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Worldstock (Updated)
Jamais Cascio, 7 Mar 06

worldstock.jpgNew Update: Upon further examination of the activities of the parent organization, and some internal discussion of the history of Worldstock, the suggestion that Worldstock is even "potentially worldchanging" is hereby revoked.

This post will remain up, at least for now, because of the really good and insightful commentary that it provoked. I'm sorry for presenting Worldstock as something worth paying attention to, but I am not sorry to have inadvertantly catalyzed a really good discussion of what it means to be an ethical mediary between developing world artisans and global markets. You folks rock.

Sometimes you find worldchanging efforts in the places you least expect. You may be familiar with Overstock.com, a company that makes a bundle by selling off suppliers' excess inventory. It's not exactly a website that inspires thoughts of sustainable commerce, given that its purpose is essentially to trade on the unsustainable decisions of other companies. But set aside your expectations: Overstock.com has launched a potentially worldchanging sub-brand: Worldstock.

We locate magnificent items made by craftswomen (and craftsmen) around the world. We emphasize sustainability: choosing items that are environmentally sound, and that don’t burn up the natural or human resources of their producers. We pride ourselves on being honest brokers: we don’t gouge producers with our clout, nor consumers with mark-ups, thereby allowing the artisans to receive an average of 60 - 70 percent of the money you spend in Worldstock. Our goal in Worldstock is not to make money, but to create tens of thousands (and someday millions) of jobs in the poorest regions of the world, while bringing customers unique products of which they can be proud – hand-crafted clothing, jewelry, ceramics, furniture, and much more.

The "Worldstock Story" page, written by the company's CEO, goes into more detail about the practices the brand employs, and the principles it espouses. I'm particularly pleased to see that transparency is emphasized as a key method of ensuring that all participants are treated fairly.

You can shop by country (from Afghanistan and Bosnia to South Africa and Thailand) or by product line, including furniture, jewelry and even fair trade coffee from Colombia. It's not a leapfrogging venture, but it does make a connection between local economies in the developing world and the globalized economies of the West -- and appears to do so in a reasonably fair way. Moreover, it's getting some unexpected attention:

Last year, Bob Dukelow, a now-retired senior civilian pentagon intelligence analyst with on the ground experience in Afghanistan, began looking into new strategies to win the GWOT. He heard about an area on Overstock.com called “worldstock” where they sell goods from developing countries like Afghanistan. Bob concluded that Overstock, and companies like it, had a role to play in our counter-terrorism strategy.
“Venues like this create better opportunities for local craftsmen in remote areas to get their products to markets they normally would not reach,” Bob says. “We can pull these craftsmen and their families into the functional core of the world's economy lessening the chance they will fall prey to the rhetoric of fundamentalist terrorist recruiters.”

I'm not sure that handmade knickknacks are the best way to confront the global guerillas, but it certainly couldn't be much less effective than what the West has managed so far...

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Comments

(For those of you who don't follow the links: Joseph points us to some stories indicating that Overstock is not a good corporate citizen for a variety of reasons.)

That's really unfortunate, and raises an interesting question: what do we do when a company that behaves in a generally bad way opts to do something arguably good?


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 7 Mar 06

I love the idea, dislike the source. This is as though Walmart started selling American made solar panels, I'd still be enriching a company that on the whole was a bad representation of a 'do good' company. While true, Overstock is not in the ballpark or league of Walmart it is still a bastion for lowest common denominator outlet-o-crap.

If the CEO wants to see Worldstock prosper from my wallet, spin off Worldstock into a stand alone entity, they already own the domain worldstock.com. I personally do not want to see nor will accept branding from Overstock and the funny thing is, I've never purchased from them nor had a personal bad experience - this is simply my protest against doing business with 800 pound gorilla's.


Posted by: JW on 7 Mar 06

I'd never heard of Overstock before, but its operation does raise other interesting questions.

Is selling out the surplus consumer goods (which have already been made) at a discounted price to clear them out a worse result than allowing those goods to rot in a warehouse somewhere, or be dumped holus-bolus?

And if the discounted goods were able to be obtained by a NFP organisation for distrubution through charity to underpriveleged communities, are there additional social sustainability benefits that might follow?

I guess this follows on from the issue of a 'badly behaved' company being subverted to doing good things.....


Posted by: Michael on 7 Mar 06

more...

http://moorewatch.com/index.php/weblog/truth_for_troops/


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 7 Mar 06

So the idea of buying artisan-made crafts is, of course, appealing. But what do the environmentalists among us think of buying a shawl made in Lebanon, only to have it shipped halfway 'round the world? Do we sacrifice sustainability in order to buy from artisans on the other side of the globe? How do you decide which is the greater good?


Posted by: Irma on 7 Mar 06

Seems like a TreeHugger type consumer-focused post to me. We can't buy sustainability by consuming more (I know that's not what is being suggested here).

My response is to buy the most sustainable and ethical product that you can from the most sustainable and ethical supplier/distributer that you can, within reasonable limitations (personal judgement). But it can be hard to judge, perplexing, time-consuming, and, is voluntary action the solution? I voluntarily make considerable ethical/sustainable efforts myself and like to think that it makes a small difference (eg fair trade products) and helps to influence the broader public which in turn influences public policies which in turn will remove some of the need to make voluntary ethical acts.


Posted by: Flannel Flower on 8 Mar 06

Irma a shock to my way of thinking was realising that shipping something from the other side of the world by ship at sea may emit fewer greenhouse gases than shipping something by land (rail or truck) from a nation close to you or from a distant part of your own country. (ie shipping over sea is much more efficient than over land)

So unless you know the distances and methods by which the product was shipped within and between the countries of origin and purchase, then you can go crazy trying to figure that out. ("Hello, did you fly this from Africa or ship it by sea? Via which port?") I just try to buy local when I can, if it's clearly a local product (usually you can't tell). If it's something that probably comes from a developing country, I try to buy fair-trade (or organic, but fair-trade comes 1st).


Posted by: Flannel Flower on 8 Mar 06

This has been tried a thousand times. It doesn't work.
It keeps people in poverty by focusing on a cottage industry while glossing over the bigger structural problems of globalisation.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 8 Mar 06

This does sound to me like a company attempting to profit on what seems to be a trend in niche/custom product. I'd rather there was no middleman, but I don't see a simple way around that. Question is: Which company would you trust?


Posted by: csven on 8 Mar 06

Buy sustainable if you must. But try to save your dollars for direct investment in something with a long lasting sustainable impact. This year I bought Christmas presents through AGI for solar energy for the Lakota of Montana. I trust that it will do more good than some trinket from somewhere on the other side of the world.




Posted by: t on 8 Mar 06

Buy sustainable if you must. But try to save your dollars for direct investment in something with a long lasting sustainable impact. This year I bought Christmas presents through AGI for solar energy for the Lakota of Montana. I trust that it will do more good than some trinket from somewhere on the other side of the world.




Posted by: t on 8 Mar 06

As for the behavior of overstock.com, issues concerning selling short and alleged badmouthing of them by analysts are being decided in court. Here are more article from the Salt Lake Cty Tribune relating:

http://www.sltrib.com/search?breadcrumbs=&category=&offset=0&sortBy=startdate&similarTo=&similarType=find&runSearch=true&lastQuery=Overstock.com&query=Overstock.com&type=phrase


Posted by: Anon on 8 Mar 06

Ten Thousand Villages (tenthousandvillages.com) seems the better choice. A nonprofit chain of 160 stores, connected to the Mennonites. Overstock is rather sketchy.


Posted by: an on 8 Mar 06

Not familiar with worldstock. But Novica has been selling crafts for a while. Sounds like they have better credential.

http://www.novica.com/info/index.cfm?action=ourmission


Posted by: Wai Yip Tung on 8 Mar 06

See also Mercado Global (http://www.mercadoglobal.org) for a more traditional non-profit approach.

Of course another question raised is whether or not it is economically sustainable to have fundamentally commerical processes (the selling of handmade goods) mediated by non-profit organizations; maybe during the transition to a global economy it is the right idea, but the solution over the long term is not so obvious.


Posted by: Six Silberman on 8 Mar 06

"This year I bought Christmas presents through AGI for solar energy for the Lakota of Montana."

Oh man. That's what I was hoping to give. I gave the recipient a choice and she chose something else. Probably something that will have a more direct and immediate impact, but I've been into solar cells since I was a kid. Next year, I'm asking for that one!


Posted by: csven on 8 Mar 06

Let the buyer beware. Since the latest mantra of the MNC, and the business grad schools is the "triple bottom line": profit,social, and enviromental benefit as a business model for seeking opportunity and growth in markets at "the base of the pyramid", it's more important than ever to know the envirnmental and social track record of the MNC, or MNC endowed NGO. It's not uncommon to find direct links to MNC's with contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to MNC's with abismal environmental histories.


Posted by: invisiblecities on 9 Mar 06

My favourite example of this sort of thing is:

http://market.theworkingworld.org

They call it "true trade, fair trade with total transparency" which I like.

A percentage of all sales go to their common fund for the development of new and existing democratic workplaces...

http://www.labase.org/

I've been talking to them about selling their products in Europe (and have questioned myself about where shipping things from Argentina to the UK is really a good idea).

Like some of the post above point out though, if the products are shipped by sea (which most products still are) then I shouldn't worry too much.


Posted by: Josef Davies-Coates on 10 Mar 06

I actually took the time to read the links posted by Joseph Willemssen, and I think the assertion that they show that Overstock.com is a bad corporate citizen is unfounded. To summarize: the first article refers to an ongoing court case having to do with Wall Street types who may or may not have been trash talking to drive the company's share price. The second article describes problems at the company, including many customer service snafus over the holidays, plus the CEO having a bit of a PR meltdown about, again, the share price. The third article describes how the company sold DVDs by a local film-maker critical of Michael Moore. In my book, none of this makes them a bad corporate citizen - I was expecting something about polluting or abusing their workers or ripping off their investors. This is not Exxon, not Wal-Mart, and not Enron.

As for Worldstock, it seems to have its heart in the right place. In the grand scheme of things, would you rather people bought tchotchkes made in a village where the artisan gets a bigger cut of the sale price, or ones made in a sweatshop in China? Patronizing Worldstock sends a message to the greater marketplace that you care about where things come from and the people who make them. If that's enough for you, shop away. Is it enough to change the world? No, but it's a start of something better.


Posted by: cjstephens on 12 Mar 06



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