The fair trade system was created to address the root causes of global poverty and income inequality by advocating on behalf of marginalized workers – mostly women – and creating economic infrastructure to aid in long term, sustainable employment.
Because the fair trade system as we know it grew out of Western, mostly white, charity models, it continues to create and reinforce, despite its best efforts, a power differential where Westerners are assumed to be the kindly, financially secure philanthropists and artisans, primarily located in “the Global South” are assumed to be the destitute, poor beneficiaries.
This means that promoters of fair trade here in the States and in Europe are often seen more as fundraisers than business people. We are expected to evangelize the fair trade cause out of the pure goodness of our hearts, using the language and structures of nonprofit charity models even when we’re, in actuality, promoting for-profit social enterprises.
These root assumptions also disguise growing income inequality and continued sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression in “the West,” – not to mention diminishing economic opportunities for Millennials – by lumping in all Americans as financially secure when, in reality, many of us are far from it.
Look, I recognize my privilege. I am thankful that I can subsist on the income from my day job and freelance work, and that my husband receives a stipend while working to complete his doctorate. I’m not claiming that I’m impoverished.
But my current job cannot financially support a healthcare plan for its employees and the ACA marketplace premiums are higher in Charlottesville than anywhere else in the country, so I am very aware of how close I hover to financial disaster if a health scare plagues my household. Lack of comprehensive healthcare makes it difficult for us to plan for the future (like, can we even afford to have children?) and an inability to save means we can’t partake in the traditional wealth-building exercise of home ownership.
My wage at the shop, after calculating inflation, is nearly identical to the previous manager’s starting wage in 1992, and we can’t raise our product prices along with inflation because fast fashion brands like Walmart and Forever 21 are now the thrift shop’s biggest competition.
I say this to point out that, though my economic situation may be better than that of an artisan in Peru, I don’t fit the mold of the kindly, rich benefactor. And I don’t think I should be required to work for free.
The rhetoric of the fair trade and ethical fashion movement is screwed up. And I’m not talking about the principles laid out on behalf of artisans. I’m talking about the way it treats the business owners, social media managers, customer service representatives, fulfillment workers, freelance marketers, and bloggers who hold up the system from right here in the States as if we’re living on a Carnegie family inheritance while bootstrapping a social-good business when, in reality, we’re broke or headed toward it swiftly.
The social enterprise model is relatively new, popularized by TOMS shoes in the mid aughts. Blogging, too, is a new industry. So it’s understandable that this uncharted territory is difficult to navigate. But I, and my fellow bloggers over at the EWC, feel it’s necessary to address a growing problem in the field of ethical fashion marketing and blogging:
No one wants to pay us.
Due to stigma around blogging as a business or sexism because of the culturally gendered topics we discuss or a perception that our labor is not-for-profit, we often get feedback that we should work for free, that our sponsorship fees are too high, or that free product is compensation enough for what we do.
This may have been true five years ago. But as blogging has grown to become a legitimate business, and as companies have seen real benefits from influencer marketing strategies, it’s become clear that serious, effective bloggers are a key part of business, not a gaggle of sea gulls fighting for free product that you occasionally toss bread to.
This flippant attitude toward serious, effective bloggers (because not all bloggers are serious or effective) is particularly problematic in the ethical fashion industry because of all of those claims about fairness and women’s empowerment. Yes, people in immediate need deserve our attention and we should make amends for the horrors of colonialism that set so many in the Global South up for failure in the first place.
But women (and men, but mostly women) in this industry are making wages they cannot live on, even when their compatriots in traditional blogging are making six figure incomes, and it’s because we have allowed ethical companies for too long to make an argument that goes, “If you really cared about poor people, you would support my for profit business for free.”
This is, simply stated, not fair.
If you think we are valuable enough to email about a collaboration, then why aren’t we valuable enough to be compensated?
(And if it’s simply a matter of budget, I get it. I run a retail store. But if that’s the case, then it may be best to hold out for the collaborators you best align with instead of casting your net too wide.)
My argument, of course, does not apply to bloggers and influencers who routinely take advantage of brands, who hawk products they don’t use or barely tried, or who regularly cold-call companies asking for product without prioritizing a relationship or an effective collaboration strategy.
But there are a lot of us who are professionals, who know our readers, who have our strategies down pat. And if you want us to work with you, we simply ask that you treat us as valuable members of your business.
We simply ask that you apply fair trade principles to the way you work with all employees – whether contracted or full time.
We ask for humanity and we ask for a fair wage.
P.S. I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of particular monetization strategies or their ethics in this post. I do delve into that more deeply in my new e-book, which you can purchase here.
Related Posts from EWC Members:
- Working With Bloggers & Brands: A Mini Guide, Ethical Unicorn
- Bless You, Pay Me: The 11 Non-Negotiable Reasons Why You Need to Pay Influencers for Coverage, EcoCult
- Paying for Promotion: In The Spirit of Transparency, Honestly Modern
- Why Bloggers Should Be Paid Fairly, Leotie Lovely
- My Role as an Influencer, World Threads Traveler