A few weeks ago, I was talking to the owner of a local fair trade shop about how the expansion and absorption of the fair trade movement by other social justice movements has been both good and bad. While it is undoubtedly true that the fair trade movement needed/needs a wakeup call when it comes to imperialism, the white savior complex, and various types of exclusion, when we start thinking of movements only in terms of critique, we slowly but surely dim the fire.
How do we appropriately call out/in problems without throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Because, in this current political moment, it seems that we’re often more preoccupied with defining who’s in and who’s out by a particularly puritanical set of criteria than with defining what we do in terms of hope, in terms of sustainable, accountable, humble community (yes, I think humility is a good thing).
When we are driven by a fear of “doing it wrong,” everything becomes about self preservation. But it’s better for me to come to the movement with an open mind and a sincere desire to change things than to come thinking I know what’s best. We dislike smugness in our so-called enemies, but for some reason we tend to foster that same smugness in ourselves, and in our “progressive” communities.
Saturday was World Fair Trade Day and I almost didn’t even mention it. Fair trade is now so wrapped up in critiques around white saviorism that it can be easier, as a white person at least, to pretend it doesn’t exist, and that I didn’t end up here, talking about this, precisely BECAUSE of the fair trade movement. But I decided to say something anyway:
When we see the faces of fair trade artisans, let us not forget that:
1. We are only empowered together
2. My white skin does not mean I am more important or that I get to fill the role of kindly philanthropist - we are co-creators and co-benefactors of a better world
3. Individuals can get lost in systems. The people of the fair trade movement - consumers, journalists, factory workers, artisans, influencers, auditors, customer service workers, packers, activists, nonprofit workers, cotton farmers, leather tanners, up-cyclers, designers, and more - are living, breathing, thinking, complex individuals who deserve our careful listening.
Let’s sing out for justice together.
I’ve spoken to fair trade business owners who quietly despair that the infighting in our community - no matter how it is framed - often completely disregards the individuals employed by the fair trade industry, and those still working in sweatshops that the fair trade industry hasn’t yet grown large enough to support.
It makes sense to critique the specific ways brands and influencers objectify artisans, particularly when you consider that most artisans are people of color living and working in a totally different - both literally and socially “foreign” - context. But if we never show the faces of the people who make our stuff - if we don’t see them at all - doesn’t that dehumanize, as well?
We need to find a way to sensitively and collaboratively see each other for who we are. Making blanket statements about what is and is not appropriate, then, just doesn’t work. We are not well served by fundamentalism; we are best served by community trust. To build that requires vulnerability and room for missteps.