In the fair trade industry, there is a constant push and pull between customers and companies. Customers want to believe they are engaging in a conscious form of capitalism, where they are heroes voting with their dollars and supporting small businesses and artists, artisans, and makers who might not otherwise succeed without their help. Companies want to encourage this point of view so they can maximize profits. But what about the makers themselves? They are the human beings who are actually creating and producing the products. Perhaps you follow some fair trade companies on social media and you see them post sad but resilient stories about these makers, these artisans, and it makes you feel connected to the person who made the product you spent $40-$200 on. Have you ever stopped to question the validity of that connection, or the assumptions you make both consciously and subconsciously about that person and their life?
Although often well-intentioned, most fair trade companies are guilty of a type of exploitation called sympathy marketing. In this context this term means using usually sad stories of real people to sell products made by those people. The way those stories are collected, however, is rarely clear. Nor is it clear whether these people actually gave full, informed consent for their stories and images to be publicized for the sake of selling products.
Perhaps you can recall reading a story like this on social media or in a company’s blog post. Usually they follow this format:
- The person was born into poverty
- They experienced something incredibly traumatic like sexual assault or the death of a close family member
- They took efforts to learn new skills
- They were eventually taken on by a gracious company that employed them, taught them more new skills, and now pays them well so that now they can make crafts and support their family
If you are wondering what is particularly problematic about this, ask yourself how you would feel if someone who doesn’t speak your language and is not from your community, culture, or even country, who looks nothing like you, asks you about the most painful and traumatic events of your life. This person might ask you through an interpreter if you’re okay with them publishing your story with your picture on multiple online platforms you may or may not have regular access to and they promise that doing so will mean more work and therefore more money for you and your family. Being able to support yourself and your family is obviously important to you so you agree. But do you really feel that you can say no? Did this person fully explain the potential problems and complications that could arise from sharing your story and your image? Will the people in your community see your story and treat you differently as a result? Can you be sure that you will gain enough work and make enough money because of this that taking the risk will be worth it in the end? This is assuming people who work for the company will even be the ones speaking with you directly in the first place. In many cases fair trade companies collect these stories through several degrees of separation because they don’t work with the makers directly but through intermediaries. Because of this getting fully informed consent is even trickier.
Inherent in the above concerns are issues of classism, racism, and the lingering effects of colonialism. Most often fair trade companies work with people in what have variously been known as “Third World,” “developing,” and “global south” countries. For the purpose of this article I’ll use the term global south as it has the fewest negative connotations at this time, but it is of course not without flaws. Generally countries referred to as global south are made up primarily of people of color and have been colonized at some point in the last few hundred years. As a result of colonization, many of these countries have struggled economically, politically, and culturally for generations while global north countries continue to interfere in one way or another. Fair trade companies attempt to alleviate some of these issues by providing or creating access to the global market. Artisans, makers, and crafters who are highly skilled in producing handmade goods are paid for their products and those products are then sold to customers in global north countries at a high price meant to account for fair wages paid to the people who made them. This is in direct contrast to the mass-produced goods made in sweatshops and poorly maintained factories that are sold cheaply because they were made cheaply by exploited humans.
The downside of these higher prices is that customers have to be convinced that the higher price is worth it. Apparently it is not enough that the products themselves are better quality and the people who made them are supposedly paid fairly for their work. In a global economy where almost anything can be found at a lower, more affordable price somewhere else, convincing people to spend more is tricky. Enter sympathy marketing. Fair trade companies attempt to bridge this gap and foster a personal, emotional connection with their higher-priced products because it’s been proven time and again that customers will spend more for that sense of emotional investment and reward. They feel rewarded when they spend money to help someone they see as downtrodden and less fortunate. Sympathy marketing plays on that privilege and sense of reward by publicizing sad, personal stories alongside images usually of people of color sitting down surrounded by their work, or surrounded by perceived evidence of poverty or diminished circumstances, with no other context provided. Sometimes companies will even share images of their (white) founder surrounded by a large group of children (of color); everyone looks joyous, but how do we know the children’s parents gave consent for this image to be shared? What assumptions do we immediately make about where the children live and how they spend their time? We have no way of knowing if our assumptions are true, yet we still make them because we continue to believe in specific ideas and narratives about the lives of people in global south countries, based only on images like these and stories shared fourth- or fifth-hand.
Companies exist to make money. Fair trade companies usually are started with the noble goal of helping people, but they are still motivated by money. If you own or work for a fair trade company you should ask yourself if you are guilty of relying on sympathy marketing to sell products. It is definitely a comparatively easy way to spread your company’s message and raise funds, but it is not the most moral way. If you truly care about making a real difference, figure out how to move away from the exploitation of other peoples’ stories and cultures in order to sell their products. Write artisan stories the same way you write bios about your local employees. Critically examine the gender and racial makeup of your company — is everyone at the top of the ladder white? Are women in positions of leadership? Is your workplace inclusive, not merely diverse? Do you consider yourself a voice for the community where you source your products? If so, why are the people who live in that community not able or allowed to speak for themselves? Examine your biases and privileges and how they influence the way you approach your work.
If you are a customer who supports fair trade companies, consider whether you have ever questioned their ethics and how fair trade they really are. The best companies don’t use sympathy marketing. If they share artisan stories, the stories are written the same way a LinkedIn profile might be written — professional, positive, and straightforward. They hopefully provide an Impact Report on their website that includes detailed information about how money is spent, what amount goes to the product makers, what community projects the company has helped to fund and how the locals in the community have taken charge of executing these projects. If a fair trade company is truly ethical, you should find no white saviorism in their marketing or website because the products should speak for themselves. While knowing the name and face of the person who made the products is a nice human touch in an inhuman capitalistic world, you’re not entitled to the private details of that person’s life to motivate you to support their work.
Too often we treat humans as commodities, particularly when they have less privilege. We make assumptions about their circumstances and decide what is right for them without even asking for their input. If we want to keep promoting fair trade as a viable alternative to mass-produced goods, we need to be more critical of any company or brand that labels itself as fair trade. There is no single international governing body that decides what fair trade is, so we have to govern ourselves and hold companies to higher standards. If you are interested in being a conscientious consumer, that means paying attention, doing research, and calling in brands that should be doing better. This goes for customers and companies alike — we can all do a better job holding each other accountable. Being complacent at a time like this means remaining stagnant when we should be working towards progress.
*Please note that this issue is extremely complex and nuanced and this article only scratched the surface. For more info check out EthicalStorytelling.com and ArtOfCitizenry.com.