issue 228 - February 1992
Of Mickey Mouse and hunger
The ethnic look is in. But by buying your Makonde carved table
lamp are you doing anything to help the Third World? Rachel Sylvester
takes a close look at the past and present of alternative trading.
Jane yawned, stretched and eventually rolled out of bed, stepping onto her Peruvian rug. She liked this rug; the colours went with her carpet. It was an ordinary Saturday morning, quite bright - the sun was glinting off the mirrors on her Jhdian wall-hanging. She slipped into a pair of jeans and a brightly coloured alpaca jumper, and tried to select a pair of earrings from her Thai lacquered box. Eventually she decided on the Bolivian filigree silver flowers, put a record of Andean music onto her stereo and went through to the kitchen to make some breakfast. She switched on the kettle and got out the packet of Nicaraguan coffee. Jane was concerned about world issues - although she wasn't sure exactly what she was supposed to be supporting, or not supporting, in Nicaragua.
Up in the mountains of Peru, Juanita was busy. At seven o'clock she had already been at work for a couple of hours - it was a fairly ordinary Saturday morning. The Organization had just placed another large order for her rugs. The whole community had rallied round, helping with the dyeing and weaving, but she still wasn't sure whether she would be able to get them finished in time. She had sent her youngest son off to round up the cousins, who could help with simpler things like gathering leaves and berries to make the dyes. She concentrated on the weaving herself. It was important to get that right because each shape was part of her heritage, an ancient Inca symbol. She hoped the people who bought her rugs understood. She wanted them to see the beauty of her culture.
Jane and Juanita are at opposite ends of a trading chain. Their roles as consumer and producer have little in common; they are linked by an object which they view in conflicting ways. Jane sees her rug as a pretty accessory, while for Juanita it is a cultural statement. Jane and the 'First World' she represents have all the power but she has at least taken a small step outside her own society. Juanita, meanwhile, has an independent income and a new self-respect.
The 'ethnic' look is in. The reasons for this are many and complex. There is clearly a growing awareness among certain consumer groups of international issues, and a developing appreciation of other cultures. As High Street stores become increasingly standardized, with the big chains churning out a fashion uniform, there is also a desire to possess something original. Hand-made goods offer a different style and a singularity which is lost in factory production.
As a result Alternative Trading Organizations (ATOs) have come into their own. Alternative Trading is not a new idea. Oxfam first got involved in it 25 years ago in the UK, though it was not much more then than a way of raising money through selling Christmas cards. Then a field director in Hong Kong suggested selling 'native handicrafts' at a huge profit.
'This seemed like ripping people off,' says Roy Scott, who worked for the trading operation at the time, 'and we decided to have nothing more to do with it. But our shops complained and so it went ahead. It was a rather amateurish affair because nobody really understood what was going on. It was only later that we started thinking not just that we shouldn't be exploiting people but how we could start trading so that it actually contributes to the development process, to building people up.'
Working with co-operatives in poor countries seemed the best solution; a way of ensuring that the trading process was benefiting the ordinary people who did the work. But co-operatives were far from common: the Third World producers usually needed 'encouraging' to organize themselves in a fairer way.
'We became more selective,' says Roy Scott, 'and took into account how the group was structured. Trading is not an impartial activity. It is very forceful and however it is conducted it is going to have an influence on people's lives. There is no such thing as neutral trade. If you buy products from bad structures then you are strengthening them.'
This new thinking caused some controversy at the time. There were battles with Oxfam's senior managers, who thought of trading as a fundraising effort rather than part of justice and development work. And there was an international dimension to the battle: in the 1970s the trading subsidiary of Community Aid Abroad (CAA, the Australian Oxfam) protested at this 'interference' with the structure of trading groups in the poor world. Even Roy Scott admits: 'The very structure of Oxfam was highly suspect and would have been completely unacceptable if we had assessed ourselves'.
The controversy is history now: there are thriving ATOs in all Western countries, from Bridgehead Trading in Canada to Trade Aid in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and all of them accept that the way goods are produced is vital. There is even an International Federation for Alternative Trade which represents producers as well as traders - and Community Aid Abroad (CAA) is one of its most active members. According to Devon Hammersmith, General Manager of CAA Trading, 'We see our producers as a major resource and are concerned that they receive fair and proper wages, that a fair price is paid for their products and that they share in decisions which affect their livelihood and development.'
'We pay what the goods are worth, even if that is above the market price', says Richard Evans of Traidcraft, another British ATO. One group of women knitting alpaca sweaters in Puno, Peru, received 93 per cent more for sweaters they sold for export than for those they sold in the local market. They also had a guaranteed income, although it was only for six months of the year.
The values of the commercial world are blown apart. Profit is only a means to an end - and that end lies in the community of the producer, not the seller. By working with commercially inexperienced groups, Oxfam lowers the financial gain, but gives these small groups training and a means to independence. Profit is evaluated in more than financial terms, on both sides. 'It's ironic', says one member of a Guaternalan textile group 'that Oxfam is one of our smallest customers economically, but one of our most important partners in other ways.
Bringing individuals together like this gives them a more powerful voice. 'As a group of producers we can find our own markets', explains Lazaro Nonthe Espanol, part of a co-operative working just outside Mexico City. 'Producers working alone usually don't have the resources to insist on a fair price. They need the money so badly, they have to sell at any price'. Producers working together may also have enough confidence in their cultural traditions to turn down unacceptable orders - like the Guatemalan group who rejected a US buyer's request that they appliqué Mickey Mouse using traditional techniques.
But ethical trading standards are sometimes difficult to enforce. One former Oxfam UK worker describes her dismay when she visited a Bangladeshi women's co-operative making jute hanging baskets. 'We'd been buying from them for a long time but hardly anything had changed for the women there. If the women's group got an order, men would get involved and the women only had power over a very small part of the process'. However, she goes on, 'just by pointing out the injustices each time you visit, you begin to change things.'
The 'ethical consumer' is likely to become a significant force over the next few years. Companies like The Body Shop have shown that ethical policies can also be economically viable. Green issues are now a significant force in determining the way people spend their money, and ethical issues are coming up fast behind. One idea which could yet bring alternative trading from the margins to the mainstream is for a 'Fair Trade Mark' which would act as a stamp of approval for all commercial products which do not rely on exploitation.
As Devon Hammersmith of CAA Trading says: 'We seek to work on a mutual foundation of honesty and high ethical principles. What a shame this is called "alternative" trading! We need to change the world system so that this becomes the norm and commercial trade as we experience it now becomes the unacceptable alternative.'
Yet if the commercial mainstream is to move in this direction it will have to learn what the Alternative Traders have learned: that fair trade is not an arbitrary set of rules but rather is for the benefit of real people. People like the Chilean woman who, when asked how she learnt to make such beautiful wall-hangings, grabbed her interviewer's throat: 'Like this - hunger taught me.'
Rachel Sylvester was recently runner-up as The Guardian UK Student Journalist of the Year.