Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Virtuous Consumption?

I went looking briefly through the “global village” upstairs in the Exhibit hall. It's totally guilt-free shopping. The principle behind the gifts for sale is that instead of just throwing money at charitable endeavours, we can purchase items produced by organizations in partnership, to help them empower themselves and their community. Instead of dropping kids off at orphanages, women form cooperatives, create textiles, sell them to us, make money, put their own kids through school. Super. I love it. It’s important. The ancient charity model (literally giving money to the poor) is great when you’re in a face-to-face relationship with someone, and can negotiate the power problems you create by charity, but it begins to massively break down when there are miles, oceans, cultures, languages, and glossy magazine advertisements separating the donor from the recipient. Money is never given with truly “no strings attached,” and the longer those strings get, the more they get tangled in outside issues (moral judgments, cultural domination, international relations...) The alternate model of commercial empowerment isn’t string-free, but they are transactional strings only as long as the distance between the product and the price. It at least looks simpler and more helpful. I give money not with expectations of some poor person's gratitude, but with expectations of a tangible item in return.

All this to say, I support purchasing items from partner organizations. I was actually pretty excited about this global village, because I need a new bag, and I could get one there.
I was disappointed, however. You see, I was looking for a useful bag, and all they offered were pretty bags. They were a little on the flimsy side (I wouldn’t carry a computer in one) but most importantly, none had more than one or two pockets. I'm willing pay a higher price for a fairly made product, but not for a bag whose main value is in appearance, not function. And the transaction seems less than perfectly straightforward now. A line from one of the vendors explaining why the partnership was valuable: “they know how to sew, but they need to know what gringas will buy,” caused my heart to sink. Women who are perfectly skilled at creating useful items for home use are taking lessons in the school of creating flimsy, pretty things that white people will buy. They are feeding our addiction to consuming trivialities, and building for themselves a dangerous dependency on foreign buyers. If our fashion tastes change, they are left with useless product until someone transmits the valuable information of “what gringas will buy.”
So I’ll continue to use my ripped and fraying bag until I find (or make) one that is sturdy and serviceable. I wish I could participate in the “empowerment via consumerism” deal, and send a few of my dollars in the right direction, but as long as it’s marketing impractical and luxurious goods (if not outright luxuries) I have to step out and look for better things to do with my money, my purchases, and my fashion statements.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the main problems I have seen with so many similar kind of plans. I am much more a down to earth kind and really looking for function. If it is for a good cuase I will pay extra for the function, but so much of what is seen is limited function and instead all pretty. And don't get me started on etsy which is a good idea and could support someone but has gone even farther with pretty over functional...