Thanks to the work of the United Church of Christ's economic justice ministries, attendees of General Synod 2013 can purchase items from the UCC Store or pickup freebies from partnering exhibitors with a clear conscience. A UCC policy that ensures all products given away, sold, or branded by the UCC are sweat-free and/or environmentally green will be very evident during the event June 28-July 2 in Long Beach, Calif.
"We know our money is actually supporting companies that treat workers fairly and we're not just participating in a race where companies can go cheaper and cheaper and become more abusive," said Edith Rasell, UCC minister for economic justice. "We can sleep better at night."
A sweat-free item is one that is not made in a sweatshop or workplace that violates worker or human rights with unsafe conditions, long hours, or pay lower than the minimum wage. For an item to be green, it has to be produced using materials and processes that are environmentally friendly and responsible. The policy, approved by the UCC's national officers and the Mission Planning Council in 2009, applies to the four covenanted ministries, United Church Funds and the Pension Board. The UCC has an extensive list of suppliers and vendors that meet these requirements and offer everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs to tote bags.
Examples of sweat-free products offered by the UCC include the buttons made by an American manufacturer that guarantees no sweatshop labor is involved in its processes. All General Synod T-shirts come from a vendor that acquires products produced in fair and equitable working conditions. In addition, the new drink tumbler being debuted at General Synod was purchased from a woman-owned company, is BPA free and encourages the use of reusable mugs.
Rasell cites that more than 90 percent of all apparel sold in the United States is made overseas, much of it in sweatshops. The UCC first became vocal about labor practices that exploit the environment, workers and communities with a General Synod resolution in 1991, "when the idea of sweatshops was just getting off the ground," Rasell said. So even before the 2009 policy was enacted, UCC groups were aware of the need to support companies that promote workers' rights and to be mindful of how products bearing the UCC name are made.
"We need to be careful about what we are going to put our logo on and how we are going to spend our dollars to be socially responsible," Rasell said. "It is part of our calling to love our neighbors – and we can't claim to support our neighbors by supporting companies that abuse their workers."
Rasell says there are some challenges in following the policy. The selection of available items can be limited, and they can cost more. They can also be harder to track down, which requires more time, energy and research. But most importantly, some companies can misrepresent items as sweat-free or green when in fact, they aren't. Rasell suggests working with a third-party certifier to make sure vendors are representing their products accurately and to not rely simply on the vendor's word alone. But despite these challenges, the UCC policy sends the message that the denomination is aware of these workplace and environmental injustices and is playing an active role in the call for change.
"Hopefully in the future, eventually, it will be illegal to sell things in this country made in sweatshops or made with child labor or made in ways that hurt the environment," Rasell said. "But until that happens, there is an extra burden on consumers to do their own investigations to find these products."