In my previous blog post, I covered the impact that transparency has on consumer interactions with fair trade products. We discussed how explicitly labeling an item as certified fair trade not only increased a buyers confidence in the legitimacy of the item, but lowered their hesitancy for paying a noticeably higher price. With this in mind, how can we recontextualize the role a customer has in the purchasing of fairly traded merchandise? There are a multitude of directions in which we could take this dilemma. One would be to pull apart the philosophy of a business transaction. Another take would be to analyze the ethics of selling fairly traded goods and what responsibility is gained (or lost) upon leaving the artisans hands. To begin, however, I would like to examine why we are asking this question in the first place.
Within the fair trade community exists a common, yet radically unique occurrence of story-telling in terms of how products are marketed and often sold. Websites, banners, and the anecdotes of sales people are filled with images of smiling artisans and the impact that supporting their company has on producers. I say this is common not only because it is a cornerstone of fair trade marketing, but because you will see the same kind of marketing at many other non-mission driven enterprises. Step into an engineering convention and you will see a scientist smiling with her hands crossed over her lab coat and safety goggles over her eyes. A slogan might appear which highlights how buying her engineering solution will “advance the field of material science into the future and beyond.” It is clear that marketing products to advance the commonwealth of some field (Indian metal workers, material sciences, etc.) is a customary marketing tool for any business sector. How then is the fair trade community radically different in this regard? The difference lies in the depth of impact a customer’s purchase has in the lives of the producers.
It is common knowledge that without the networking of fair trade distributors and retailers many disenfranchised artisans would be unable to make a constructive living from their craft. They might be able to peddle goods at tourist traps or in local markets, but the majority of craftsmen would be unable to provide a categorically different life for their family. With the introduction of Western markets, they can dramatically expand their business circle while concurrently honing their abilities. On one level, this is a very similar experience for people all around the world. Take a model living in the mid-West United States for example. They might be able to make a living working for local Nebraskan agencies, but the level of income potential in places like New York or Los Angeles would be nearly incomparable. Being able to tap into those markets could theoretically change their life forever. We see, therefore, that access to more active markets has the potential to thoroughly alter a producers business whether or not they are poor Indian artisans or American models. This begs the question: If the situation in small town Nebraska and Behat, India are the same, how does the marketing of one product differ from another? Why is selling a fair trade product fundamentally different from any other commodity? The answer lies in the standard of living present for each producer.
I do not need to explore this facet thoroughly as any person familiar with fair trade understands how appalling working situations can be for foreign producers before fair trade principles are enacted. Uneducated communities, societal norms, and geographic isolation are all circumstances which actively prevent progressive improvement in the lifestyle of any artisan. Holding this fact in mind, there is a contextually different experience brought to the marketing and sales process when describing the fair trade artisan versus any other “regular” product or service. This intuitive dissimilarity expresses itself through the importance placed upon artisan identity and cultural uniqueness. The radical difference in marketing styles is thusly a response to the understanding of how impactful a purchase is in the life of a craftsman. Buying a new nano-coating will not directly improve the lifestyle of the scientist who designed it, yet buying hand-dipped candles will undoubtedly improve the lifestyle of that producer. With this knowledge comes a near-proselytization of story as it relates to a company’s merchandise.
Might it be that the customer’s role in purchasing fair trade products is not to only carry on the item, but to pass on the story of how impactful that item was? Could it be that the true impact of fair trade is not wholly derived from the material transaction of money for product but in the proliferation of what power that exchange had in itself? If so, this would be a real world example where the pen is mightier than the proverbial sword. Fair trade companies would consequently bear a responsibility to readily communicate the influence of trade as a tool for change. Power lies not within the product but within the person. The better a company can embody this fact, the better they will be at including consumers within the fair trade process.
One of the concepts carried throughout this post was how the marketing process of fair trade businesses are impacted by their influence over producers. Next month we will look at how the idea of competition is changed when the priorities of these businesses shift from consumer satisfaction to producer empowerment.