You Can’t Buy Your Way to a Better World

making a payment with a debit card - Buy Your Way to a Better World
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You Can’t Buy Your Way to a Better World

Since I recently reworked my Direct Sales critique from several months ago, I wanted to take the opportunity to answer a particular question I received from a reader:

Why would you use your influence to speak out against a company that is ultimately seeking the greater good?

My first response is that internal critique is necessary if we want to push ourselves to the best solutions. 

Let me present an object lesson.

There are many homeless people in my community, and a certain subset of them are panhandlers. This annoys some people and saddens others. One of my kind-hearted volunteers told me that she always has a couple dollars on hand to give to them when she passes them on the street.

This is a lovely, humanizing thing to do, but I think most of us would agree this is a short term solution because it doesn’t address the systemic issues behind that homeless person’s predicament.

It could be a slew of things: lack of mental health services, lack of career opportunities, lack of education, systemic poverty, etc. It’s terribly complicated to fix those big problems, but you could find a middle ground by offering housing, either through a homeless shelter format or by offering Section 8 housing. This isn’t a true resolution, but it is undoubtedly good.

In fact, at every small step of this narrative, there is good being done. 

The problem for me is that I’m an idealist to a fault. If I know what the best reality looks like, I believe I have a moral obligation to help realize it. I don’t want people to think their job is done if they give money to panhandlers. I want them to want true and lasting equity, which means zooming way out to fight systems of oppression.

In the same way, direct sales models offered through Sseko Designs or Noonday Collection can accomplish some good. But they are not a solution. I have already beat the reasons why into the ground in my original post, complete with a John Oliver feature on Direct Sales models, so I suggest you read it.

But the the gist of it is that fair trade companies have no business associating themselves with legal pyramid schemes that (inadvertently) take advantage of the passion and social networks of hundreds of individuals who may never make more than enough to buy a few extra lattes each month.

It’s an inconsistent ethic. 

a person doing online shopping - Buy Your Way to a Better World
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These brands market themselves around caring for the well being of their artisans, but they don’t take the same care when it comes to their direct sales representatives. In the communities where reps do make money, one must assume that they have access to people with lots of disposable income, because fair trade ain’t cheap and even I would be hesitant to splurge on an impulse buy at a home party, no matter how lovely the mission.

So, if just the people with prior access to money are profiting, what’s the point?

Some believe that direct sales is a particularly good framework for educating people about fair trade.

I can see that. But it’s that turn in the conversation that helped me figure out why I feel so viscerally angry about direct sales applied to fair trade.

It is morally problematic to conflate shopping with world change. 

That statement might sound crazy in this context. This is an ethical shopping blog, after all.

But the thing you – and I – need to understand is that this is a niche blog on the internet.

This blog is not me. This blog is not a movement.

StyleWise is meant to be an unobtrusive resource for those interested in making more ethical and sustainable shopping and lifestyle choices. In my “real life,” I’m not really fixated on evangelizing fair trade.

Sure, I mention my blog from time to time and I’m very interested in engaging with customers at the thrift shop I manage about ethics in the marketplace whenever it comes up, but my orientation toward justice is, at the end of the day, rather inward.

That’s because world change in everyday life – at least for me – is not primarily about encouraging better shopping habits. It’s about being a listening ear, intuiting people’s needs, being present, and offering hospitality.

I find that those qualities are surprisingly hard to develop and practice, but I believe that putting in the work does lead us to better community organizing and advocating in the long run, which is what ultimately leads to broader progress. Whatever “ethics” work I do here has been funneled through that frame of reference.

two women sitting on white bench -Buy Your Way to a Better World
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The fact of the matter is…

Shopping in a way that does no harm to people and planet is not a radical act. 

It is baseline. It is the bare minimum. It is basic human decency.

I don’t want to sit in a room with people at a home party and celebrate how good we are. I don’t want to condone a perspective toward fair trade that sees it as one option in a sea of other options. If I’m going to have this conversation, it is going to be hard.

It is going to be uncomfortable because we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that we are colonialists, pretentious, privileged, and ill-informed before we can change (and yes, I mean myself, too). 

I will not invite you over to sell you a fair trade necklace and then tell you that you just changed someone’s life. The truth is, your single purchase did not change a life.

And even if it did, this is not about you. (To be fair, this particular marketing angle is not exclusive to direct sales models – it is pervasive in other social enterprise models, as well. But direct sales models are, well, more direct.)

I know I’m being harsh right now, but I’m at my wit’s end. Being gracious and flexible with people who are just starting out on this path is incredibly important, but if this is your passion and your vocation, I am asking you to put in the work and ask hard questions about your own intentions.

I am asking you to understand the long term repercussions of the marketing and messaging we use to share the beauty of fair trade.

Asking hard questions and coming to un-fun conclusions will not break us. We need them to achieve true justice on this planet.

I want ethical living advocates to be able to educate people in a way that makes them more moderate in their purchases and more radical in their actions.

Direct sales models do the opposite.

To be clear, I do not want fair trade direct sales companies to go out of business. I want them to seriously consider the implicit messaging of the systems they employ and take steps to remedy them.

This post kept getting longer and longer so I didn’t have time to delve into the colonialist implications of some of the specific fair trade direct sales models, but that reality just fuels the flame.

This isn’t the first time I’ve touched on these points. Here are a couple related posts: 

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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