Clearly, fair trade accords with my ideas of solidarity and human dignity and my basic value that all people, independent of their origins, gender or their beliefs are equal. But this shouldn’t be the reason why I buy fair trade products. I would go as far as to say that sympathy is a fatal purchase driver. Because the global economy, of which all of us, including fair trade, are a part, will allow humanitarian parameters only in so far as they do not get in the way of the main goal, which is to make a profit. And any sympathy will only be extended as far as it doesn’t encroach on one’s own living standards. Thus the producer stays dependent on a consumer whose wealth is built on the shoulders of his poverty. Only when the manufacturer can afford the same products as the consumers at the other end of the world, can we talk of genuine fairness. But we won’t be able to achieve this state as long as they remain in the role of the invisible poor and thus legitimize the privileged customers to remain in their role, too.
The fast growing number of critical consumers is interested in the circumstances under which their goods are produced. Fair trade shortens the link between consumers and producers, provides transparency and promises an ecological chain of production. But the mere feasibility for the consumer to be able to buy fair trade products marks them out as privileged. So the decision to buy fair trade is a choice of the lesser evil; from a position of privilege to attempt to introduce a little justice. Economic behavior thus evolves into social behavior. However, it remains a trade in indulgences. It is about breaking down this moralistic trickle-down effect, whereby the Western consumer passes on a piece of his wealth, in the form of consumption. The aim must be that they prefer fair trade goods, because they are–in every respect–the better offer.
The fair trade movement interlinks two dominant regulatory structures: that of the common good and that of world trade. It demonstrates at a micro-level how something like that can be positive, by integrating marginalized populations, the linking of work-intensive industries with the building of infrastructures in rural areas, as well as educational programs and, finally, the introduction of new technologies and models of thinking. And it shows in practice that social and ecological exploitation are not “natural” or inevitable side effects of globalization and that companies can take responsibility for this. The question however is: How much can fair trade spread before it reaches the limits of its standards? Will it ever be in a position to play a greater role on the stage of world trade than as a best practice example? At what point can the struggle for better living conditions for producers no longer legitimize a growing dependence on mainstream markets and the challenger of unjust global trade relations join the ranks of its opponents? I suppose, first we need to break up with the economical dogma of antagonism.
Many brands use the stories of their suppliers for promotional purposes and [...] to breathe new soul into their increasingly interchangeable products?
Today many brands use the stories of their suppliers for promotional purposes and to fulfill the wishes of the consumer, to peek behind the scenes of the manufacturing of their goods. But above all, they do this to breathe new soul into their increasingly interchangeable products. That’s not really new. The reputation of producers has always been used for promotional purposes. What is new is that after more than 30 years, in which value chains became spread all around the globe and the supplier lists were kept secret to prevent counterfeiting and supply problems, that tradition is now being rediscovered. Embroidery from India, dyeing techniques from Tanzania, cotton from Peru and the manufacturing plant in China. Furthermore the good reputations of large factories ensures a new distribution of power within which the Western contractor needs to secure capacity, especially when the export portion of the output is reduced in favor of the rising domestic market. This also requires the commitment to a manufacturer and a negotiating on equal footing between the two. The supplier becomes a partner and dependencies arise in both directions. Additionally, neo-liberal assertions of knowledge and the dominance of know-how in the global North are destabilized.
The power relations and speed of the global market are a great challenge even for individuals in privileged positions. Undoubtedly, for small players, it is insurmountable if they have no strong partner. Fair trade creates a protected space and has a reputation for the strength of community, for quality and professionalism in sectors which are still often disorganized, such as agriculture and handicraft in the countries of the global South. Further fair trade qualities will be increasingly more difficult to find in the conventional sphere. It rescues the quality of labor-intensive manufacturing sectors from a quality decline and ensures the maintenance of culturally important craftsmanship. Is it not therefore about time that fair trade products are no longer bought out of a blind sympathy with an otherwise invisible group of marginalized people, as an indulgence, as penance for the otherwise strict global demarcation between classes? Isn’t it also about time that a real coexistence between cultures was established in which independence is accepted by everyone and its relevance in the world is recognized; with all the accompanying rights and duties? As a counter move it is also the duty of all marginalized cultures to no longer submit to oppression, to develop a self-confidence and to fully enjoy the full scope of their own trade. Don’t accept alms anymore and don’t let things be taken from you. Make sure your brilliance and quality is paid fairly. Craftsmen and women, workers and farmers can be proud of what they are, regardless of their financial situation. They account for the largest proportion of humanity. The world economy would collapse without their work and the wealth of the Western world itself would fall like a house of cards.
Fredericke Winkler works as a freelance editor in fashion and interior for 15 years now. As textile expert her special attention lies on sustainability issues and therefore she frequently works with environmental groups, human rights activists, standards and certifications as well as with the industry to tackle the challange.