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.

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1 comment:

Radhika said...

This was a comment a friend of mine (Madhumita Mund Rao) wrote me on facebook:
I read your interesting blog "Trade Fairly: Putting Consumerism in its Place" . The trend is forever changing. I will be able to comment on the Indian scenario. While you talk about fare price, this may be true for one section of people, where as there are still some section of people (the middle class/ pseudo – trying to fit into the elite crowd) who get a kick out of owning rare and expensive stuff (with fare price theory ), which may not necessary be a branded product but must be an authentic product, such as “A Tush shawl” an original Kashmiri carpet, Antique artifacts, hand embroidered sarees, jamawar shawls, Tankha paintings – so on and so forth. At the same time with changing trend, consumers, especially in Asia are getting too brand conscious. This reminds me of this book by Radha Chadha and Paul Husband “The cult of luxury brand” The authors have explored this unusual phenomena “luxe-plosion” that is rocking the Asian consumers, not only the richie-rich but also secretaries and junior executives. It seems in Tokyo 94 % of women in their 20s own a Louis Vuitton bag (I don’t own one yet!). Even India, the new kid on the luxury block, has three-month waiting lists for hot items (luxury cars, cell phones, ipods). People in their 30s are crazy about Blackberrys. Hong Kong boasts more Gucci and Hermes stores than New York or Paris. China’s luxury market is growing with such gusto that it will single-handedly become the biggest by 2014.