New Internationalist 322 April 2000
When advertising gets to be like an escalating
arms race you can be sure there's a war right around
the corner. Pauline Tiffen looks back over her hard-
earned experience of alternative trade - and
forward to the challenges that still lie ahead.
For centuries nobody questioned that good entrepreneurs get rich. As for the rest, well, the market is neutral, there is a level playing field, supply and demand set a fair price... Such arguments look pretty thin now to anybody who, through bitter experience, intuition or education has come to see the world differently – and there are more of us than there are of them.
Some time ago alternative traders recognized that markets can be unfair, mostly because people bring unequal bargaining power with them to the market. Being fair – or at least fairer – implies that something has to be put right, a new balance struck. Achieving this, however, is less about abstract laws of economics or science than moral and political judgement.
Years of persistent, sometimes bloody – or just muddy – struggle have finally reaped some results for alternative traders, North and South. Their products are better – less revolting, at least, and even sometimes quite good! – and they are beginning to explode out of their niche, if such a thing is physically possible. Mainstream companies, for their part, have found that chemicals harm the taste of their products and that exploitation reduces the ability of some customers to appreciate them. Smaller, nimbler companies began ‘on principle’ to satisfy this ‘unmet demand’. Meanwhile, through the tenacious efforts of alternative-marketing pioneers, some fair-trade products – like Cafédirect and Divine Chocolate in Britain – have found their way on to supermarket shelves.
So there is something to celebrate, there really is, and we should take every opportunity to do so. But there are also limits to how enthusiastic or just plain relieved we can be. In a totalitarian world where we are now led to believe that there is only one – ‘the’ – market, it is subversive to hint at alternatives. A war has been declared. Many of the arenas of conflict – environmental degradation, poverty, intellectual property rights – have been marked out, but the battle itself is only beginning to be fought.
Conventional companies cannot easily reconcile fair trade with the main objective of capitalist business – maximizing shareholder value. Most consumer concerns are, in the language of a typical executive-training institute, ‘non-traditional considerations’. Though companies may react with ‘cause-related marketing’ and ‘reputation management’, they’re a long way from admitting that trade done differently can overcome specific social and environmental problems caused in part by their ‘traditional’ practices. If their efforts are purely cosmetic, they make things worse not better – by turning down the heat. The interests of, say, small farmers or the informal economy get neglected, and the spotlight is deflected away from companies that show no interest whatever in fair trade. If superstores are made to look better or sound safer, specialist or independent companies and stores are dealt another heavy blow.
It’s hard to believe that there never really were 57 varieties of Heinz: it was just a number that the founder, HJ Heinz, liked the sound of in 1896. Did he realize that his horseradish sauce (a failure) was the first product of a future $11 billion empire? Brands are now said to have a ‘value’ all of their own, and wars are being fought between them. A projected worldwide total of $319 billion ($140 billion in the US, $90 billion in Europe) will be spent this year on advertising, the main weapon in this war.
ILLUSTRATION BY IAN MOORE
Many large companies and retail chains now have ethical advisory groups. But multiple-reporting systems generate vast quantities of paper and, given the general ‘busy-ness’, who can be bothered to read it all? Who will see the headline ‘Company X Goes Ethical!’ and then bother reading on? Shortcuts, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who endorse commercial companies, need to be treated with care. For if NGOs receive an increasing proportion of their funding from large corporations, how can we expect them to ‘tell it like it is’?
Meanwhile, the power of a very few global corporations is growing. Some financial analysts predict that there will soon be no more than four or five dominant companies in each market sector. New companies will find it even harder to start up – the standards set by the dominant players will be as good as it is ever likely to get. With no real competition, the big players will concentrate all the more on their ‘market share’ – their position relative to each other. For this reason ‘brand recognition’ becomes paramount: a third of corporate wealth is already bound up in their brands (see box). Locked into titanic battles of their own, few large companies will feel they can ‘afford’ to take risks and break new ground on ethical issues if the others will not follow suit.
Gurus tell us that a ‘brand’ equals a name plus a set of values. A company may have something nice to say about itself – perhaps a proportion of the price of a product is set aside for an aid project in the Third World – but that doesn’t mean it’s engaged in fairer trade. The water gets muddied. And the more fairly traded products encroach on the territory of the big corporations, the more ‘cause-related’ marketing is likely to mimic fair-trade preoccupations. As the boss of a large hamburger chain is reputed to have said: ‘Advertising is like the arms race.’
Of course, alternative trade has difficulties of its own. Within a rapidly growing group of activists there is, as the marketing jargon would have it, less ‘commonality’ and more ‘segmentation’. We can sometimes be intolerant of each others’ priorities: health versus freedom of choice, social versus environmental issues, and so on. We are not always very good at negotiating our way through the frequent contradictions to discover what we have in common.
For instance, trade unions in Britain will say informally that the food giant Nestlé is ‘among the best’ companies they deal with. Women’s and child-health NGOs, however, find Nestlé hard to stomach because of the long-standing baby-milk scandal. Cafédirect may be fairly traded and sustainably produced, but trade unionists have difficulty endorsing it because ‘it is not processed in Britain’. Southern trade unions and NGOs, for their part, fear that Northern labour codes are ‘protectionist’ at heart.
Again, should a coffee-farming family have the right to decide what to do with their own earnings, even if a nice Northern consumer who paid the fair-trade ‘premium’ wants them to have healthcare and education?
Such issues have to be worked through constantly and resolved. But this much is certain: if we cannot retain ownership of the meaning and language of mutuality, we are mortgaging our own future. And we need thriving practical experience of what social solidarity and alternative economics feel like in reality in order to define what we mean and describe what we aspire to. Shifts in power from big to small, rich to poor, strong to weak, need more than altruism – they require changes in structure and consciousness.
Everybody bar the cat – and we cannot be sure even of that – seems to be talking about the ‘ethical dimensions’ of trade. What we have learned over more than a decade, however, is that it was campaigning, development education and mobilization that built the fair-trade constituency.
When the coffee market collapsed in 1989, creating a crisis for millions of small-scale farmers in the South, it was clear enough to those who knew about it that something grossly ‘unfair’ was going on. Britain’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, told Cafédirect that second only to complaints about the length of check-out queues (a burning issue at the time) were letters from customers demanding that they stock Cafédirect. Even as recently as 1997, half the women who had recently been made aware of Cafédirect said in interviews that they had heard about it through networks and word of mouth – churches, groups and friends. Only nine per cent remembered seeing the advertising.
There are, then, some pretty fundamental differences between alternative and conventional trade. Not least is the size of their communications budgets and the kind of customer they want to encourage. Alternative traders know that unless buyers think about what they are being sold, and approve of it, what they purchase won’t make much difference. We prefer our customers troublesome – not simply buying our products.
We have potent weapons of our own, if we care to use them. Some of them are free – like talking, chatting up customer services, letter writing. Who knows – it might even turn out we are having more fun than they are.
So on the right are a few tips to help you pick your way through the blandishments – the ads, the catalogues, the websites, the malls – of ‘the’ market today.
is Director / Trustee and advisor to a number of alternative businesses, North and South, including: The Day Chocolate Company, Cafédirect and The New Economics Foundation. She divides her time between encouraging people who already have bees in their bonnets, and putting them there if they don’t.