Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Trade Fairly: Putting Consumerism in its Place

I am on the Fair Trade bandwagon. Living in Europe made me aware of the growing fair trade movement and made me appreciate how harmful our quest for "cheap" can be. Look, I appreciate value as much as the next person. Who wouldn't like to save their money and have it all too? Hmm... but what does having it all mean? Does it mean I buy every new gadget that I am told to by the advertisers?

Fair trade is a relatively new concept in the world economy and one which while itself positive, by its very existence, denotes the negative place we have arrived at where we have to demarcate positive consumerism from blind materialism. Products that are sold "fair trade" or traded fairly, try to assure the producers a livelihood that takes into account issues of sustainability, living costs for a family which include basic amenities such as water, education for children, food and health for family. But, you ask me, isn't this implied by all wages for any job around the world? The simple answer is no. Do you think that when you buy products, say from Walmart, that the Chinese worker in some factory is assured all these things? No, they are assured back breaking work at low wages, which they are grateful to have because the wages are better than they could have got had they stayed back in the rural setting with their family.

When I bring up "fair trade" with friends and acquaintances some have expressed concern. They feel that while some rich, Birkenstock wearing people may be able to purchase useless knick knacks which are overpriced, fair trade seems quite exclusive and wasteful to someone on a budget- much as organic products do still. This is not a bad argument at all. Fairly traded products do cost more than "walmarted" goods. Currently, however, very few products are widely available as fairly traded. These are chocolate, tea, coffee, bananas and in some specialty stores, handicrafts and fabrics. People can afford to spend a bit more on these few select products but what if most products were available in "fair trade" just as now organic labels are placed right besides the regular labels? I suppose then it would be only the rich, Birkenstock wearers who could afford them- or do I suppose wrongly?

If one were to take our consumption patterns as they are and ask people to buy fair-trade, then yes, few of us could afford to buy everything we buy right now. But do we need to buy everything we buy right now? For instance, we buy and buy and buy clothes. Do we really need or even use all the clothes we buy? A look on e-bay or most consignment stores will show you that a significant proportion of clothes are NWT (new with tag in e-bayese) or NWOT (new without tag). Similarly for household appliances, furnishings, sports paraphernalia (a friend got a bargain on a used-once bicycle at a garage sale for $50 a few years ago), toys, and you-name-it. We really don't need to buy as much as we do. If we were mostly buying only those things we need then perhaps, we could afford to buy most things at fair-trade prices. We could join the Birkenstock club. ;)

If you think about it, it is simple economics. Any rational producer would price their goods and services at cost+ rather than cost- (or below cost) in order to subsist and thrive. But in this completely skewed world economy, we have strange pressures that hollow out the producers of basic resources more than secondary producers & consumers. Vandana Shiva has an amazing article in Resurgence about how even as world wealth has reached new heights, poverty has remained undiminished and even grown with it. We can change the distribution of health and happiness on earth by paying more attention to our spending habits. Fair trade is one way to do it and no, you don't need to be rich to do it.

For information on pictures, please click on them and you will be taken to the copyright page.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Far From A Free Market Enterprise

So I have an American cell phone as well as a British mobile. I had to get the American cell phone for work since my former American employers thought it "professional." So I opted for one where I could pay as I go. This seemed the least wasteful considering how little I anticipated using the phone. My cheap phone is cumbersome. Each call costs me $0.18 per minute. I have to top it off with $20 every 90 days otherwise it dies. This is regardless of whether it still has a balance from the previous top-up.

When I was in the UK, I considered getting a phone and expected the system to be either the same or worse than in the USA since I always figured the US to be at the cutting edge of consumer services and technological innovations. To my surprise, a cheap mobile was really cheap in the UK. I got a phone that really was pay-as-you-go unlike my American cell which only purported to be pay-as-you-go. So if I never made calls then I didn't need to top up my British mobile. The cash I put on it never expired. In addition, I had coverage all over Europe on various networks other than only my own. Charges for making or receiving calls in foreign countries seemed steep but I had the option of using my mobile, should I need to, in an emergency. Further, within country calls were quite cheap and even cheaper if you chose to text, which explained why so very many more people on that side of the Atlantic are consummate texters. I learned a lot about using mobiles during my stay across the pond. I learned about SIM cards and how I could take them out and put them in other phones. That the casing of the phone was less important than the SIM. Yet, in the USA, hardly anyone knows this.

I puzzled on this discrepancy for sometime. My expensive, cheap American cell had virtually no coverage in many parts of the USA. I couldn't use it anywhere abroad. Every couple months, I needed to top it up regardless of the fact that it still had money on it. And no one here even knew how to open text messages sent to them, let alone be able to text me.

From friends, from the news and reports on the web, I realized that the cheap mobile phenomena was not limited to the UK, but was even more rampant in continental Europe, sweeping through Asia and making inroads even in Africa. It brought good things in its wake in most places. While annoying loud talkers are annoying all over, at least there were some good things coming out of the cheaper phone phenomenon in other parts of the world. Young people starting out their careers did not need to pay for and maintain landlines in a permanent residence. Income did not differentiate who could or could not stay in communication with work, family and friends. New business enterprises emerged such as pay-phone systems in remote villages where women with phones could now provide a service and earn a living. The cellphone served as a business tool for farmers, cattle herders and fishermen who need to know which market is not flooded with produce and will fetch them a good price for their wares. Arranging meetings, changing venues and plans on the fly have become possible because of the ease of reaching another person on the go. In addition, studies are showing that the cellphone culture is fulfilling another primate need- that of "grooming." The number of just-keeping-in-touch types of calls expressing concern, support, and affection have gone up considerably.

I am not saying that only great things have come out of the revolution of the air-waves. On a negative note, cellphones have resulted in a lack of privacy as one is meant to be reachable anywhere, anytime. Cellphones have also been described as adult-pacifiers in that we never need to be alone or apprehensive anymore. The ubiquity of the instrument and the fact that another voice or presence is only a couple of key punches away diminishes individual introspection on phenomena and experiences. This leads to a dependency on others as well as the technology itself.

However, the imperfections of the system are more palatable when it becomes cheaper and thus, allows diverse usage thereby increasing convenience rather than imposing an expensive and burdensome system of limited uses. Yet, for some reason, those of us living on the western edge of the Atlantic do not seem to be innovating and enjoying the benefits of a cheaper communication culture. So much so that in America, the cellphone is regarded somewhat as a necessary evil and remains a communication conduit whereas it is fast becoming an indispensable lifestyle tool across the world. The reason the rest of the world has benefited from this technology while the Americans have not, has to do with free market enterprise or the lack of it with regard to the telephone industry in the nation that is the birthplace of this technology.

The airwaves are constricted in the United States by a few big phone companies which have done their utmost to choke out smaller competitors as well as name their own price for service. This prevents innovation. A landline, which should be more expensive given that it takes an employee to set up your house, wiring to be placed and connected and hardware to be installed, is cheaper in this country than purchasing a cell-phone where only the SIM has to be activated. I don't think I have seen this discrepancy anywhere else. Further, if you were to "inherit" a cell phone anywhere else but the US, you would have shops and services where they could "unlock" your phone in order for it to be used not only with the carrier you first purchased it from but with other SIM cards. This allows you the flexibility of passing on your phones or choosing different carriers when you travel without needing to own four different cell instruments. It also reduces waste. I have gone to a few different shops and kiosks since my return to see if anyone would unlock my instrument for me to continue using it with a new service without having to purchase a new instrument and contract. The results have been dismal. So my sister who was gifted a nice new NOKIA instrument with Hindi and English pad by my visiting mother, can't use it. Not only that, she can't afford (she is a graduate student) any of the "decent" cell-phone plans currently on offer by the companies. So she has decided she is going to get a landline at her new address.

There are four big cellphone carriers (Verizon, AT&T-formerly Cingular, Sprint and T-Mobile) who have currently cornered about 90% of the market in the USA. Virgin mobile, which on this side of the Atlantic is a little player, has managed to get a toehold but has been unable to expand sufficiently. If a multi-national company that large can't do it, do you think smaller companies have any chance in this market? And yet, this is considered the home ground of free enterprise and capitalism. American political representatives need to stop backing monolithic industry and start giving innovation and enterprise breathing room again.

For credits on the photos, please click on them and you shall be taken to the photographer's (Chris Jordan & Julie Ask) website/weblog. The cellphone landfill picture was found on Enviroblog and a link to original recycling article is also provided in the article. The other picture shows three Masai tribesmen. Thanks Chris, Enviroblog, Julie Ask and Jupiter Research.