This film is a snapshot glimpse into the life of a man named Sun Yi, a kind and thoughtful Chinese engineer who is systematically arrested and jailed for various lengths of time over the past two decades. His crime? Practicing Falun Gong - a Chinese spiritual practice - after the Communist party outlawed it in the late 90s. While serving time in the notorious Masanjia "re-education" camp (forced labor prison), he spends his nights secretly writing SOS notes to slip into the products he's forced to produce in violation of his human rights. Ironically, he was laboring up to 20 hours a day to make gravestone Halloween decorations. Two years after being written, the SOS 'letter in a bottle' is found by an Oregon woman who thankfully takes the note seriously and contacts the media and human rights organizations. She demonstrated bravery and responsibility when she found the letter.
The Oregon woman is me and you. She is everyone in western affluent societies and the developing countries importing our consumer culture. She values her family and wants to provide them with a comfortable and cheerful home. When she purchased an inexpensive Halloween decoration and didn't use it for two years she was tacitly reinforcing the driving force behind Sun Yi's plight. Is our consumer culture responsible for political persecution in China? Of course not. Should we shut down trade or attempt to police sovereign nations? Definitely not. But, our relentless consumption and expectation for cheap, disposable, and unnecessary goods has allowed this dynamic system to grow out of control and yield unintentional consequences that most of us would not actively support. In 2018 it's no longer acceptable to hide behind feigned ignorance and complicity.
Ask the questions. Ask your friends the questions. Demand the answers. Where was this made? Was it made in decent and fair working conditions? Do I really need this? Is it durable? Could I buy it second hand? What kind of impact does this product have on the environment? Fair Trade and the Sustainable Development Goals aim to ensure human rights and environmental protections are designed into our fast-developing world. But, the UN and Fair Trade organizations cannot police the world, nor should they. Individuals and organizations can accept responsibility and acknowledge that consumption behaviors have real - and sometimes horrific - global consequences. Chances are that thing you want is available from a Fair Trade company; or, just DIY. It can be overwhelming to ask these questions and learn the hard truths that Letter from Masanjia teaches us. This is a movement that requires individuals to implement lifestyle changes on a large scale by finding courage and being self-aware. Fair Trade and the SDGs give us the tools to make more informed decisions, one purchase at a time.
Melissa Rusinek received her bachelor's from CUNY Baruch's Marxe School of Public Affairs and holds an international master's in Environmental Management and Sustainability from James Madison University and the University of Malta. She has 8 years of government relations consulting experience and an upcoming peer-reviewed publication which proposes circular solutions to mitigate the harmful impacts of textile supply chains. She is passionate about the intersection of public and private organizations, the circular economy, sustainable fashion, technology innovation, stakeholder collaboration, and sustainable development.