Spend & Save

The narrative of fair-trade and white saviorism.

  • As we understand it today, the function of fair-trade brands is to sell ethically produced goods in order to improve trading conditions and grant producers in developing countries access to the global market.
    Photo by Gaelx/Flickr
  • “The White-Savior Industrial Complex,” Teju Cole reminds us that saviorism “is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”
    Photo by Gaelx/Flickr

The refrains are nearly identical.

While perusing artisanal fair-trade websites, you’ll inevitably find a “Meet the Founder” page featuring a white woman draped in a vibrant scarf, sharing the origin story of her shop: “I never knew how good I had it until I traveled to [name of third world country] after college. I was so shocked to see how [natives of said country] lived in such sad conditions that I cried [white tears]! Then I met [poor woman of color identified only by her first name], who, despite not having air-conditioning or an iPhone, smiled all the time. Her story was so inspiring that I vowed to single-handedly end poverty with [my brand name], a sustainable business that pays artisans in [third-world countries] fair wages. Thanks to me, [name of poor woman of color] really has something to smile about! Just look at this picture of me with [a group of poor women of color] to prove it.”

The sense of discovery, purpose, and heroism on these founders’ websites would feel impressive if it weren’t such a cliché. It’s as if their statements were pages ripped from a volume of White-Savior Mad Libs.

The mainstreaming of fair-trade consumerism has offered well-meaning shoppers a bridge between charity and fashion, with brick-and-mortar stores and online shops alike hawking “style with a conscience,” as one store’s tagline proudly claims. These days, the market comprises about a thousand businesses, organizations, and shops (most vaguely identify themselves as a mix of all three) certified with the Fair Trade Federation emblem. The overwhelming majority of founders, ceos, and employees in these organizations—all of which claim to provide an equitable transaction between the globally wealthy and the globally poor, to the tune of more than $200 million a year—are white women. And the workers who produce the colorful wares that line the online shelves are poor women of color from developing countries. How “fair” is this trade? And what does its proliferation say about relationships of power between women, who account for the majority of both producers and consumers in this industry?

The fair-trade business model has early roots in the U.S. abolitionist movement. A formerly enslaved bishop-to-be named Richard Allen founded the Free African Society in 1787. The mutual-aid organization assisted fugitive slaves and served as a precursor to the Free Produce Society, a group of abolitionist Quakers, who along with Allen, boycotted slave-derived goods in order to encourage a more moral marketplace.

In 1946, when Mennonite Edna Ruth Byler journeyed from Pennsylvania to Puerto Rico, she was “struck by the overwhelming poverty” she witnessed. Byler was moved to ignite “a global movement to eradicate poverty through market-based solutions.” Or, in other words, sell shit made by the global poor to the global rich for quadruple the price in what were at that time called “ethnic shops,” “worldshops,” and “charity stores.” You know the saying: One woman’s day-to-day struggle is another woman’s passion project. Byler went on to start a group that eventually grew to become Ten Thousand Villages, the first fair-trade artisan organization of its kind, which still exists today. In 2015, Ten Thousand Villages earned $27.6 million in sales in partnership with 20,000 “makers” across 30 countries.

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