Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Links in a Change: Women and Fair Trade

Here are some of the comments from my recent lecture at Agnes Scott College as part of the 2007 Alumnae and residence program...

It is a great pleasure for me to be here to honor Dr. Carden and to be accompanied by family and friends whose support is so essential to my work. I also appreciate seeing familiar faculty faces in the audience and especially thank the students for taking the time to be here. Although I hope my comments are of interest to everyone, I most especially want to speak to the women of Agnes Scott College (ASC).

I know that at Scott we encourage you to test and shape your intellectual skills, but today I also want you to consider developing your political skills, in this case the use of economic power. All of us have power as consumers. As ASC women, women of honor and integrity, committed to diversity, you have the responsibility to use that power well. Women spend some $1.6 trillion annually in the US alone (Pioneer Press). As a discrete demographic we are pretty appealing to businesses. At the turn of this century, management guru Tom Peters dubbed “Marketing to Women” as the biggest economic opportunity on the planet.

It is great, in a way, to have women getting such attention, to be regarded as so powerful. Yet we have to be careful, because advertisers and marketers see our dollars, our checking accounts, and our purses as theirs for the taking. Before handing our dollars over, we need to be smart, savvy and sophisticated as shoppers. And I don’t mean just finding the 50% markdowns at Ann Taylor Loft. We also have to be responsible as global citizens.

I realize that as college student you probably don’t feel very powerful right now. You are probably thinking that $1.6 trillion dollars must be somebody else’s money because you sure don’t have a influential bank balance. The only big numbers in your heads may be the size of the student loans you are going to graduate with. I understand. I was a work-study student in my day. But if money is tight than that is all the more reason to think carefully about how you spend your dollars.

Your money is precious to you. It needs to be considered and used carefully, as all power should be. Unfortunately, generally speaking, the advertising industry is trying to shape your behaviors so that you don’t think carefully or intentionally. I think this probably Psychology 101 type information to you so I won’t spend a lot of time deconstructing the advertising industry, but I’ll share one pretty sobering anecdote that reflects on of the attitudes we have to guard against.

At just about the time that televisions were showing up in American households, that is the early 1950s, B. Earl Puckett, chairman of the department store chain that now runs Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s said that in order to keep sales high, "it is our job to make women unhappy with what they have." (Allied Makes a Buy, Time Magazine, Posted Monday, Apr. 23, 2951)

He was aiming to do that through television commercials that would create dissatisfaction with the lives women were living. And Puckett only had 3 or 4 t.v. channels. Now that television is almost passé, what with the advent of camera phones and You Tube, state of the art technology is being used to sell stuff. A generation after Mr. Puckett marketers are finding the fastest, edgiest technology to tell us that we aren’t thin enough, sexy enough, popular enough, and we need to buy things to fix what’s wrong. This is disconcerting to me because I believe we should have dissatisfaction, but not over the same indicators as the profiteers like Puckett.

In a ray of hope, I heard an interview, posted on a blog no less, by Mable Yee, CEO of Picture Marketing who said that the new technologies are actually putting consumers in more control. She and other pros like her have dubbed your generation, folks between the ages of 13 and 24 as “echo boomers”…beyond the baby boomers, you grew up with technology being part of every day, every hour, maybe every train ride. Even more you use technology that allows you to “self generate” content such as articles, and journal entries, and songs (in the old days we used to call that writing and composing, but if “self generate” means something to echo boomers so be it). Even more exciting and, here is where the power comes in you are distributing your own content with phones and laptops and MP3 players. Not only do you distribute your own content, but you also carefully choose what songs you download, what podcasts you listen to, what commercials you’ll watch.

There are approximately 80 million of you who control $170 billion dollars in expenditures each year, and Ms. Yee thinks that you are in charge because you get to pick and choose the media and the messages that you want. You don’t have to watch t.v. or go to movies to get entertained. You don’t have to read newspapers or listen to the radio for your news. This means that you pick and choose what information you want to let into your worlds and your networks.

Which takes me back to my original point: you have a lot of power. Equipped with a superior liberal arts education, you are women who have an array of choices and the capability to analyze and synthesize and act on your options. Because we are Scotties, bound by an Honor Code and aspiring to moral and intellectual excellence, we have a special opportunity and obligation to change the way we consumer and conduct business. My hope is that if you adopt the principles of Fair Trade we can change the way the world works. Maybe we can find that, in an ironic sense, what we buy does fix what’s wrong.

1 comment:

  1. U.S. Milestone: In 2006, Media PA became the first Fair Trade town in the United States.

    (Elisabeth Garson - myspace.com/livingwageclothing)