Lots of companies have been jumping on the social/environmental cause bandwagon, offering variations of this marketplace-based charity model for selling everything from home decor and body products to shoes and sunglasses.
A recent email in my inbox from Macy’s advertised their Path to Peace baskets, handwoven from natural plant sources by Rwandan women who use the funds to support themselves and their families and improve their lives while “enhancing” ours with their works. Macy’s has been selling the baskets, which range in price from $46 to $60, since 2005.
According to Macy’s the baskets symbolize the hope, progress and success of Rwanda, 17 years after the infamous genocide. Their site features a video of one of the basket weavers, who thanks the viewer for “changing our lives” through the purchase of a basket, which has allowed her to support her family of six, buy a cow and goat, and have enough clothes to wear a different outfit each day of the week. Another woman was able to procure a savings account; one was able to pay for school tuition and uniforms for her children; and another was able to buy her husband a bicycle so he can travel to collect the sweet grass used to make the baskets. This use of “producer” testimonials has become a very popular way of enhancing the consumer experience through establishing a connection between producer and consumer and making the consumer feel like they are really helping someone. Macy’s notes that Path to Peace employs thousands of Hutu and Tutsi weavers to produce the well-received baskets, emphasizing the coming together of the two ethnic groups at the center of the 1994 Rwandan conflict.
It’s a nice little effort by Macy’s, but I have to ask, what percent of the profits are going directly to the women, and how much is Macy’s raking in? I doubt we’ll ever know. Macy’s is getting a cut because they are bringing the baskets to the global marketplace as the middleman, providing an outlet for sales that the “rural” women would never be able to reach. At the same time, it bugs me a little that such a corporation is profiting off women whose misfortunes were likely caused by a combination of larger, historic forces, including colonization, imperialism, war, and various other forms of exploitation that all lead back to the global capitalist system. Of course, we can go ahead and criticize the system and its limitations, and the role of these women as producers who must weave baskets to feed themselves. Or we can view the women as actors with personal and communal agency within this system, women who are making choices and making do, rather than as passive victims of progress who have no say in their futures.