Spend & Save: The Narrative of Fair Trade and White Saviorism

Pick up the latest issue of Bitch Magazine (or just check it out online) to read my feature essay on Gendered Orientalism, Imperial Feminism, White Feminism – whateveryouwannacallit, and the artisan fair trade industry. (Sounds so sexy, right?) Here’s the thesis:

The overwhelming majority of founders, CEOs, and employees in these organizations—all of which claim to provide an equitable transaction between the globally wealthy and the globally poor, to the tune of more than $200 million a year—are white women. And the workers who produce the colorful wares that line the online shelves are poor women of color from developing countries. How “fair” is this trade? And what does its proliferation say about relationships of power between women, who account for the majority of both producers and consumers in this industry?

I drop some history on the origins of the fair trade movement (I went all the way back to scripture, but that got cut out! A different story for another day…) and how its present-day practices rely on the Savior narrative – as well as global inequity – to rake in dough. Another bite:

The connotations of poverty seen through this white gaze are apolitical, a sad fluke of modern society. White supremacy and western hegemony are just as oppressive to underprivileged women of color in poor nations as poverty is, but to mention them would be a tough sell, a real downer for customers to ponder while they’re shopping for a new pair of sandals.

Finally, I go into Cause-Related Marketing – the business of commodifying social ’causes’ for profit – (also known as Consumption Philanthropy), using it as a critique of White Feminist Entrepreneurship.

With names like Buy the Change, Global Girlfriend, and Indigenous Designs, these companies employ practices that are naive and self-serving at best, and that reek of imperialist exploitation at worst. In the middle lies a controlled form of cultural appropriation, where white women get the green light to wear “authentic” “ethnic” garb, to consume the oft-endangered cultures of the Other.

Thoughts? Praises? Rants? Resources? Feel free to engage with this piece in the comments below, on the Twitter, FB or IG. Click here to read the article in full.

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