Potential to create change
I am passionate about Fair Trade. As an idea – not the products, unfortunately.
Here is why: Trade has tremendous potential to reduce global poverty, and buying fair trade is a really simple way consumers can use their dollars to make positive change.
I am passionate about good design as well, that doesn’t go out of style, and I believe in working for cultural diversity and giving everyone a chance to a good life regardless of where you happened to be born. And while I appreciate the incredible skills and cultural heritage that goes into making many of the fair trade products on the market, I often think that they could be so much better – both from a producer point-of-view, and for the consumer. By ‘better’ I mean culturally more appropriate, more interesting and varied, and responding to a need.
If designed differently, I believe they could appeal to a much, much greater market, which at the end of the day would mean more money for the impoverished communities where they are produced.
Fair trade coffee and to some extent -fashion are doing allright, they’re both starting to enter the broader consumer culture, but fair trade products still have got a long way to go before becoming a major player on the mainstream market. I don’t think it has to be that way. I think we can change that – in fact, I can see huge potential.
From a design-perspective, I can identify two particular challenges:
1. A human is not a machine
We need to develop products that acknowledges the fact that the maker is no longer a machine, but a human being with skills and should be treated as such. This means leaving room for the maker to put something of herself in every piece (producers are mostly women) and also give her the opportunity to refine her craft and improve those skills; to reinforce her cultural expression, while assuring product quality is kept consistent in order to fit into a western marketing context.*
2. Products must meet real needs
The other challenge is to move fair trade/solidarity products out of its hippie/gift market niche and bring them to the mainstream market (compare this!). They need to become real alternatives to the the household goods people need to buy and use anyway (which unfortunately most of the time are produced anonymously overseas and under questionable conditions).
There is a good chance this will prove a lot more difficult than designing something to be churned-out the conventional way: but if we could achieve it, consumers would have the opportunity to purchase something unique that has been produced fairly, not as an act of charity but because they actually need the product in question, connecting humans across the globe in a step towards a fairer world. Good design alone can’t do all that, but I think makers and designers sitting down together looking at culture, skills, aspirations and opportunities, do have the potential to create goods that can become a real alternative for western consumers and their dollars.