Do we need to capitalize on our culture in order to retain ownership of it?
February 27, 2024

How do we deal with the challenges of preserving cultural heritage and identity while catering to the global market's insatiable, voracious desire for the "exotic" and "authentic."?

In the complex web of global culture, where tradition, new ideas, and appropriation often weave together, an important question arises: Do we need to make money off of our culture to keep it our own? 

Cultural commodification has two sides. 

While there might be genuine cultural appreciation for a food, custom, or item outside of one's culture, more often than not, people can’t help but turn it into a commodity. It can be hard to tell the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. I think social media has escalated this commodification by 150%.

Let’s take a look at what happened to Quinoa. Once a sacred grain revered by the Andes Indigenous peoples, it has transformed remarkably into a global superfood. Its meteoric rise in popularity has stripped it of its cultural and spiritual roots, turning a staple food into a luxury item in its native lands. You can grab a pound of  Organic Quinoa Garbanzo Salad for $19.50  at Erewhon.

On the one hand, the global demand for quinoa has helped some farmers in the Andes make money. On the other hand, it has been bad for the environment and cut farmers off from traditional farming methods. 

While Erewhon is known for its eye-wateringly high prices, let’s look at a more affordable, innocuous perpetrator, Trader Joe's. 

Trader Joe’s, or Trader Jose's, is a case study in cultural commodification. 

As a millennial native New Yorker, I love Trader Joe's as much as the next person.

However, Trader Joe's strategy of repackaging and selling global foods to the American palate is not without its complexities. The store's approach to branding—often reimagining international foods for the American market—can tread a fine line between cultural appreciation and appropriation. Like the gentrification of neighborhoods, where new businesses displace longstanding community establishments, the commercialization of cultural products can contribute to a form of cultural displacement. 

It can strip items of their cultural context and heritage, making them commodities on a shelf.

This dilemma mirrors the personal conflict I experience when patronizing new establishments in gentrified neighborhoods, recognizing the bitter-sweetness of enjoying the new while mourning the loss of the old. It's the recognition that every purchase is a vote, a contribution to a narrative that either supports cultural preservation or unwittingly participates in cultural dilution.

While these are examples of commodification in food, the diaspora is full of examples of cultural innovations that have been turned into goods, often without giving credit or benefit to the people who created them. 

I mean, we can’t even get credit for the fade, a closely tapered hairstyle that Black men have been popularizing since the 1980s; that honor was given to Travis Kelcie (during BHM at that).

Is it possible to create a model that respects and benefits the original stewards while preserving and sharing its cultural significance with the world?

As we fight to stop the constant commercialization of cultural assets, a question arises: Do we need to capitalize on our culture in order to retain ownership of it? On the one hand, this strategy involves interacting head-on with capitalism, which is frequently criticized for contributing to the commoditization that we aim to fight against. On the other hand, it provides a way for communities to keep their cultural narratives in their own hands while also benefiting economically from their heritage. 

The Case for Market Engagement

Communities can have a say in the market's valuation, representation, and distribution of cultural products when they engage with it directly. Instead of giving in to capitalism, this is a resistance tactic—a method to assert one's agency in a global marketplace that frequently disregards cultural expressions for their subtleties and importance. Community members can prevent the watering down of cultural traditions by taking part in the marketing and sales of cultural goods. This will allow them to tell true stories, charge reasonable prices, and build long-term economic models. By emphasizing economic self-determination and self-representation, this method ensures that communities can tell their stories according to their own standards.

The Argument Against Market Engagement

On the flip side, detractors contend that embracing commercialization in the sake of cultural preservation runs the danger of bolstering the very systems that commercialize art. This view maintains that cultural expressions lose their inherent worth and social functions as a result of capitalism's reduction of them to transactions. From this viewpoint, the solution lies not in better market engagement but in cultivating systems of value and exchange that operate outside capitalist paradigms. It emphasizes community, sharing, and non-commercial values, advocating for cultural preservation through education, communal practices, and alternative economic models that resist commodification. ( View our resource introducing you to alternative economies of care here)

Navigating the Middle Path

I believe that the argument for the middle ground acknowledges the difficulty of balancing cultural preservation efforts with the demands of a capitalist society. It proposes a middle ground, whereby we engage with the market selectively and critically while maintaining our dedication to investigating different value and exchange systems. By constructing and supporting systems prioritizing cultural, social, and communal values over profit, this approach aims to use capitalism's tools for cultural preservation and other positive ends. It acknowledges the realities of the global economy but refuses to accept them as unchangeable, advocating for a dynamic, hybrid strategy that leverages the best of both worlds.

So what does it look like to begin to safeguard cultural heritage in a globalized world? 

Here are a few practical (imperfect) steps

Supporting Authentic Sources

One way to navigate this tightrope is by prioritizing purchases from authentic sources where possible. For example, choosing to buy directly from local artisans, immigrant-owned businesses, or through platforms that ensure fair compensation and representation for the creators. This helps preserve cultural authenticity and ensures that the economic benefits flow back to the communities.

One of the ways we help businesses do this is through an Inclusive Supply Chain strategy, where we develop supply chain strategies that prioritize partnerships with underrepresented vendors. 

Education and Awareness

 Educating oneself about the origins and significance of cultural products can foster a deeper appreciation and respect for them. Retailers and consumers alike can benefit from understanding the history and cultural context behind the items they sell or consume. This awareness can drive more informed, respectful purchasing decisions.

Businesses can work directly with cultural ambassadors or people from the communities whose goods they sell through collaborative branding. This collaboration can ensure that marketing and branding efforts are respectful and accurately represent the cultural significance of the products.

CO-ownership IP and Trademarks

This also means co-sharing trademarks and patents, which would not be possible without the resources from this collaboration. 

Labels and certifications

Using and following certifications that promise fair trade, ethical sourcing, and cultural authenticity can help protect heritage. These labels can serve as a guide for consumers looking to make more culturally respectful purchasing decisions.

Community Investment

Retailers can invest a proportionate percentage of cultural product profits into the originating communities. Proportionate to the immense benefits the company is receiving. Efforts of 1-1 or small percentages do not cut it.

Above and beyond everything else, there has to be a shift towards collaborative and co-creative models that empower communities to share their culture and give them a say in the globalization of their traditions. It requires thoughtful engagement from communities, allies, and consumers alike, all of whom play a role in shaping the market and its impact on cultural expressions.And sometimes we just need to take the accusation of gatekeeping on the chin and keep it moving. If the Colonel can gatekeep its 11 herbs and spices, well dang, we get to keep some things for us. 

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