Fair’s fair, but there’s also an art to partnership

A recent forum on the Fair Trade model for creative industries proposed that something more is needed to promote equitable cultural partnerships.

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The forum ‘Fair Trade for Creative Labour’ at RMIT’s Design Research Institute explored the regulation of cultural production through accreditation formats like Fair Trade. Speakers included Associate Professor Tim Scrase (Wollongong University), who has published widely in the plight of artisans particularly in India, Linda Chalmers (Oxfam Australia) who product manager for the largest Fair Trade business in Australia dealing with world craft, and Associate Professor Donald Feaver (RMIT University), who specialises in the new field of translational law. This was an unique opportunity to think both critically and constructively about how creative producers in the Global South work with designers and artists from the richer countries.

Tim Scrase began with a strong critical perspective on schemes like Fair Trade. He invoked the concept of ‘commodity fetishism’ to describe a process whereby the meaning of a product is taken out of the hands of the producer. He expressed scepticism of Fair Trade as a system that creates ‘rigmarole’ and doesn’t address the inherent inequity of a market system.

Linda Chalmers was able to respond by describing the Oxfam model. She admitted that the purpose of the trading arm is to make money. But she distinguished this from corporate model where profit flows to shareholders. Instead, it is the producers who benefit. For Chalmers, overarching concern is the broader Oxfam goal of poverty alleviation. She informed us that they currently have 23 shops in Australia which last year sold works to the value of $11m. They represent 100 producer networks from 30 countries. When Oxfam engages with design, it is usually on a philanthropic basis and the designer does not receive any benefit. Part of the partnership is for the designer to pass on their skills so they are no longer needed. Linda advocated for Fair Trade as an evolving system that offered the best deal in working with producers.

Donald Feaver presented a typology of Codes of Practice. He argued that purely internal Codes rarely work. But as globalisation is extending supply chains, it has become increasingly important to find ways of ensuring common standards from beginning to end. Because these extend beyond national boundaries, the development of these codes has been largely beyond the scope of individual nation states, and has instead become largely a private concern. Feaver spoke particularly of the development of a code for CIBJO, the world jewellery body. This provoked much animated discussion about whether a private organisation could be the best vehicle for an ethical code.

The ensuing discussion highlighted a divide between the Fair Trade model and the ‘high end’ of the market. The textile artist Samorn Sanixay spoke about being approached by an exclusive design store to stock her product made in Laos. On being a given a price for her scarves, they responded that they were ‘too cheap to sell’ – their customers would only buy these if they were triple the price. She queried how Fair Trade could reach this end of the market.

The discussion identified a current limit to the Fair Trade model in how it deals with creative products, such as ‘designer goods’ or art works. Fair Trade has been identified particularly with agriculture where the primary focus is worker’s wages and conditions. In creative products, there are less easily measured values such as authenticity and intellectual property. Standards for these differ between and within cultures.

At the moment, there are important moves within Fair Trade to accommodate these issues. For instance, the draft Sustainable Fair Trade Management System has a provision:

6.5.4 Where the Organisation produces direct copies of existing designs that have not been produced by its own designers, it obtains and retains documentary evidence that the copying of a design is agreed upon by the original designer or producer group.

Fair Trade is providing an important base on which supply chains can be made equitable. But as the forum’s discussion identified, there can be problems with a system of accreditation which enables retailers to tick boxes without critically appraising what’s happening on the ground. This is not a problem with Fair Trade per se, but with the limits of an international and necessary bureaucratic structure.

Designers like Samorn Sanixay seem to be wanting something in addition. The issue of cultural sensitivity was raised as critical in developing partnerships with traditional producers. It’s difficult to imagine any system of accreditation being able to cover issues such as appropriateness of designs used in different contexts. This requires trust and openness between the guest designer and host community. A well-built relationship has the potential to involve producers more creatively in the process of product development.

There seems a need for an extension of the Fair Trade system which enables critical reflection on the issues involved in collaboration. This would both set out important principles in how partnerships are developed and provide a conversation where individual experiences could add to a collective wisdom. In addition to the minimal standards for accreditation, this could pose aspirational goals for ideal practice.

Fair Trade is certainly one of the most significant developments this century in the promotion of world craft. It’s enabled hundreds of craft cooperatives to find a market for their work and assured consumers about the benefits of their purchase to producers. It’s currently in a state of rapid evolution as it tries to keep step with ever expanding expectations of a Fair Trade model. Could we imagine a Fair Trade art? That’s a question still to be answered, but it is likely to involve more than fulfilling accreditation criteria. What might that be?

This conversation will continue next month at the UNESCO workshop on craft-design collaborations in Santiago. Craft Unbound will continue to feature examples of artists, craftspersons and designers working across the cultural divide. As they straddle rich and poor worlds, heritage and sustainability values, their stories deepen our understanding of how the world fits together. In the future, we can begin to identify what these principles are.

One possible place to start would be with Nelson Mandela’s advice, ‘the first thing is to be honest with yourself’.

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