I discussed in the first part of this blog the issues of the Fair Trade system. Fair Trade is challenged by a very fundamental issue-- an information deficit.
It is incredibly difficult to create a market in which all sellers and buyers have detailed information about their options. Most people, especially in the west buy their goods from strangers and have no idea where they came from, how they were made, how employees were treated, or anything of that nature. Without this information they can’t make an informed decision, and less worthy products may succeed, especially if marketing money and cheap prices support them. Certification programs exist to deal with this very problem. They evaluate companies and hold them to standards and then pass the information to the consumer through a label. This is not necessarily a bad strategy, but we have to admit that accurately representing thousands of companies can be incredibly difficult and misrepresentation can be very harmful. There is also a lot of information that simply can’t be quantified and labeled: the family bonds built around a business, a farmer’s sense of humor, or tiny acts of community service. The personal touches that draw people to support a business get lost in standardization.
So what do we do? What are some ways that we can close the information deficit and ensure that producers are getting the sales and prices that they truly deserve?
Well, it really comes down to personal relationships. Certifications can’t capture much detail, but people can. Human interactions between producer and consumer are the best way to flood the market with adequate information. In fact, these interactions and relationships are essential all across our global economy, but they are often only limited to the upper levels of a business. We may buy something at the grocery store without speaking to anyone, but in order for the food to reach the shelves, the top managers of the company need to create relationships with distributors and producers.
In much smaller economies, trade was and is intensely personal for everyone, not just the elite. For example:
“Among the northwest Alaska Inuit, the Agta of the Philippines, Trobriand Islanders, and the !Kung, each person has recognized trading partners with whom gifts are exchanged. Each Inuit has between one and six such partners. Agta and African Pygmy hunter-gatherers have relationships with Philippine and Bantu farmer families respectively, and those relationships are passed on from generation to generation,” (Diamond, J. (2013). The World Until Yesterday. New York: Penguin Books, p. 66).
Long-term relationships grease the wheels of trade. They make it possible for people to negotiate without fearing for their safety, and to trust the product they receive. Although relationships with large corporations can be simple and have lower prices, direct producer-consumer relationships offer unmatched confidence in a product and socio-emotional benefits.
Enhance a Village can help create connections between consumers and Filipino farmers. We already have established relationships in several communities and help the farmers there export their goods to the US. American consumers can learn about the people behind the product and how the profit from their products is being used to help lift them out of poverty. But why just read? Enhance a Village is a small, personal organization. Those who really want to make relationships and trade on a personal level can reach out, get involved, and start making connections.