Why is everything fair trade so useless?

C-Man and I don’t buy a lot of decorative stuff. If you’ve been to our house, this will come as no great shock to you. Even once we finally gear up and paint the walls something other than white, though, I’d be surprised if we transform into knick-knack displaying, decorative bowl using, lots of little pictures in frames collecting type of people.

Leaving aside coffee, which neither of us drink, have you noticed how much fair trade merchandise is really just frills? Jewelry, scarves, scarves, purses, placemats, special use dishes, holiday decorations, and that loveliest of lovely useless crap categories: gifts. Shiny baubles.

Where are the fair trade curtain rods, hammers, measuring cups, flyswatters, and laundry baskets? The kind of thing that everyone ends up buying at Target or somewhere when they move into a new apartment, or runs over to Home Depot for when starting a project? Every once in a while I see a little bit of furniture, but overall, trying to rely on fair trade products to meet my shopping desires is not working for me.

I totally get it that fair trade good usually come from non-industrialized (and even non-electrified) areas, thus the lack of flat panel televisions and blenders and car batteries. Fair trade goods, as they’re promoted, come from people practicing traditional crafts or learning new crafts or skills they can do without building a big ugly factory. I wouldn’t wish the factory on them anyway if that’s not what they want.

The idea of fair trade coffee, even though I don’t drink coffee, actually works better for me than the shiny bauble model of fair trade marketing, though. Fair trade coffee is a replacement for non-fair trade coffee. Buying fair trade removes support from labor practices you don’t approve of and provides financial rewards to companies who do business in a way that you support. The shiny bauble model says, in effect, buy this stuff. Not buy this stuff instead of this other stuff. It’s a fundraiser, not a shift in consumption.

Unfortunately, if you continue to support the big bad guys while also supporting the little good guys, the bad guys are still going to be running the place twenty years from now.

5 thoughts on “Why is everything fair trade so useless?

  1. Suebob

    Bravo. In Mexico, I noticed a lot of handwork went to make useful things – baskets out of discarded plastic strips or wire, hats out of palm leaves, pottery made from local clay…I heard someone call it “The Land of No Waste.”

    There I bought one of my favorite things, a huge market bag made from half of a tough plastic seed sack. It was 3 1/2 pesos (about 30 cents) and I use it all the time, four years later.

  2. Staci

    Wouldn’t that be great! There is other fair trade food like sugar, chocolate and other things too. But yes, you’re so right — most things we actually need are still manufactured in dubious ways and I’m sure we don’t know the half of it. I would particularly like to see fair trade clothing — all of the textile industry thrives on slave/near-slave labor.

  3. melissa

    fair trade may not be the be-all end-all for everyone but for those people who are Trinket oriented as you say its a start. and there are practical items like baskets and the above mentioned food staples for the non-bauble type. the important point is not to judge what is or isn’t avialable via fair trade producers but what is available that fits your life and what you can do to combat opression and sweatshop labor for the rest of your purchases

  4. BGC

    Great point!

    I’d like some fair trade clothes that could be worn without looking like a hippy.

    there is a good fair trade store near me that does a line of children’s toys and books, they feel like a justifiable purchase. if I buy useless trinkets then I feel like I am indulging in over-consumption, which is a bad thing in itself.

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