Shopping for change this Christmas

A Burmese child refugee sleeps with her new teddy bear, knitted by an Australian volunteer. Griffith University

Four-year-old Ar Zin stared at my bag. He knew there was something special inside.

The classroom full of 30 Burmese refugee children was so hushed that I could each child’s breath, and Ar Zin’s eyes followed as I zipped the bag open.

The children inhaled - and when I pulled out a soft knitted teddy bear, they shrieked and clapped with delight.

Taking gifts from strangers

This was my Christmas in 2011, visiting 30 refugee children from Burma at a school in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai.

The reaction from the children was precious, but it was also challenging.

As I sat with the children, they told me that they had always dreamt of having a teddy bear to cuddle while they slept.

But for some of the students at the school, which is now funded by the organisation I founded with my wife, Chrissy – HELP International – their young lives had been filled with unspeakable horror.

Some had seen family members killed in ethnic clashes in their homeland.

Some of the children had even been enslaved and forced to work as child soldiers.

All are poor and still live a life of uncertainty as immigrants with limited rights.

The children’s circumstances are unimaginable to us, but the giving of handmade toys from groups of selfless knitters from Australia was a simple act of kindness that gave these children joy and excitement.

Not one of the children at the school had ever owned a toy.

Binging billions

By contrast, this year the Australian National Retailers Association predicts Australians will spend $32 billion during the Christmas period.

It was anticipated more than $5 billion would be spent on presents and other Christmas frivolity in the first week of December alone.

Although this spending is important for keeping our economy ticking, it is important to balance this with some perspective.

According to UNICEF, as we celebrate Christmas on December 25, it is estimated 22,000 children aged under 5 will die on the day from poverty.

While child mortality rates are improving, UNICEF says that children still “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.”

The cost of a bargain

Sadly, our pursuit for a Christmas bargain often also has spillover effects for some of the poorest of the poor.

Although the excitement of being able to buy a $4 t-shirt may bring us temporary pleasure – the reality is someone is usually being exploited for the bargain we get.

More often than not the exploited are children, forced to work in appalling conditions in overseas sweatshops.

Just last month in Bangladesh, 112 clothing workers died in a fire at one of these sweatshops.

Many were incinerated beside their sewing machines, in a fire so fierce that the ceiling fans melted above them.

The workers were unable to escape the factory because they had been locked in.

Among the clothes found after the fire were piles of children’s shorts and a hooded Mickey Mouse sweatshirt.

US retail giant Wal Mart has been implicated in the disaster, after it was alleged their textile contractors had sub-contracted work to the factory.

Bangladesh is one of the world’s largest exporters of textiles much of what is produced there is made by exploited children and the vulnerable.

Those clothes and textiles eventually find their way to the retail shelves in places like Australia at bargain-basement prices.

How to help others have a merrier Christmas

Although these home truths might be difficult to face at Christmas, they need to be addressed.

It is time for consciences to be pricked.

This Christmas, enjoy the festive season but I’d urge you to take some time before you shop to think about what you buy. Some steps you can take include:

  1. Check to see if your preferred retailer has an ethical clothing policy. If they don’t, don’t shop there.

  2. Seek fair trade products that are registered to recognised fairtrade organisations. Chocolate, coffee, tea, clothing and homewares can all be bought with a guarantee people have not been exploited in the making of the products from shops such as Oxfam. Other retailers can be found at www.fairtrade.com.au

  3. Buy second hand. It reduces demand and lessens the impact of exploitation.

My time in Thailand was a sobering reminder that while we indulge, others suffer. It was also a reminder that we can do something to address global suffering.

No better time to start then at Christmas.

This article was also published at Griffith University’s Red Couch blog.