The end of the year is always a good time for reflection. It’s important to think on what you’ve done the past year — what you’ve achieved, what could have been done better, and what you hope to accomplish in the coming year. We’d like to take a moment to extend a HUGE thank you to all of our awesome customers: to everyone who chose to be a conscious consumer, anyone who liked our Facebook page, or told a friend about our stores; to anyone who re-tweeted a tweet, pinned a picture to Pinterest, or liked a post on Instagram; to anyone who enjoyed a fair trade chocolate bar, drank a cup of fair trade coffee, sent a fair trade birthday card, or did their holiday shopping at our stores. Without you, the fair trade chain would not have been complete; the fair trade story would have no ending.
Something as simple as liking a Facebook page or drinking a cup of fair trade coffee may seem like a tiny drop in the great, big, complicated bucket that is the world. But when added together, each conscious act really has a BIG impact on the small communities where our products are made. As each year passes, the number of fair trade products we sell increases, as does the awareness of fair trade in general. It’s difficult to explain just what an impact each purchase has, but here goes:
Each fair trade purchase represents the end result of a (not-so-long) chain of trade where each step is completed with transparency and respect. In reality, each purchase is not the end of the chain, though, since every purchase made is really an investment in the fair trade movement. Each purchase is a vote for a different, more honest kind of trade and lets us reinvest that vote when we re-order from the artisans.
You might be thinking: but what’s the Big Idea? Are we really supposed to believe that buying a fair trade birthday card makes a difference in anyone’s life? You should, and it does! Some of the birthday cards that we carry are from the Philippines, made by women who have escaped sex trafficking (check out their Instagram feed for great candid photos from the workshop). Without their fair trade employment, the women would have few other options to earn money with dignity. To each of the card-makers, who sign their name on each card they make, your purchase does make a difference. Every product in our stores has a story like these card-makers. Not the same story, but one definitely worth telling.
Fair trade is not a traditional “Big Idea” meant to solve all the world’s problems overnight. Instead, it is a process — an accumulation of individuals, all working toward long-term, sustainable development. But long-term, sustainable development is not exactly exciting — it’s not inherently flashy or news-worthy and it doesn’t often make headlines (and we’re not sure that it should). Often those “Big Ideas” don’t amount to big change for the people who need it the most. So how do we make fair trade a “Big Idea” that actually delivers? Maybe the answer lies in the fact that fair trade is a collection of “little ideas” realized by thousands of individual acts, consciously made by invested individuals. That’s the “Big Idea.”
Little by little, a little becomes a lot.
Recently, we came across an article in the New Republic called “Stop Trying to Save the World: Big Ideas are Destroying International Development.” The article discusses the efficacy of NGOs, whose projects claim to be a magic bullet, attract a lot of press and receive huge donations from private and government entities alike, but ultimately end up over-reaching, losing steam and failing those they sought to help, or not asking if and how people want help in the first place. The article gives several examples of NGOs that have succumbed to the idea of “Big Ideas” and then totally flop. They call it the “MadLibs” formula: “Exciting new development idea, huge impact in one location, influx of donor dollars, quick expansion, failure.” The article goes on to say, “Maybe the problem isn’t that international development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t.”
The problem doesn’t seem to be with a lack of wanting to help people who truly are in need — there are more and more projects run by NGOs everyday and more and more donors. Rather, there is a problem with HOW they go about helping. Perhaps the problem comes from the simple fact of considering international development a “problem” — something to be fixed or remedied, by whatever means are currently in fashion. This type of thinking leads international development to become too clinical, too commercial, or too political.
There are so many players in international development, including donors, governments, the public, the media, and aid recipients themselves that all require different things. Not to mention, there are so many unique “problems” to be fixed, whether it’s clean water, poverty, lack of health care or education, to name a few. How could anyone believe that one method of international development could be applied to all, like some magical elixir? Even if a project IS successful in the beginning, often as soon as an NGO tries to scale it for an entire country or population, it fails. There are so many complexities to any one project, but in order to sell the project to donors, NGOs have to dwindle them down to one simplified “Big Idea” just to get people’s attention. Let’s face it, telling donors they are helping make sure the entire world has access to a toilet has a lot more attraction than saying they are helping X number of families or communities in one small area get toilets, even if the former ends up failing and the latter succeeds.
An example from the fair trade world
Let’s look closer at the issue of toilets with an example from the fair trade world. In our recent visit to India we spent an afternoon at the Eco-Friendly Paper workshop, a supplier of handmade journals and cards. It was a couple days before the Diwali holiday, so the workshop was not incredibly busy, but several artisans were there. They sat on the cool marble floor – which is how they’re most comfortable – in small groups, stitching, folding, cutting and pressing all kinds of paper. One group of women (pictured left) was attaching the ribbon closure around some mini journals. We sell these in our stores so it was very cool to see the process in action! We explained how excited we were to see the process to the head of the workshop, he translated it to the women, and they all smiled.
As we made our way around the entire workshop, our guide told us about each group’s work and a little about the artisans. He talked awhile about one woman in particular (pictured in the yellow sari on the left in the photo). She has been working there awhile and has a teenage daughter. As a result of her work at the workshop, the mother has been able to send her daughter to school and make small improvements to their home. The head of the workshop told us they live in an area where there are not many resources and many homes lack amenities, like toilets. The mother wanted to provide a toilet for her growing family, but couldn’t afford one, so the workshop gave her a loan and helped her install the toilet. For the woman and her daughter this is no small feat and she is very proud for her family.
A quick internet search of the phrase “toilets for everyone NGO” has over 7 million results, the top pages listed are web sites like water.org, a UN toilet project and several other NGOs. There are entire websites dedicated to the issue of providing everyone with a toilet. It’s possible that 1 of the 7 million results will succeed, and everyone will one day have a toilet thanks to their efforts, but in the meantime, the woman from Eco-Friendly Paper now has a toilet thanks to her own efforts and those of the workshop. The “Big Idea” of fair trade allows the workshop to be a cooperative effort, providing the resources needed to the people who dedicate their time and talents. The woman across the table may not need a toilet for her family; she may need help getting school books for her children, or an eye exam for herself. The fair trade workshop is designed to help with whatever needs arise over time and their relationship will not end as soon as one “problem” gets solved. The needs of the artisans will change over time, but their involvement in the process will not. This is what is lacking in most NGO “Big Ideas” – a true dialogue between people.
International development and its “Big Ideas” will most likely continue to fail as long as people are divided into the “they” who have problems and the “we” who area supposed to help solve them. As the motto of one of our fair trade partners, Matr Boomie, says: “We are all one, all kin”. With every fair trade purchase, no matter how small, you reaffirm this motto.
As we roll into the new year, we want to be sure to thank everyone who has contributed a little idea to the Big Idea of fair trade in 2014. As we all keep buying birthday cards, drinking coffee, eating chocolate, liking, pinning, and tweeting about fair trade, remember that just because fair trade isn’t flashy, it still has an impact, probably a more-lasting one than you might think. Fair trade respects everyone involved, and we think this should be making headlines! Until it does, we’ll all continue to contribute our little ideas, until little by little, a little becomes a lot!
Thanks for a terrific 2014! We look forward to 2015 with an ever-renewed hope for a more honest world.
— The Fair Trade Winds + Momentum Family