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Potential to create change

March 3, 2010

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.

If you want to learn more about how trade – fair and unfair – works, here’s a good place to start. The products you see here – which, incidentally I quite like – are all from Oxfam Shop.

* For a brief and interesting discussion on this topic, check out this video on a collaboration between Furniture designers Koskela and traditional basket weavers from Echo Island, Australia.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Emily permalink
    March 8, 2010 3:18 pm

    Love love LOVE your blog! I’ll be checking it regularly for updates. And your manifesto on fair trade was spot-on: it must go beyond the niche-market status. I think it’s an interesting question as to how this would be regulated. Fair-trade coffee is starting to appear in Starbucks and the like: is this the moral equivalent of green-washing, or an encouraging trend? The consumer needs to know (and care) that the product they are purchasing is *genuinely* fair trade (and even the term ‘fair trade’ needs to have a universally accepted definition). So many of the things we already buy for day-to-day use are produced overseas, and while many of these could certainly be designed better, the problem is that there is insufficient pressure on these companies and no binding international agreements for them to be produced fairly. It’s interesting to see what has happened to the environmental movement as it has ‘mainstreamed’ over the last 5-10 years: now everyone wants to have a solar panel on their roof and carry a green-bag to the supermarket, but the average person doesn’t engage with the issue beyond a tokenistic level. I wonder if this is inevitable when grassroots movements go mainstream?
    Anyhoo. As I was saying, your blog kicks ass. Keep it up, I’ll be an avid follower.

  2. March 8, 2010 7:05 pm

    Dear Em, you are raising a lot of interesting issues.
    Regarding Big Business ‘doing the right thing’ – I feel a bit funny about that; BP does fair trade coffee as well now. I kind of feel Well, if they KNOW how to do the right thing, why don’t they do it all the time? My husband, however, does have a point when he says that if a giant like Starbucks goes fair trade, it has a HUGE impact compared to if the local cafe on the corner does. And again, that means better working conditions and more money for the impoverished producers with no voice.
    And that can only be good.

  3. March 24, 2010 2:21 pm

    There probably needs to exist a different strategy than to just compete for better design and better products endlessly. Commercial companies might always have more money and advantage over fair-trade, so it’s in the mind of the consumer that the change must take place – a whole new form of ‘experiencing’ fair-trade must be designed around the products, instead of redesigning the products or the wrapping.

    But of course I’m not sure about this. Just seems always like fair-trade has been created by companies with the little they have to spare for helping out with the design etc, of what we’re buying. Maybe we’ve just been hiring the wrong art directors, marketers and Ad agencies to come up with a solution for F-T. But I have a feeling it’s more a strategy problem than a design problem. I can’t say for sure.

    But… he he… maybe I should read your intro link about Fair-Trade before talking more before thinking.


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