Sunday, July 11, 2010

Slippery Slopes and Setting Standards

Today I head to the Jersey shore, where I spent childhood vacations. My extended family would load up in the station wagons and head to Ocean City, sometimes for a week, sometimes a day trip. I jumped waves and walked the boards. Hunted for sea shells and dug for crabs. I attribute my love for water to those times. It seems when I am sad or confused or stressed, if I can just manage a few hours looking out across the water, I am restored. (disclosure: this photo is of Cape Cod, not NJ)

Restoration would help these days because I feel like I might be on a slippery slope of selling out. It all started several years ago now when I left a spunky but small grassroots Fair Trade NGO to join a big, established organization. Part of my rationale was I was able to be a more effective consumer educator from the platform of a wide-reaching institution. I went from engaging thousands of people to hundreds of thousands, which is very gratifying. Getting health care and a 403b didn't hurt either.

More recently I have moved to the suburbs, a shift which included the selling of my scooter and an almost total reliance on a car. Granted, my two-door vehicle has helped me locate and evaluate an array of local farmers markets in this agricultural state of Maryland. But I also seem to slink into the mall more often for a bunch of items I never seemed to need before. (Don't get me started about weed killer.)

These are examples from my personal life, but there's are some slopes in the professional realm too. Foremost in my mind is that I'm trying to shape a Fair Trade clothing experiment and have agreed that minimum wages for workers is acceptable as a starting point for the certification of factories. The caveat is that a living wage must be the ultimate, verifiable goal. But this position has been rejected by colleagues who say that we have to set the bar high from the beginning, or we risk supporting an effort that does more harm than good.

I heard a similar argument in the context of child labor on cocoa farms. "Don't constrain your concern to the 'worst forms' of child labor, eliminate it all together so kids focus on education not income." Who can disagree with that logic? But then I remember conversations I had with farmworker families here in the United States. Parents welcomed their children into the fields when they didn't trust the federal institutions that were offering day care, or because they were trying to teach the next generation a trade.

It is the nature of compromise that a variety of perspectives have to be considered. In that sense, I am not worried about slippery slopes or selling out. In fact, I am energized by the challenge of achieving common ground. What makes the call for the beach so urgent is that I am not always sure there is a effort to come together.

Right now there are at least a half a dozen efforts at establishing or refreshing standards for consumer products. GoodWeave is in its second round of consultation regarding the handmade rug industry. The World Fair Trade Organization has just completed its second phase of building a sustainable fair trade management system. The Fairtrade Labelling Organizations have announced a new approach to three pillars of standards. And then, of course, there are emerging certifications systems such as IMO. I applaud all these efforts in as much as they are trying to create the conditions for fair and dignified lives for producers and consumers. Several of them are profiled in my book.

But what is wearing me out a bit is that I don't see a vision for bringing efforts together in a MEANINGFUL way. Meaningful to me translates into something that consumers can use to make daily decisions in the marketplace (even at the big box stores!). My colleagues might be quick to say, "But Jackie don't forget ISEAL!"

Everybody who knows about ISEAL, raise your hand.

ISEAL--an association of social and environmental setting organizations-- is another important group in the alphabet soup of industries, interests, and ideologies. I met one of their reps when the organization was just starting, and I am glad to see the young association solidifying its umbrella of groups like FLO and the Rainforest Alliance. Still, the average consumer has to navigate this range of approaches to spend her dollars in ways that reflect her values. If someone like me--who is privileged to earn a living by interpreting the fair marketplace--is uncertain about who is doing what and how, I worry the movement lacks coherence and leadership.

What I need is some perspective. With my titanium oxide sunscreen in hand, I will mull these core questions:

* How do you know when your standards are high enough?
* Who is the correct arbiter of standard setting?
* What are the alternative approaches to setting standards?
* How can diverse and divergent viewpoints best serve my vision for this world?
* Where is the best boardwalk arcade for skee ball?

If you have any answers or queries of your own, please feel free to comment.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:43 PM

    All good questions to consider as you navigate the slope.

    I too am looking for that cooperative nature between the various efforts/groups involved in Fair Trade and workers' rights movements...and not yet seeing it. Instead I'm seeing the typical obstacles of turf wars, personal egos, professional jealousy, and politics that are prevalent in most other industries.

    I thought this would be different, given that we are all focused on the same Big Picture goal. It's quite frustrating.