In my Buyer Be Wary series, I talked about the danger of exploitative marketing that objectifies the producer for monetary gain. A well meaning, fair trade company can fall prey to this more easily than a conventional company, because their entire mission hinges on helping disadvantaged people.
Think of emaciated children splashed across mailers and photos of slums and barefoot families struggling to survive on your Instagram feed. While these images may represent reality, if they're used to induce superficial pity to sell a product without honoring the complexities of these people's lives and encouraging long term infrastructural change, one could argue that they actually encourage turning a blind eye to the innate dignity of every person.
We see it. We feel something. We donate or purchase a product. Then we go about our day.
Even if the money is used to improve lives long term, we've failed to really see our mutual humanity, and if we're not changed by our relationships to the producers, how can we possibly expect substantial progress in the long run?
Industry wide, advertising has tended to adopt as best practice characteristics that the average viewer would interpret as deceptive and harmful, so it's of utmost importance that "ethical" companies, who often work with marginalized communities far outside our own cultural setting, pay special attention to the ways they present these producers to their customer base. And more than that, it's important that they treat these producers like people who deserve to be heard and appreciated.
It's important that we see people as equal partners, not charity cases.
There are plenty of companies doing this wrong, despite their best efforts (I talked about this in my previous post on the topic). But I think it's more helpful to talk about a company doing it right.
Numi Tea as a Model for the Industry
When you pick up a box of Numi Tea at the grocery store, you can read a few snippets regarding their organic, biodegradable, and fair trade stances - some containers include a photo of a tea producer or two - but their branding doesn't predominantly rely on these tidbits to sell the product. The front cover celebrates the quality of the product itself by featuring an appealing photo of the tea ingredients and a brief description of the flavor notes.
Until I started working with Numi, I didn't even realize they were fair trade. Now, this is a neutral statement - there's nothing wrong with knowing a company has an ethical stance through its branding - but I bring this up to say that they don't lean on this to sell the product. They believe in the quality of their tea enough to think that it can sell itself without gimmicks or explanations.
So, when they introduced their H2OPE initiative, I was inclined to believe they're doing the work because it's right, not because it might help them sell their product.
In 2013, Numi wanted to launch a turmeric tea line, but they weren't able to find any fair trade certified turmeric producers. Faced with the choice to forego sustainable sourcing or partner with farmers to get their operation certified, they eagerly chose the latter, providing equipment and funding to help a farm in eastern Madagascar get fair trade certified. By paying fair trade premiums, the producers were able to build a new warehouse, purchase computers for their office, and pay higher wages to employees.
Together for H2OPE
Through their long term partnership with the farm, Numi discovered that farmers and their communities did not have access to safe drinking water, so they raised funds through the Numi Foundation to build 22 wells serving 3,500 people. The success of the project has led them to take on a new project: Together for H2OPE India. They plan to bring safe drinking water to people in the region where much of their black tea is produced. You can read more about it here.
Do what is right. Not what is easy.
The easy thing would have been for Numi to lower their standards and accept that they weren't going to be able to find fair trade certified turmeric. The easy thing would have been for them to tell their producers to build their own wells with the fair trade premiums instead of purchasing supplies to build infrastructure. The easy thing would be to accept the status quo and stick with vague "green" and "ethical" branding without going the extra mile (after all, the turmeric operation was already certified organic). But Numi is proving through their efforts that they care about the long term, and that business can be profitable without sacrificing quality, integrity, and ethics.
There are hundreds of ethical businesses targeting conscious consumers with claims of "giving voice to the voiceless," "rescuing" people, and "lifting them out of poverty." That's all well and good, and maybe these claims aren't far fetched, but for myself, I'd rather "partner" with people, learn from them, stand with them, and listen to them speak, because they aren't voiceless. I don't think it's redundant to emphasize that again and again. Words matter, so marketing matters, too.
Practice what you preach, and preach something that honors everyone's innate dignity.
We are partners in this human project, not benefactors and beneficiaries. No need for dichotomies that create barriers. Let's move forward together.