Saturday, November 24, 2012

Fair Trade Shouldn't Be Adorable

Several years ago, I wandered around a fair trade shop and had a good time looking at everything. All kinds of decorations, carvings made in Africa, jewelery, wooden figures, all very beautiful and from all over the world.

Image source.

But I concluded it wasn't for me. I didn't really want to buy pretty little trinkets. I was a college student, living in an 8 ft x 10 ft dorm room. The absolute LAST thing I needed was some decorative wooden animal, no matter how cute and well-made it was.

Is this what fair trade is about? Buying silly things I would never in a million years spend money on? Where the only selling point is "this is fair trade, made by women in Uganda"?

So I should buy these items not because I actually want them, but because I pity the people who made them?

That's not right.

I guess some people are looking for decorations for their coffee table, and they really like the style of some African carvings, and that's great. They can buy the fair trade wooden giraffe and feel great about it. But I am not those people.

And for me to buy something I don't want or need, just because I like the idea of fair trade- that's condescending. That's saying, "awww poor women in Africa made this? That's ADORABLE!" Like they're a little kid with an overpriced lemonade stand and terrible business model, and you buy it just to make the kid feel good.

If my obligation to buy little knickknacks I don't want is supplying someone the income to provide for their BASIC NEEDS, something is wrong. We are not equals.

Ideally, the things we buy fair trade should be things we were going to buy anyway. Or things we genuinely like. I was very happy to see From Two To One's recent blog post, A Year of Buying Nothing New: What About Black Friday?, where she profiles several companies with ethical business practices. Most of the ones in that particular post are clothing companies with quality, fashionable clothing that, you know, you might actually want to buy.

This is great and I hope that's the future of fair trade- where it can compete with the "regular" products in terms of quality, price, and availability. Where it's just a normal part of everyday life, instead of something extra you do because you're trying to be a good person. But what about when it isn't?

Is it wrong that "fair trade" is a factor which influences me to buy something? No, that's not wrong- but it shouldn't be the ONLY reason.

And what if the world is an imperfect system, and those of us with extra money SHOULD buy those silly things we don't need, in order to help others? Even though it blatantly shows that we're not equals, and I just buy your products out of pity... what if that's better than not doing anything at all? Yes, something IS wrong, but I'm making the best of it, under the circumstances.

There's so much I don't know about the world and the economy, and I'd like to learn and I'd like to take action and fight injustice, even though no solution is perfect. Even though I have unanswered questions about fair trade, I think it's a good thing. But it's not the magic solution that's going to save the world.

And above all, I hope it's about dignity, not pity.


  1. You make some great observations and raise some challenging questions here. I think Danielle has done well to challenge us to go beyond tokenism in our fair-trade purchases. I appreciate that she highlights for us ways in which we can purchase things we would buy anyway in a manner that is more equitable for the seller. I wonder at times about projects that seek to provide employment in developing countries by producing what are effectively trinkets for sale to a limited group of buyers. How much are we really helping in those situations? Are such projects really sustainable? Are they the best way to provide meaningful employment for people in a way that affirms their dignity? The answers are not easy, but its good to ask the questions and keep looking for alternatives to the dominant system.

  2. Yeah I also really like what Danielle is doing. Doing actual research instead of just some gimmicky "hey let's buy this cool thing and solve all the one-dimensional impoverished people's problems!"

    I think there is no perfect solution, so my approach is to give money/time/etc to support the organizations I know about, even though they are imperfect, and ask questions in order to understand things more and update my actions accordingly.

  3. I love this -- such good points. I think a lot about this tradeoff in my desires to have a simple closet filled with things that will last. I would love to stay in conversation about this! xo Kim

  4. One of the things I struggle with the most is that I am educated far beyond my level of obedience in this. For instance, I know the stats, the countries and groups of people affected, the cultural, economic, and political factors influencing (un)fair trade practices, but I don't want to pay more. Even though I know the Herseys and the Mars and Nikes and Apples have horrible labor practices, does that make me always buy fair trade chocolate and shoes and computers? I'm trying to take it one step at a time, but sometimes it just feels so overwhelming.

  5. It's really, really hard for me to get totally on board with companies, which is why I started the Business for Good series. In my day job, I do a lot of research and due diligence on do-gooder nonprofits and social enterprises, so it can be difficult for me to see past all the blemishes in their business model, marketing, mission, etc.

  6. I know! It's overwhelming! The more I learn about the world, the more I see there's no easy answer. I don't know how to live as an American in a way that's consistent with the knowledge that billions of people in the world live in poverty or without water.