Friday, June 29, 2007

Customers First, Activists Second

I just finished reading a paper by a colleague of mine, Keith Brown, a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. Last year Keith and I, along with colleagues from Oxfam and Co-op America did some qualitiative research about the future of the Fair Trade movement. That was a nice side line for Keith, but most of his time is doing enthnographic research about Fair Trade in the Philadelphia region.

Many things jumped out at me from Keith's "Framing a Fair Trade Life: Tensions in the Fair Trade Marketplace." First off, there are actual terms for the commitment many of us in the movement have toward telling the stories behind Fair Trade products and companies. "Cultural biographies" is the lingo anthropologists use to describe the stories of "where goods come from, who made them, and how buying certain goods benefits people in developming countries" (and I would add, themselves).

No matter how compelling the stories, though, Keith reminds us that quality and price matter a lot in the Fair Trade marketplace because, all things being equal, people are looking to satisfy specific wants and needs. This is sometimes thought of as a downfall...that average customers not yet conversant in the "cultural biographies" of Fair Trade will be turned off by a price or will be frustrated that they may have to go out of their way to find Fair Trade products. Certainly concerns like those challenge us to make Fair Trade retailing more customer-friendly, but it isn't necessarily a bad thing that we have to think of folks as customers, or consumers, first.

The consumerist nature of Fair Trade is a great recruiting tool for our movement. EVERYBODY is a consumer. All adults in industrial societies have to make purchases for survival. Lord knows the US society in particular is rife with consumerism. This means the billions of transactions that occur in our economy every day present a multitude of opportunities to offer Fair Trade or other socially responsible alternatives. And if we get people buying the Fair Trade "stuff" than we can engage them in the Fair Trade story. Next steps: get them to be actual narrators of the story themselves by being part of the movement.

So thanks, Keith, for contributing to our thinking in how to create meaning out of consumption!


  1. Where do I get a copy of Keith's Book? thx

  2. Pixie,

    I haven't been in touch with Keith for awhile, but thanks to your nudge I will reach out to him and see if I can get an idea of when his dissertation is being published.

    Thanks for your interest in Fair Trade.