The silly season is ramping up and we’re going a bit mad buying all of the things, all of them, to show the people in our lives we care. Many of us are a bit overwhelmed with the amount of stuff we’ve accumulated and are starting to become more discerning about what we buy for ourselves and others. This means shopping in a more meaningful way (check out Gab’s gift guide if you’re looking for ideas). Whether it’s buying a pair of shoes that give a person “in need” a pair of shoes, or supporting a brand that gives money to help educate children in Cambodia, we try to buy presents with a positive impact. But, and I hate to make things difficult, we should also check ourselves.
(Toms buy one give one model in action, image: PRI)
Supporting people less fortunate than ourselves through business and sustainable employment is definitely something we advocate for. I mean, we walked across a continent trumpeting this idea. However, we need to make a conscious effort to look into the story a business is selling. Are they empowering others through employment and education or exploiting people’s sad stories to guilt us into buying a product?
On one occasion during our walk we interviewed a group that made us feel a bit uncomfortable. It seemed that they were doing really solid work, employing women with disabilities and victims of abuse to make their products. However their main message to us was this: Buy our products so we can give more work to the poor abused and disabled women. It didn’t feel right. Rather than telling us about how wonderful the product was and the positive impact it was having, they focused on the sad stories of landmine victims and battered women.
It’s a really complex issue. Sensationalism sells. That’s why charities use pictures of poor starving and bloated children to bring in donations. It works. It’s not helpful in the long term. On the contrary, it perpetuates a stereotype of poor people as helpless victims in need of saving and plays on our guilt. In the short term though, it raises the money needed to keep the charities operating.
I’m not saying we should sugar coat everything to sell products either but where’s the line? How do you assess whether or not a brand is really having a positive impact? How do you work out if a company’s approach to marketing their products brings dignity to those making them?
Enough with the rhetorical questions Megan. Give us some answers.
Dorsu is a brand that really stood out to us. They want their customers to see value and beauty in their products, first and foremost. When we visited Dorsu, Co-Founder, Hanna Guy requested we not ask her employees, many of who had worked as garment workers in the larger factories, too many questions about their lives before they started working at Dorsu. She didn’t see her company as “saving” people from the horrifying conditions of the fast fashion garment manufacturing industry. Hanna and her Co-Founder Kunthear believe Dorsu is just the way business should be done. Simple as that.
(Kunthear, Co-Founder of Dorsu, makes clothes you’ll love)
When we interviewed Alan at Artisans and Designers he made it very clear that he was not about the pity purchase.
We don’t have photographs of disabled artisan. Some shops do that and I’ve been asked why we don’t have people. You know, we’re a fashion store to be honest. And if people want the story we put a leaflet in with every purchase, the story’s on there. And they can talk to us you know. Number one is they like the stuff, number two is the story. Our customers come from everywhere, they can buy a Prada bag, they can buy a Chanel bag, they can buy a GAP bag or whatever they want. But they’ve got to come in and say, “Wow, that’s quite a nice bag.” We’re not doing sympathy buys here.
(Ikat fabric from Artisans and Designers)
It’s a message we heard time and time again from nearly all the brands we met. We don’t want your pity, we want you to buy from us because you love what we make. There is a need for the positive stories to be told so the world can see how businesses should be run. We shouldn’t be buying from people that exploit the negative stories to guilt you into buying stuff you don’t actually need. Buy with love this holiday season, not pity.
If you have any thoughts comments about this post, we’d love to hear them. I highly recommend the documentary, Poverty Inc. (trailer below) if you want to explore some of these issues further.