a living wage, without excessive overtime and with regular safety training. It means that I want to insure that environmental hazards are reduced or eliminated, at home and abroad. And it means that my desire for these things must express itself in action.

Before you purchase, remember: caveat emptor! As consumers we need to overcome that “information asymmetry” with a deeper knowledge of how this purchase impacts our lives as well as the lives of so many others.

Resist the “Big Shrug”

August 08, 2016

Author: Christopher Cox

Category: Act

syria-ambulance-boy-20160818

Some years back, I remember a policy expert writing about the importance of generating new statistics that might wake the public up to hunger and poverty. The writer insisted that searching out those dramatic illustrations of our condition is an important exercise in hope, hope that things will change, in spite of what the author dubbed “the big shrug.” I cannot find the original article, although I found something from Paul Krugman that similarly invokes “The Big Shrug.” Krugman’s reference is to policy makers more than the general public.

This week, a moving photo has made the rounds. The photo (above), and the story of its origins, has shocked and moved many viewers. It may briefly awaken us from our complacency and draw us anew to ask what we can do. I also recall another photo of another boy from Syria.

syrian-migrant-boy-turkey
This image from a Turkish beach likewise shocked and moved when it appeared in September of 2015. We cannot say that we do not know about these things. Sadly, little has changed in our attitudes and actions towards the violence in Syria.

Similarly, our work at The Human Thread with the garment industry, on behalf of international garment workers, also arises from dramatic moments when our attention shifts to those persons all-too-often invisible to us. The tragic events at Rana Plaza momentarily drew us from our sleep to see the garment worker as neighbor, as brother and sister.

The temptation is fall into complacency, bitterness, even fatalism, in Krugman’s words “a sense that nothing need be done and nothing can be done.” With Syria or with the garment industry, such big forces are at work, what can one person do? We must guard against despair and the litany of temptations that can bring us low and impede change.

In 2015, Pope Francis, speaking of the “globalization of indifference,” invites us to move beyond “the big shrug.” He calls us to learn to see others as sister and brother, no matter their nationality, language, race, or creed. The work of justice, our work, is born of honesty and hope. It sees the world clearly as it is, and it sees the world as it should be, as God made it to be. Our work is to nudge the world as it is to be closer to the world as it should be.

In his Lenten message of 2015, Pope Francis urged three actions to resist the globalization of indifference:

As individuals too, we are tempted by indifference. Flooded with news reports and troubling images of human suffering, we often feel our complete inability to help. What can we do to avoid being caught up in this spiral of distress and powerlessness? First, we can pray in communion with the Church on earth and in heaven. Let us not underestimate the power of so many voices united in prayer!

Second, we can help by acts of charity, reaching out to both those near and far through the Church’s many charitable organizations. Lent is a favourable time for showing this concern for others by small yet concrete signs of our belonging to the one human family.

Third, the suffering of others is a call to conversion, since their need reminds me of the uncertainty of my own life and my dependence on God and my brothers and sisters. If we humbly implore God’s grace and accept our own limitations, we will trust in the infinite possibilities which God’s love holds out to us. We will also be able to resist the diabolical temptation of thinking that by our own efforts we can save the world and ourselves.

Let us then commit ourselves anew to prayer, to personal acts of charity, and to conversion. May this shape our hearts and give us strength to do walk the long road to justice, the long road to see all as our sisters and brothers.

Amid the critiques, let’s recognize progress

August 08, 2016

Author: Christopher Cox

Category: Assess

fortune-change-the-worldFortune recognizes 50 companies annually in its “Change the World” list. The companies have had a positive social impact through activities that are part of their core business strategy. Fortune prioritizes companies with annual revenues of $1 billion or more from around the globe.

Three of the companies in the list are from the apparel industry. While The Human Thread has concerns about other practices with these companies, we recognize that some steps are being taken.

#6 Nike

#17 Crystal Group

#40 Gap

While grateful for the progress, much work remains to be done.

St. Alberto Hurtado: A Saint for Garment Justice

August 08, 2016

Author: Christopher Cox

Category: Pray

St. Alberto Hurtado

St. Alberto Hurtado

Before entering the Jesuits, St. Alberto Hurtado discovered his vocation working in a poor neighborhood of Santiago, Chile. One of his great works was founding, in that neighborhood, the Hogar de CristoChile’s first homeless shelter. He began volunteering at a parish and school in the neighborhood while in high school. His law school thesis, El trabajo a domicilio (Work at home),  applied Catholic Social Teaching to women who sewed button holes at home. He concluded that they were grossly underpaid, an injustice according to church teachings. A 2005 Chilean film tells the story of Alberto’s youth up to his entrance into the Jesuits, highlighting his personal conversion while writing the thesis. The film, “Alberto: ¿Quién sabe cuánto cuesta hacer un ojal?,”(Alberto: Who knows how much it costs to make a button hole?) can be found in Spanish on YouTube here.

An inspiring writer, preacher, teacher, and retreat master, St. Alberto Hurtado led a life distinguished as a patron of youth and the poor and workers. His 1941 book, ¿Es Chile un país Católico? (Is Chile a Catholic Country?), raised an uncommon question for a country that registered at 94% Catholic. His surprising conclusion was “no, not yet” as the church was distant from the poor and so much of Catholic Social Teaching remained unpracticed.

Inspired by Catholic Social Teaching, St. Alberto Hurtado founded the Chilean Trade Union Association, meant to train leaders and instill Christian values in the labor unions of his country. For them he wrote three books: Social Humanism (1947), The Christian Social Order (1947) and Trade Unions (1950). To disseminate the social teaching of the Church and help Christians reflect and act on the serious social problems faced by the country, he founded the periodical Mensaje (“Message”) in 1951. He himself published numerous articles and books on labor issues in relation to Catholic practice.

St. Alberto Hurtado’s earthly life concluded on August 18, 1952, dying of pancreatic cancer at the age of 51 years old. In 2005, he became Chile’s second canonized saint.

Prayer from the Eucharist for his feast day

Lord Jesus Christ, who commanded us to love and to love our neighbors, we pray that you would fill is with the desire and courage to love and serve others as Saint Alberto Hurtado did. Help us to hear the cries of the poor and the suffering and to see your blessed face in the face of those who are often left out in our modern world. Like a lighthouse shining its hopeful light out into the vast ocean, lead us to share the hopeful message of your love with those who are caught in the rough waters of life.

Prayer to St. Alberto Hurtado

Saint Alberto Hurtado, Apostle of Jesus Christ,
Devoted servant of the poor,
Friend of children,
And teach of youth.
We bless and thank our God
For the time you spent among us.

You knew how to love and serve.
You were a prophet of justice and a
Refuge for the needy and forsaken.
With tender love you built a home
to shelter Christ.

As a true father
You call us to live our faith,
Responsibly, honestly and fraternally.

You guide us with enthusiasm
to follow in the steps of the Master.
You lead us to the Savior
for which the whole world longs.

Teach us to live joyfully,
even in the midst of difficulties.
Show us how to overcome our selfishness,
to live our lives for the sake of others.

St. Alberto Hurtado, son of Mary, son of the Church,
friend of God and of all people,
pray for us.

Amen