Illustration by Jenn Kitagawa
The refrains are nearly identical.
While perusing artisanal fair-trade websites, you’ll inevitably find a “Meet the Founder” page featuring a white woman draped in a vibrant scarf, sharing the origin story of her shop: “I never knew how good I had it until I traveled to [name of third world country] after college. I was so shocked to see how [natives of said country] lived in such sad conditions that I cried [white tears]! Then I met [poor woman of color identified only by her first name], who, despite not having air-conditioning or an iPhone, smiled all the time. Her story was so inspiring that I vowed to single-handedly end poverty with [my brand name], a sustainable business that pays artisans in [third-world countries] fair wages. Thanks to me, [name of poor woman of color] really has something to smile about! Just look at this picture of me with [a group of poor women of color] to prove it.”
The sense of discovery, purpose, and heroism on these founders’ websites would feel impressive if it weren’t such a cliché. It’s as if their statements were pages ripped from a volume of White-Savior Mad Libs.
The mainstreaming of fair-trade consumerism has offered well-meaning shoppers a bridge between charity and fashion, with brick-and-mortar stores and online shops alike hawking “style with a conscience,” as one store’s tagline proudly claims. These days, the market comprises about a thousand businesses, organizations, and shops (most vaguely identify themselves as a mix of all three) certified with the Fair Trade Federation emblem. The overwhelming majority of founders, ceos, and employees in these organizations—all of which claim to provide an equitable transaction between the globally wealthy and the globally poor, to the tune of more than $200 million a year—are white women. And the workers who produce the colorful wares that line the online shelves are poor women of color from developing countries. How “fair” is this trade? And what does its proliferation say about relationships of power between women, who account for the majority of both producers and consumers in this industry?
The fair-trade business model has early roots in the U.S. abolitionist movement. A formerly enslaved bishop-to-be named Richard Allen founded the Free African Society in 1787. The mutual-aid organization assisted fugitive slaves and served as a precursor to the Free Produce Society, a group of abolitionist Quakers, who along with Allen, boycotted slave-derived goods in order to encourage a more moral marketplace.
In 1946, when Mennonite Edna Ruth Byler journeyed from Pennsylvania to Puerto Rico, she was “struck by the overwhelming poverty” she witnessed. Byler was moved to ignite “a global movement to eradicate poverty through market-based solutions.” Or, in other words, sell shit made by the global poor to the global rich for quadruple the price in what were at that time called “ethnic shops,” “worldshops,” and “charity stores.” You know the saying: One woman’s day-to-day struggle is another woman’s passion project. Byler went on to start a group that eventually grew to become Ten Thousand Villages, the first fair-trade artisan organization of its kind, which still exists today. In 2015, Ten Thousand Villages earned $27.6 million in sales in partnership with 20,000 “makers” across 30 countries.
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As we understand it today, the function of fair-trade brands is to sell ethically-produced goods in order to improve trading conditions and grant producers in developing countries access to the global market. What began as hawking needlework out of the trunk of Byler’s car eventually became an operation of more than 100 stores in the United States and Canada, and a movement. The majority of contemporary fair-trade artisan shops follow Byler’s narrative with little deviation—because in this business, the narrative is everything.
With compulsory images of female fair-trade brand founders in exotic locales alongside poc (props of color), fair-trade brand origin stories and bios feel like they’re trying to outdo each other. “Living in a broken world is something that has proven to be an exceptional challenge for me,” the owner of fair-trade brand The Root Collective enthuses in her bio, “because I want to fix it.” (Emphasis in original.) She professes that she “fell in love with the slum community of La Limonada in Guatemala,” and, “as a fixer, this was a particularly hard trip for me. There seemed to be so much that needed fixing, and there was only one of me.”
Elsewhere, a cofounder of the Christian fair-trade brand Trades of Hope describes her first trip to Haiti, saying, “I knew that I could not continue life as I had before. I knew that I had to do something about the [deviation] I saw around me.” (Emphasis mine.) In following this script to the letter, each white woman casts herself as the protagonist—the savior—in her story, with Haiti and Guatemala cast as problems just waiting to be fixed.
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Saviorism employs a time-honored colonial narrative: The sad state of the savage Other necessitates civilizing via white/Western intervention, which maintains dominion over resources that sometimes trickle down to the needy via acts of charity. In his landmark 2012 essay, “The White-Savior Industrial Complex,” Teju Cole reminds us that saviorism “is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” I would add that it validates supremacy more than anything, because assuming the role of the savior is also a show of power.
The presumptuousness of claiming you can “eradicate” poverty and gender inequality by selling bracelets to yuppies exposes one fallacy of corporate feminism—that leaning in to capitalism can heal the symptoms of the system without actually challenging it. The brand Fair Trade Designs goes so far as to name this market the Feminist Fair Trade Movement in a 2012 article posted to their blog, and rhetoric about female empowerment can be found with just about every one of these online shops.
The connotations of poverty seen through this white gaze are apolitical, a sad fluke of modern society. White supremacy and western hegemony are just as oppressive to underprivileged women of color in poor nations as poverty is, but to mention them would be a tough sell, a real downer for customers to ponder while they’re shopping for a new pair of sandals. Women in developed countries proudly step into stereotypical roles that preoccupy them with fashion, shopping, and pseudo humanitarianism while acting as the paternalistic hero to the needy’s damsel-in-distress. Given the historical origins of soft, feminine conquest, fair-trade feminism not only systematically maintains capitalism and white supremacy, but patriarchal standards as well.
With names like Buy the Change, Global Girlfriend, and Indigenous Designs, these companies employ practices that are naive and self-serving at best, and that reek of imperialist exploitation at worst. In the middle lies a controlled form of cultural appropriation, where white women get the green light to wear “authentic” “ethnic” garb, to consume the oft-endangered cultures of the Other. Imperialist nostalgia fuels an industry where many of these communities no longer wear the fashions they sell. Many of their crafts were once made for traditional or local use, but are now sold as home décor for the powerful foreigner; and in order to appeal to a largely white and female demographic, the work of artisans tends to get the watered-down Western treatment. One shop, for example, sells a Dream Catcher Pencil Cup: It isn’t a dreamcatcher, nor are dreamcatchers depicted on it. It’s just a cup painted with bright crisscross lines, marketed with the tagline, “Let these fair-trade desk accessories help dreams come true for artisans in El Salvador.” In order to be helped, the Other must remain in the past, their designs undistinguished, their stories uniform and interchangeable, and their gratitude to the savior endlessly flowing.
A 2014 Indiana University study on “purchase intent” for fair-trade apparel among women found that the desire for individuality was the most important factor driving sales from “alternative” trade organizations, which are usually mission-driven ngos. Shopping with socially responsible values was ranked second as a motivating factor, which explains some of the advertising language used by these companies—you're buying something quirky and one-of-a-kind with a sappy backstory. Cause-related marketing (CRM), also known as consumption philanthropy, is the backbone of an industry that commodifies social causes for profit. In marrying charity with consumption, CRM depoliticizes oppression, oversimplifies solutions, and robs the people it’s supposed to help of dignity. So when you purchase a Global Girlfriend Organic Africa Tee (it’s a basic t-shirt in green, black, and red, because Africa) you’ll be treated to a Cliffs-Notes explanation of armed conflict in Northern Uganda, a blurb designed to increase the likelihood of a purchase.
Research on CRM in South Africa published in the Journal of Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management in 2012 reveals how these practices can serve as a piggy bank for white guilt, noting that “whites who held residual guilt from apartheid were more responsive to messages which in some way allowed them to alleviate some of this guilt by doing something positive for those less fortunate.” Another study, from Ohio State University, found that out of 155 fair-trade consumers surveyed, 137 were white and 134 were women.
In her essay, “The Hidden Costs of Cause Marketing,” Angela M. Eikenberry argues that “consumption philanthropy stabilizes, more than changes, the system (the market) that some would argue led to the poverty, disease, and environmental destruction philanthropists hope to eradicate.” She goes on to suggest that, “consumption philanthropy is thus not about change, but about business as usual.” That may be why the proliferation of brands by and for well-off white women consuming third-world labor and dressing it up as female empowerment makes me want to throw a Dream Catcher Pencil Cup at the wall.
The complex struggles of these marginalized artisans are minimized to monolithic narratives such as those found in New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s work. Kristof frequently reports on the activism of Westerners, himself included, in Africa making use of "bridge characters" in the form of white/Western do-gooders who can translate the problems of people of color to the white masses. In his essay on saviorism, Cole uses Kristof’s framing of issues in the Global South through an oversimplified white, Western lens as an example, writing that “all [Kristof] sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.” Through the fair-trade industry’s heavy reliance on CRM, the bodies of women of color are hypervisible while remaining invisible—seen but not known. Obligatory images of them pressed against smizing, khaki-clad white women are a staple of these online shops, images that make me squirm because the women of color look so uncomfortable, so infantilized. When objectifying and speaking over the people one is claiming to help is an integral part of a business’s narrative and optics, it isn’t enough to call it patronizing—it’s dehumanizing.
Everyone deserves a livable wage, and granting greater access to larger markets does alleviate some of the effects of poverty—like child labor, for instance. But access doesn’t necessarily translate into power. The central paradox of fair-trade capitalism relies on inequity to keep these shops open. When we gloss over the chasm of difference between women in this industry, when there is no conversation around the source of systemic oppression that make poor women of color in the Global South vulnerable, they will continue to need “saving.” To release themselves from the binds of economic servitude, women in developing nations require a dismantling of empire. As Eikenberry concludes in her essay, genuine benevolence “would call not for more consumption, but for the elimination of the conditions that make philanthropy necessary.” It may seem harmless, but small-scale saviorism is complicit in a network of domination that keeps the eradication of poverty out of reach for the poor. Saviorism through consumerism does nothing to dismantle oppressive structures. Instead it relies on—and cannot function without—them.
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