Why Fair Trade?

As one of the co-founders of Global Crafts you would expect that l would be asked, often, why I am involved in Fair Trade. Interestingly I don’t think l have ever been asked.  I think people assume that I want to help people. Of course I do and I certainly don’t want to harm people, but frankly no, that’s not why I got into Fair Trade. Since nobody asked and I have a blog, I thought I’d tell you anyway :).

A little context is required so please bear with me.  As a teenager, a long long time ago in a country far far away — England —  I was into the issues of the 70’s and 80’s, protecting the ozone layer, anti apartheid, The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and of course the Third World Debt crisis as we referred to as the Global South back then. I went on to University in my late 20’s (always a slow starter) and found my only form of exercise was demonstrating on the streets of London. Almost weekly we would go to the streets for something; anti poll tax was the big issue, which we won.  Then just as l wondered how l would get my exercise post poll tax, the first gulf war came along and my exercise problem was solved. I was elected as a Student Union leader running on a Militant platform at a fairly right wing sports campus, no idea how I won that. It could have been the misdirection that the college was going to build on the sports pitch. The net result? A full year of paid activism and plenty of exercise.

Anyway you get the point.  While I have mellowed a lot, Bernie is pretty centrist for me. After teaching in Essex, essentially a suburb of London for a few years and getting a computer studies masters, I headed off to Kenya with VSO, basically the UK version of Peace Corps, to teach computer science. Three years later to the US to launch Global Crafts, so why?

Yes, in Kenya I met and connected with artisans who needed help; these artisans had no capacity to access markets, they often did not get paid properly for their work and this was happening in a local Fair Trade organization. But running a business was not in my wheel house and honestly I have never believed in charity. While in Kenya I saw the misuse of donations, the damage done to the textile industry by well meaning people flooding the economy with donated clothing, the disastrous and frankly cruel conditions provided in residential schools run by international charities. Charity does not empower people to make their own change.

For me Fair Trade was and is a movement fighting the global institutions of modern capitalism; the IMF and the World Bank that lent African countries cash but with Structural Adjustment plans attached (today’s Austerity measures) that forced countries to abandon free healthcare and education. Impoverished countries were paying more interest than they received in new loans, creating a cycle ensuring poverty, the WTO that created a system of global trade and encouraged free trade agreements designed to ensure that the the North gets the natural resources it needs while ensuring that all the value-add such as manufacturing and processing occurs in the North and not the South.

I recognize both the inherent contradiction of running a business to challenge modern globalization and the insignificance that a handicraft business will ever have on global trade policy.  I do get solace from the knowledge that for probably thousands of individuals around the world, our orders make a difference, but for me it’s the potential for change that creating opportunity in the Global South could have on the global system that makes me get up every day and the erosion that we can do to market capitalism by demonstrating that businesses can have a conscience and succeed.

I think as Fair Traders we are terrible at getting the message out. I include myself here. The message that consumers want to hear is one of paternalism, how “we”, typically the white people helped the poor artisans, typically “not white people”.  We post images of poor artisans with their sponsors teaching them how to better themselves. This is unfortunately the model of paternalistic charity that is pervasive in the social entrepreneurial movement , it is why strategies such as Toms “one for one” or the Hunger Sites donating rice marketing work (don’t get me started on these). We rarely talk about the structural failings of globalization within the context of what we do because it’s too complex and can’t be wrapped up into a tag line or tweeted.

Even within our context, we don’t talk about the artisan who through our trade gained the economic independence to move his family to the US. While I may not agree with his decision he was able to make that decision because of the opportunities Fair Trade created for him.  Somehow creating opportunities and empowering artisans does not play well if they choose these things, yet most of us expect to be able to make these decisions in our lives.  We talk about the young women beneficiaries of the project who got to go to school and university but not the directors who choose private school for their children. I don’t have kids but if I did I would be able to make this choice, why not my counterparts in Kenya ? For me this empowerment is just as important as the young women getting educated. It is not our role to lecture and control, it is our role to enable opportunity and empower decision making.

Over the last ten years it feels like we have lost not only the bigger political message but also the ability to be proud of our role in creating empowered independence, while the charity message has prevailed. At the same time the fair trade market has not significantly expanded. As a movement we have not found the success of the green movement or the organic movement and while I hear often “be careful what you wish for” small is not beautiful when you are trying to make change. I don’t have an answer only a question; how do we bring our movement back to empowering and guide it away from paternalist charity, a message which is both problematic to me and is clearly not working.

I do think we have an opportunity to connect ourselves with the US worker who is also suffering from globalization. After all we are in the same fight, for a fairer global trading system that benefits everyone not just the global corporations. But again it’s a complex message that does not fit in 128 characters and is not helped when candidates like Trump talk about fair trade in a context that has no connection to our version of Fair Trade.

In ten years time we will see. I am both hopeful and pessimistic, but I am pretty sure that by then the fight will need to be for someone else to tackle.

Kevin is a co founder of Global Crafts. Prior to starting Global Crafts in 2002 Kevin was a VSO volunteer in Kenya from 1999 to 2002 teaching Computer Science at Kisumu Polytechnic. In a past life he was a chef for 8 years before returning to education to get a degree in Sociology, a Post Graduate Certificate in Education and a Msc in Computer Systems.

5 thoughts on “Why Fair Trade?

  • Great post, Kevin! Thank you for sharing! If you don’t mind, I will be sharing a bit of your text with a college group to tomorrow – Society for the Advancement of Ethical Leadership (SAEL) Club at Utah State University. I’m hopeful that these young minds being educated today have a greater sense of responsibility of their actions in this world, especially in their consumerism. Our shop has seen an increase in business this year and last, and I attribute that to “us Fair Traders” getting the right message out – one about empowerment, sustainable employment, protecting the environment, allowing for opportunities that would otherwise not be there – these seem to resonate with our customers. Thanks for the insight, I look forward to reading more.

  • Kevin, re your quote: “It is not our role to lecture and control, it is our role to enable opportunity and empower decision making.” … do you know on how many different levels you have done just that? Right here in the USA, You have changed my life completely by offering opportunities to come and explore your business model. … I read your paper on ‘drop-shipping’ (some pdf file somewhere) and I knew that you were discouraged with the whole complexity of drop-shipping, wondering out-loud if the motivation to succeed would rise to the occasion and would the entrepreneur spirit of motivation even be there for your drop-shipping customers to even succeed? I read your thoughts on the business model on drop-shipping, knowing full well that you were uncertain about whether it would even pan out for your company, and to help grow the awareness of Fair Trade in general, and that single decision of yours (drop-shipping) literally changed my life overnight. I contacted you on a Friday evening and by Monday my site was up for all the world to see. … and though my sales are slow, they are indeed steady and climbing, and I am here for the long run.

    Why am I here? – Because Fair Trade appeals to finer senses of why I even exist on the planet. Like you, charity is not the way to go …the answer is as old as the planet itself, “teach a man to fish and you feed him for life”. Life is evolution, life is constantly changing, the mind is always adapting. …And while discouragement and pessimism creep into our psyche’s on the complexities of Fair Trade and the very nature of the ‘Do Good, Feel Good’ model of ‘helping those to help themselves … there in not one single solitary thing I would rather be doing, then to encompass the whole of myself into the very nature of Fair Trade and it’s mission in part …”Our mission is to offer income-generating opportunities to craftspeople in developing countries by following fair trade practices including paying in advance at least the market price for items, ensuring that craftspeople receive payment, and ensuring that the craftspeople work in fair working conditions.” and “hopefully help improve the lives of some of the people with whom we share this planet”- Global Crafts

    …I once read where a Business Leader, an Entrepreneur, an Educator, an Activist once wrote to me: “My advice to you would be the same as I tell myself every day. Ignore the noise of the outside world, you are not and never will be in competition with (*note: corporate name withheld – big corporation, name omitted on purpose), their customers are not yours.” and “Focus on your mission, build a loyal customer base and a brand that fair trade fans can believe in. Develop your mission an stick to it. Only if you are loyal to your mission and understand why you are doing it will you succeed. Focusing on what others are doing is the path to failure.” – author/Kevin Ward.

    I took your message to heart, it was literally a ‘slam dunk’ and I think that it bears well to repeat here, in lieu of your question “how do we bring our movement back to empowering and guide it away from paternalist charity, a message which is both problematic to me and is clearly not working.”(KW)

    I think I may speak for others when I say that you and your company continue to create unbelievable opportunities (and even for those that you do not even know about – nor see) – and also I am proof as are others when you reference in your statement: ” I do think we have an opportunity to connect ourselves with the US worker who is also suffering from globalization. After all we are in the same fight, for a fairer global trading system that benefits everyone not just the global corporations.”

    You and Renice have started an incredibly ethical business model movement that is clearly raising Fair Trade Awareness in the USA – and I for one, know in ten years time, we see a radical shift in awareness by the sheer fruition of your own steps within your company and I do remain eternally grateful for all that Global Crafts represents. – Fighting the good fight, I sign off indebted and respectfully … Michele Adams

  • Thanks, Kevin, for sharing your mind – and heart —-

    Ditto to Michele.

    I, too, have followed and learned from your business model and been encouraged by your faith in what you do. I started following you only a couple of years after you began Global Crafts; before I even knew what Fair Trade is. I never set out to support or own a “Fair Trade” business and I was slow to learn and form opinions. My intent was to establish an on-line business that would produce some income that I could use for both health & fitness issues as well as to support my church and other organizations that were dear to my heart, while enjoying freedom from an 8 to 5 job. I’ve been partially successful at that, but ……

    When searching for a product to sell on-line, my husband reminded me of the beautiful African baskets and products I had been introduced to a few years before, and suggested that by buying from the weavers and reselling I might be able to accomplish my goal AND help others earn income too. I connected with a couple native to Northern Ghana, founders and directors of a rural women’s cooperative in Bolgatanga who were, and still are, striving to increase sales for the local basket weavers. They have always followed Fair Trade Practices, but just recently jumped through all the hoops and became a Fair Trade Federation Member. From them, too, I learned and was encouraged. It became apparent to me right away that this was not a charity, but an organized group of individuals looking for opportunity to use what they have to improve their abilities to thrive, to educate and care for their children and their future – as you said, Kevin, to gain the power and ability to make the decisions that affect their own lives.

    I did not possess the terminologies or the social education or even the political leanings to discuss or understand that the Fair Trade issue is as complex as it is. But I agree with the principles that I read and I grasped that the only way for opportunities to continue to exist was through sustainable businesses, and that the only way for “their” businesses to be sustainable was to have sustainable business partners on this side. Business decisions need to work profitably on both fronts. Fair Trade needs to be fair for both partners, otherwise it is “paternalist (and patronizing) charity”.

    I was profitable in our small community, until I decided, at the suggestion of several customers, to open a brick and mortar store. This proved to be unsuccessful and I accrued debt trying to keep up with payroll and payroll taxes, equipment, utilities etc. After 4 years, I chose to close the store and re-open as part of a cooperative where the owners share the work hours and duties. This broke my heart because it meant releasing my part time employee who really needs the work, and it seems that if I am of the heart to offer opportunity for others, then shouldn’t I be able to offer opportunity here in my own back yard? I am eating away quickly at the debt now, even though my gross sales are less than a third of what they were. I am watching you, Kevin, as you are pouring your skills and imagination and heart into developing successful business models for the small entrepreneur who wants to be part of the Fair Trade business. These and, as Tami put it, “us Fair Traders” getting the right message out – one about empowerment, sustainable employment, protecting the environment, allowing for opportunities that would otherwise not be there..” are the key to creating sustainable opportunities abroad.

    Thanks, again, for what you do!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *