I stumbled upon a post by Carrie McKean, founder of fair trade company, Scarlet Threads, that made me think – really for the first time – about the potential fallout of the way companies typically advertise fair trade products. Human beings need to be able to feel proud of themselves, to be respected by their communities and their customers . But pictures of smiling people from third world countries often evoke pity in the patronizing gaze of the first world consumer; they make the artisan less than by distinguishing them as the other, by implying that you would do them a favor by buying their hand embroidered textile or hand carved icon, thereby taking emphasis away from the quality of the product and the skill of the artisan.
I encourage you to read the full post here:
My friend, a Chinese woman from Deng’s hometown, told me that Deng had said we should have asked her if we could use the picture. (Of course we should have! How stupid was I?! It makes me sick to my stomach simply admitting that we didn’t!) And then the clencher… though she couldn’t read the English text, she perceived the tone from the pictures and she said, “People don’t buy my products because they want to help me; they buy my products because I’m a talented seamstress.”
It seems that in my very attempts to empower her and give her dignity, I’ve unwillingly taken it away. I still don’t know how to resolve this… Telling her story is an intrinsic part of selling her products, but how do I tell her story without making you feel pity? How do I tell her story in a way that would make her proud to read it? How do I emphasize our commonality instead of our differences?