opinion

"This might seem totally random..." If you're part of an MLM, now is not the time to send a message.

The message started with, “Hi Sarah*, I hope you’ve enjoyed this March so far…”

Sarah thought to herself that the greeting was a little strange. Along with more than six billion others, Sarah had not particularly enjoyed March so far.

“This might seem totally random,” she continued, “I absolutely love your positive vibe and obvious passion for life!”

And then came the sell.

“I don’t know if you’re familiar with Arbonne and it’s plant-based philosophy, but after seeing your posts you strike me as someone who would absolutely smash this!

“Have you ever considered jumping in and joining the Arbonne community alongside what you’re doing? Or if you haven’t, would you be open to learning a bit more about what it is?

“Jessica* X.”

arbonne
The message Sarah received.

For the uninitiated, Arbonne is an international multi-level marketing scheme (MLM) which sells "vegan cosmetics and supplements". It relies, however, on the recruitment of representatives to promote and sell the company's products.

The language used to describe companies like Arbonne is often intentionally ambiguous.

If I was a business owner who wanted to sell, say, yoga mats, my pitch would be clear. I have a product (a yoga mat) which I sell for, hypothetically, $30. There is no conversation to be had, relationship to be developed or community to join. It's an honest transaction that relies on the customer wanting, or not wanting, a yoga mat.

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But Arbonne, which sells shampoo, makeup and skincare, doesn't just want you to purchase their products. In fact, their products are secondary in their business strategy.

They need you to sell their products.

And in order to sell their products, you need to take a risk.

To become a 'consultant' you must buy a starter kit that will cost you $79.

There is very little transparency about how much anyone makes in a multi-level marketing scheme, but recent reports suggest that anywhere from 75 per cent to 99 per cent of people who participate won't make any money at all. In fact, a vast majority will lose money.

Similar to pyramid schemes (although they're not the same thing), only the people at the very top of MLMs turn a profit. And their profit is only made possible by the losses of those underneath them.

Since COVID, millions of Australians have lost their jobs.

In January, Australia's unemployment rate was already 1.3 million, meaning that more than two million are now out of work. That's the highest number since the peak of the Great Depression in 1932.

It's worth acknowledging that most of us are feeling desperate, and people involved in MLMs are no exception. We're all just doing our best. I don't begrudge any business owner trying to push a product, at a time when the future is so uncertain.

But to attempt to recruit consultants in the midst of a recession, knowing full well the statistical likelihood of them ever making any money is shockingly low, is unconscionable.

To be clear, this isn't the fault of Arbonne specifically. They have little control over how their consultants conduct business. Most women who work for Arbonne would never imagine trying to recruit someone at a time of exceptional hardship.

Research has found that the vast majority of consultants will be left with a backlog of unsold products and no profit. And when a person does fail, which they probably will, the MLM will find a way to fault the individual - their drive, their sales technique, or their skill level - rather than the structure that was fundamentally flawed in the first place.

I've spoken to dozens of women who have recently been preyed upon by MLMs.

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One just lost her job at a major airline, a career she thought would never be under threat. It took just days for an acquaintance to capitalise on her vulnerability, and try to sell her a dream that doesn't exist.

Another was sent a message on Facebook from someone she'd never met that began with, "hoping you're surviving this corona chaos okay!" before pitching her a 'business opportunity'.

There were buzz words about 'empowerment' and 'health and wellness' and the benefits of a 'virtual office'.

There was a special discount, meaning it would only cost her $55 to join (to join what, exactly, she didn't specify) and it was the "lowest risk start-up business anywhere".

The woman who received the message was horrified.

An MLM can typically be identified by its emphasis on three main components. The first is an attempt at recruitment. The second is a promise of high rewards in a limited time. For example, Arbonne infamously promised consultants a 'free' Mercedes-Benz when they made it to Regional Vice President. The third is an insistence that you can "quit your day job" and work from home, choosing your own hours.

Listen to Mamamia Out Loud, Mamamia's podcast with what women are talking about this week. Post continues below.

It is that last point that has made women particularly vulnerable to MLMs. And in a context where millions of Australians have not only lost their jobs but are also housebound, many recruiters have identified an opportunity.

Of course, we live in a capitalist democracy, and each of us is entitled to earn our money however we please.

But surely we can make a truce not to exploit the vulnerable and encourage them to take a risk that they cannot afford.

To put it simply, it's predatory.

Want to sell me some eye shadow? Go for it.

A short course, put together by experts? Absolutely.

A candle or a dress or a bottle of wine? Sounds great.

Just don't sell me the dream of being 'my own boss'. Of a 'laptop lifestyle'. Of 'freedom' and 'wealth' with 'no risks'.

Because that is a dream that does not exist.

* Names have been changed to protect identity.

Feature image: Social.

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