The ethical turn, turn, turn

‘The rich swell up with pride, the poor from hunger.’
Sholom Aleichem

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As we saw a ‘linguistic turn’ transform humanities in the late 20th century, on our side of the millennium it seems that we are witnessing a wave of cultural accountability – an ‘ethical turn’.

Culture is no longer ‘innocent’ of politics. An artist cannot draw inspiration from the third world without accounting for his or her economic privileges. Similarly in disciplines such as anthropology and archaeology it is an expectation that the researcher works in partnership with the community – the knowledge which they glean must be paid for, usually in services.

This ethical turn may seem rather negative. Guilt can lead towards greater distance between cultures, as those from rich countries are hesitant to be seen as cultural predators. But there are positive developments too.

The existence of a just partnership between rich and poor is a valuable ideal, and increasingly we seem willing to pay for it. Fair Trade sales in commodities such as chocolate and coffee have risen greatly, up to 50% a year. Given the modest nature of these purchases, it is unlikely that they will be affected by the economic downturn.

Previously, it was the ‘customer is always right’. But now the interests of the producer have become relevant. There is a multitude of products that advertise their benefits to the community of origin, including bottled water, textiles, furniture, cosmetics and medicines.

As this trend continues the build, it naturally becomes commodified. We cringe to learn that McDonalds is now a member of the Rainbow Alliance. What guarantee do we have that such associations are more than marketing gimmicks, there to enhance the primary brand? As Nestlé, Coca-Cola and other global brands jump on the ethical bandwagon, we are tempted to become cynical about the whole ethical turn. How can we tell the difference between substance and advertising?

At this point, it seems important that those designing these products find a way of sustaining the trust of the consumer. The challenge is to provide the consumer with convincing information about the arrangement with the producing community. It’s hard to convey this information just as dry facts, there needs to be a compelling narrative about the challenges faced by the community and their current aspirations.

This is partly a design challenge. How do you develop products that ‘feel good’? How might the consumer feel that his or her purchase not only promises themselves goodness, but in a small way makes the world a better place? This product might be the exception. This product may not be not drawing on an unsustainable resource, subjecting displaced peoples to sweatshop conditions, exporting industrial pollution from first to third worlds, etc.

So we need to find a way of designing ethical value that will last. It’s not good enough to make ethics fashionable. Today’s trend is tomorrow’s dumpster. And it’s not enough to be dewy-eyed. Today’s romantic myth is tomorrows hardened realism.

The project of a Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations is designed to strengthen this ethical turn in product development. The initial phase is to open this question up for discussion in a way where no view is excluded, from the most idealistic to the most cynical. It is this openness that will serve to help develop an enduring understanding of the nature of an object’s ethical value.

This year, there are already two workshops planned to start this discussion. The first will be at Selling Yarns next month. The second will be in Santiago, Chile, in September.

5 thoughts on “The ethical turn, turn, turn”

  1. Thank you for your post, Kevin. Unfortunately, as a nonprofit fair trade retailer, the U.S. economic downturn is having a pivotal affect on our artisan partners around the globe.

    As one of the oldest and largest nonprofit fair trade retailers, and one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies, we strive to improve the livelihood of tens of thousands of disadvantaged artisans in 38 countries by establishing a sustainable market for handmade products in North America. Given the current economic downturn, we are faced with new challenges to successfully market and sell handmade products that help pay for food, education, healthcare and housing for artisans who would otherwise be unemployed or underemployed.

    As a nonprofit, we achieve this mission by building long term buying relationships in places where skilled artisan partners lack opportunities for stable income. Our commitment to support artisans around the globe is strengthened through fair trade compensation practices including cash advances and prompt payments. More than 60 years later, and as the company continues to grow, Ten Thousand Villages has become increasingly conscious of the need to marry the concept of fair trade with healthy and environmentally sustainable business practices.

    Today, Ten Thousand Villages continues to carry out a conscious approach toward minimizing an environmental impact. From store operations to product selection to marketing practices, Ten Thousand Villages strives to meet the “triple bottom line” of economic, environmental and social sustainability.

    While our mission is clear, current economic factors are making it even harder to bring fairly traded principles and products to the mainstream consumer market. Please visit tenthousandvillages.com to learn more about how we define fair trade–it is much more than just an “ethical turn”–it’s a way of life we’re committed to, and our artisan partners are counting on.

  2. I’d certainly recommend Gabriel’s article for a thorough outline of the ethical dimension in the history of the craft movement.

    And a visit to http://www.tenthousandvillages.com is certainly worth the effort. Craft here is tied very closely to developmental opportunities in low income countries. I’m sorry to hear that the current economic environment is proving a challenge to the selling of these products. It would be interesting to compare this to other kinds of sales. And also equivalent sales of world craft in other countries.

    So how might this trade survive the economic downturn? Perhaps if products could be developed that could be used in everyday life, like accessories or friendship tokens. This seems the time to be trying out different alternatives.

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