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Over the last decade, we’ve seen a significant increase in the Fair Trade movement. In Kenya, the topic comes up daily. “Are you Fair Trade certified?” “No.”

The developed world’s habit of mass consumption, starting back in 1920 with the Industrial Revolution, has resulted in an epidemic of inhumane working conditions, inferior products and damage to the earth.

Fair Trade addresses the inhumane working conditions by enforcing an international minimum wage. That’s certainly a step in the right direction, and needed, but not the long-term answer.

There are groups of people that are quick to jump on the bandwagon with altruistic social movements, like Fair Trade, to the point where the focus turns toward certifications and away from sustainability.

Now we have a dynamic where the general public believe that unless a product is Fair Trade certified, the assumption is that it is being produced in a sweat shop and destroying the earth.

However, we’ve met artisan after artisan that have suffered greatly from the Fair Trade regulations, to the point where they no longer sell Fair Trade products. The system is so clunky and full of bureaucracy that it bogs down production to the point where there are no longer any profit margins to be had. Isn’t that a bit dichotomous?

The bottom line is that artisans, no matter where they live, have got to create wonderful, quality, desirable products in order to have a sustainable and hopefully profitable business.

We need to get back to the basics and stop focusing so much energy on certifications that only serve as a Band-Aid, not a solution.

Let Fair Trade police the unethical production facilities and represent the bottom rung on the ladder. But understand that Fair Trade isn’t the answer. It’s one small facet of a long-term multifaceted solution.

When someone buys your product simply because of the story or cause behind it, we call that a “sympathy sell”. And that usually happens once. Then the buyer pats themselves on the back and moves on with the satisfaction that they’ve “done a good thing”. Game over.

If you want to build a solid business with longevity, create great products that people want, and do it with integrity. Sympathy sells once. Great products sell over and over. Build your business on that.

3 Comments

  1. James A. Pearson on October 26, 2011 at 11:22 AM

    Great points Jared. The fair trade model was a great step in the right direction, but it is only one path towards our eventual goal: a free and prosperous world. And, truth be told, it’s probably not the path that’s going to get us all the way there. I admire what those in the fair trade movement have done, and encourage them to keep up their great work. But I suggest that they don’t limit themselves to fair trade as a dogma, but rather remember the spirit that gave birth to fair trade, and figure out where it would lead next.

    A couple of days ago I was talking to a fellow fair-trade-ish entrepreneur who is supplying a large fair trade distributor in the US. This distributor had been squeezing them tighter and tighter on prices for the last few years, until they were on the verge of going under because, although they could pay their workers fair wages, they had nothing left for things like rent and electricity. It reminded me of a quote I read recently that said something to the effect of, “Everything starts out as a movement, becomes a business, then devolves into a racket.” Fair trade is definitely in the business phase, with the racketeers circling the fringes.

    • Jared Angaza on October 28, 2011 at 9:52 AM

      Thanks James. Your comments are so true. I think people get caught up in the dogma of it all, as is often the case in any organized movement. But you’re right, we need to get back to the spirit that gave birth to Fair Trade. That was a beautiful thing, and I believe that thread is still there. Now it’s time for it to evolve appropriately.

      Knowing that guys like you are paving the way to a true “free and prosperous world” gives me a lot of hope and peace about it all. We’ll get there, together.

  2. Dan Miller on October 27, 2011 at 1:00 PM

    Jared,

    Man I love your line here – “sympathy sells once.” We’ve seen that thousands of times over. And then as you say people feel they’ve done their duty and they move on to products they want. Sympathy is not a good marketing model. Ultimately WIIFM kicks in.

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