Why Fair Trade

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.