Sunday, September 21, 2008

Fair-Trade Thoughts

We’ve just about wrapped up our buying for the holiday season at Crossroads Trade, and, as always, it’s highlighted emerging, complicated ethical issues in fair trade.

We do our buying in several ways. We buy directly from artisans and producer groups in some countries, and we buy through fair-trade wholesalers in others. Many factors go into deciding whether to buy directly. What quality control measures are in place? Can we get an order to port? What export hurdles exist? What trade agreement is in place between a given country and the US? How expensive and time-consuming is reliable shipping? What does it take to get our order out of US Customs? When significant obstacles exist, wholesalers play an invaluable role.

The linchpin of wholesaling is the trade shows. The New York International Gift Fair (NYIGF) is the biggest venue. Five thousand vendors showcase their wares to the retail industry, and, each year, the fair-trade presence at the show increases.

But not only retailers see the products. Industry scouts, wholesalers, and producer groups all have the opportunity to see what each other is producing. At this past show, I saw two wholesalers who were devastated to find that others had copied and were touting as their own products the wholesalers had spent years developing. In other cases, signature products of certain countries were being copied by producer groups from other countries. Telephone-wire and other recycled-basket styles that originated in South Africa are now being produced in Vietnam. They can be produced more cheaply, in part, because the hard work of product development had already been done.

Fair traders have differing perspectives on these dilemmas. Some view anything as fair game; if producing a Russian nesting doll in India will lead to employment in a destitute community, they’re all for it. Others believe it’s cultural theft to produce South African necklaces in Guatemala.

Still others take a nuanced view, as I do. I used to view production of South African style beadwork in Guatemala with horror. But after doing this work for ten years, I’ve seen that Guatemalan beadwork is becoming an art form in its own right. I was upset by Vietnamese production of South African and Brazilian recycled products, until I realized that it was better to have Vietnamese trash put to use than not.

Over the years, I’ve seen many wholesalers come and go. I’ve seen products I’ve designed exclusively for our use sold by others. The decreased value of the US dollar has sunk many a supplier.

It is a rough business. It’s a lot bigger than any one of us. Our ethical compasses may give us guidance, but we’re still working in constantly shifting terrain. As the internet continues to reduce the degrees of separation between producer and consumer, and between producers from country to country, fair-trade terrain will continue to shift. We will always be a work in progress.