Sunday, February 13, 2011

Catalysts for Social Change

Two months into the Journey we find that our stay in the Philippines was longer than expected. To put it succinctly, there was much to learn here on many levels. Chou and I have met with farmers and fisher folk, artisans, and craftswomen and men, all have been producers of Fair Trade products sold locally and exported to the North. Reflecting back over these encounters in the Philippines, I have learned much about the context in which Fair Trade supports the disadvantaged. 

Relevant to our inquiry, we heard and saw firsthand the multitude of issues Fair Trade addresses: defining a “living wage” in a local context; upholding human rights, women’s rights, child rights, labor rights, indigenous rights, land rights and fishing rights; embracing environmental protection and sustainability; promoting grassroots community development; and so on. We have also witnessed that maintaining Fair Trade principles in local organizations leads directly to higher achievements of people’s empowerment and social integration through unity for a common good with respect and human dignity. 

However, this hasn’t been the extent of our experience. We have also met other members of the Fair Trade movement. Most notably are the Fair Trade Organizations (FTOs), the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) which support producers. This includes the organizational leaders, management teams, trainers and staff. Secondly, we have met the Fair Trade supporters, advocates, innovators and marketers. The lessons they have shared with us have proven to be equally important in our attempt to understand and present the Fair Trade movement from the perspective of the South. 

In the local communities throughout the South, the FTOs, NGOs and CBOs, are what I have come to see as the representatives of Fair Trade. They are the Catalysts for Social Change. I say this because on one level, every community they engage with, these spokespersons bring with them the tools for channeling the abstract ideals into reality. They formulate concrete approaches to local challenges; they tackle the specifics, such as how to establish a system to maintain accountability; they design ways to ensure participation and transparency; and they make direct interventions to promote gender equity in their community. They are the Fair Trade practitioners in the South without whom the movement itself would cease to exist. 

I must admit, when I resided in the US and volunteered at a local Fair Trade shop, I had overlooked their efforts when viewing the tangible results of their labors in the handmade products and upon hearing stories of changed lives and hope for future generations. To remove them from the equation is to sidestep the core of national Fair Trade movements in the South. Reflecting back on my original purpose, “To present the voices of Fair Trade producers, artisans, weavers, farmers, and craftswomen and men,” I see that I, again, had overlooked their importance when setting out on this Journey. Without these women and men, Fair Trade would not exist.

Much is owed to these Catalysts for Social Change. Discussions with them have been both stimulating and enlightening. They have an understanding of both the reality they live in and the ideals they wish to integrate into their everyday work. They fully comprehend the challenges of disadvantaged producer communities and are fully committed to carving out an income generating opportunity for them that utilizes their talents, respects their culture, and treats them with dignity. 

However, a major change has occurred in many of their organizational strategies as a result of the global recession that left many out on a precarious limb. In order to ensure sustainability, many Southern Fair Trade Organizations have found that they need to look inwards to the local economies to expand their market. However, there is a low level of awareness of Fair Trade and what exactly it is these Catalysts do. I see that some organizations have focused on exports to the extent they alienated themselves from their local consumers despite benefitting their immediate communities. I see that Southern Fair Trade Organizations face a challenge if they are to ensure long-term sustainability:  

How to localize Fair Trade?

To localize Fair Trade in the South is to begin with advocacy. Fair Trade, it isn’t like any other business. This business comes from experience and reflection. In the North, after generations of exploitation and degradation countered with union protests, government regulation and international declarations of human rights, Fair Trade establishes where we should already be today as an enlightened approach to international trade and business. Discussing this with Fair Traders in the South is to recognize that when used as a business model, Fair Trade principles have a ripple effect in the local business community.

For an FTO to maintain its principles, it must ensure that its supply chain is also clear from exploitation, environmental degradation and child labor amongst many other ethical prerequisites. This means that local FTOs must engage with the community businesses and suppliers, and in the process introduce a completely new approach to conducting business. Often it will be the first time in the South for a small local business to be required to sign long term-contracts with stipulations guaranteeing materials are coming from sustainable recourses free from exploitation and that women are paid and treated equally within their workplace. In the very act of doing business, local FTOs become advocates for changing local business practices. 

However, advocacy must occur simultaneously on a multitude of levels. In the cities of the South, in the population centers and government seats, there must be a presence that can be heard and felt. I spent a lot of time discussing efforts to localize Fair Trade with Gigi Labradores, Director of the Southern Partners Fair Trade Center (SPFTC) in Cebu. She is one of the most dynamic, committed and knowledgeable drivers of the Fair Trade movement in the Philippines.

She spoke about the lack of awareness of Fair Trade in the Philippines and the importance of starting a national string of Fair Trade Shops. “That is why we talk about advocacy and why we had to put up the shop. A shop is not just for income, is also the basic point for advocacy. People will not understand your thoughts if they don’t see anything concretely… If you want to expose what Fair Trade is and how it is able to address poverty in a country or a community that we commit to and serve, we should be able to make ourselves known and be visible. That was the springboard to entering the market in Cebu. 

Secondly, we are producing quality products. We believe that our product quality has an edge over the others. For our dried mango, we don’t put preservatives, we don’t put coloring and it is something we should offer to the Philippine community. Fair Trade is not just a philosophy that adheres to addressing poverty, it is also a product that embraces and enhances quality; it respects the rights of people and producers and at the same time it takes care of the needs of consumers. So, we need to showcase and let Fair Trade be known."

The Philippine Fair Trade Movement is expanding their market locally in collusion with a concerted advocacy effort. In my travels from the north to the south of the Philippines I have had many meetings in which we discuss: How can we advocate for Fair Trade, we don’t have the resources? Recently, I had terrific discussions with the leadership and staff of Salay Handmade Paper in Northern Mindanao. As in many discussions centered on advocacy, the first thing that is brought up is a lack of resources. The second thing brought up is that Fair Traders don’t have training, or knowledge about advocating for a cause. 

Originally, I set out to listen and learn. Increasingly, I find that I take on a consultancy role or that of a resource person to present to groups or classes during my journey. More than once, I was asked during interviews or in group discussions, what can be done to address lack of awareness of Fair Trade. More specifically, I was asked for tools to advocate locally. Reflecting on this, I realized the need to provide practical advice to those interested in expanding Fair Trade, whether they reside in the North or the South. 

How to advocate for Fair Trade:

Advocacy for Fair Trade can occur simultaneously at many levels, and it can begin locally as in the example above with an FTO connecting with local businesses. Advocacy can occur anywhere and at anytime. Advocacy can be as little as a discussion over a cup of Fair Trade coffee! I believe the best advocacy is when they don’t know you are advocating. Questioning, sharing and inviting are approaches for a great start. 

Whether advocating in the North or in the South, when speaking of advocacy for Fair Trade, initially it helps to facilitate a group discussion with like-minded souls and concerned citizens. First, list out the local socially-oriented organizations such as churches, mosques or religious institutions, social networks, and organizations. Secondly list other socially influential institutions such as schools, community centers, and government units such as social welfare departments. These are your targets for advocacy and networking. 
For the advocates of Fair Trade, whether they are devoted, conscientious consumers or students enrolled in local colleges, they are a vital part of the future of Fair Trade. Every person, social group or classroom in which they introduce Fair Trade is to confront the concept of Business as Usual. I can think of no better place for an advocacy movement to begin than in a high school or university where minds blossom and new ideas form. No longer can multinational corporations just be concerned about the bottom line regardless of the methodology to ensure profits with high-end marketing campaigns and a Public Relations office to whitewash their image through showcased activities and charity donations written off as Corporate Social Responsibility. Ethics, human rights and environmental protection need to be engraved in the minds of students globally. 

Thirdly, list out what social issues, if any, are of concern to each of the groups listed. How do those issues relate to Fair Trade? Fair Trade addresses so many issues, it is hard to miss. A participatory and interactive approach is to divide this task into teams that will address issues that are of interest to them. For example, those interested in gender and women’s rights meet together as a team to discuss how they will approach local women’s organizations and social networks to introduce Fair Trade from that perspective. For those teams going into community high schools, work with local teachers to find the best method for discussing the topics and how it relates to what the students are currently studying. 

The fourth step is to set up an opportunity to meet with one or a few of the leaders to introduce Fair Trade as a viable alliance to their cause. In the cases of schools or universities, meet with sociology, anthropology, political science and history faculty who are receptive to a cup of coffee and discussion on the social impacts of trade. If you decide to engage with local government, come with locally made products in hand. In those democratic nations, local products equate to local votes to politicians; get them on your band wagon rather than you on theirs. 

For university students, come together and discuss what ways you can advocate for Fair Trade on campus. In my Alma mater, I had joined the Fair Trade Initiative. We set out a simple and direct means to introduce Fair Trade on our campus. We saw that coffee was the lifeblood of most students and decided on a focused approach to mandate that all coffee sold on campus be Fair Trade. We set up booths every day handing out free cups of coffee to those walking by and spoke to passer-by’s about the importance of making trade fair, and that here on campus we wanted to localize that idea starting with coffee. All we asked for was their signature. But we didn’t do this alone; we connected with other advocacy groups that demanded social justice such as the campaign to end the use of sweatshops to produce university sportswear and clothing. Over time we had enough student signatures to approach the administration and from our concerted efforts, the campus changed to 100% Fair Trade coffee. 

Admittedly, for every step forward, there can be three steps back. The next year they privatized many of the food services on campus, so the following Fair Trade Advocates had to confront Starbucks and the initiative continues on. Regardless, we raised awareness personally and directly with many students who have now moved on in their professional lives. Perhaps some of them are involved in Fair Trade now, I don’t know, but what we did was advocacy over a cup of coffee that changed a campus. Recently the University of Southern California in San Diego , California became the Most Fair Trade campus in the USA. How many campuses in the South are Fair Trade? The South produces many Fair Trade products for consumption in the North; there is a need to expand Southern advocacy efforts in this direction. Network with campus movements in the North; get their support and tips on how to bring social change!

Students are the future! Today’s student advocates are tomorrow’s local consumers, and in some cases like me, advocating doesn’t stop upon graduation – instead they become more dangerous to the status quo! 

To start you on the way to becoming an advocate for Fair Trade, I have listed a few areas how to get started in local advocacy, whether in the North or in the South:

Fair Trade Advocacy Matrix: 

Fair Trade Advocacy Matrix

In addition, I would like to present some helpful links to get you started in your advocacy!

The Fair Trade Advocacy Office (FTAO) speaks out for Fair Trade and trade justice with the aim to improve trading conditions for the benefit of small and marginalised producers and poor workers in developing countries. Visit the FTAO website to find out about their activities, download their Fair Trade publications and Public policy documents, and to sign up for their newsletter. 

The Fair Trade Resource Network is an information hub designed to grow the Fair Trade movement. Together, we can create a market that values the people who make the food we eat and the goods we use.
Oxfam International has ongoing campaigns and invite you to join them in their drive to achieve a world without poverty and injustice.

Global Exchange is a terrific resources for advocacy:

Global Exchange also provides a How-to Guide that shows what you can do to promote Fair Trade Products:

Equal Exchange is another resource rich website for advocates:

Lastly, having been a high school teacher in Japan, one resource that I have returned to repeatedly is Rethinking Globalization published by  Rethinking Globalization offers an extensive collection of readings and source material on critical global issues. Through numerous role plays, interviews, poems, stories, background readings, cartoons, and hands-on teaching activities, the book offers a memorable introduction to the forces that are shaping the future of our world.

I hope you find this posting interesting and informative whether you reside in the North or the South, and whether you work directly with Fair Trade producers or support them through your conscientious purchases. If you have experience in advocacy, or can suggest additional points to those listed, please add a comment to share with Fair Traders around the world! There is no substitute for experience! 

Thank you for joining us in this journey. Feel free to follow this blog and to add your comments, ideas or suggestions as we go.


Mitch Teberg, MA


  1. Thanks Mitch, VERY thought provoking and you have hit on a few issues we face here in Malaysia and mapped out what we think is a useful way forward. What complicates things here in Malaysia is that the Government has a Fair Trade policy (something most Malaysians have heard about) but this is something that deals anti-competitive behaviour so when we mention Fair Trade within our own context this causes confusion.

    Again, thanks for this Mitch, much appreciated.

  2. Great enlightening info! Thank you for the invite Mitch. I have had a Fair Trade shop in NH since 2007... and sure wish more people had the information to make social changes with their purchase power. Thank you for helping get the important messages out there... every bit helps. WE ARE THE CHANGE! Bless you!!

  3. Very helpful information for us in Boulder,CO who are at the beginning stages of getting our city/town designated a Fair Trade Town. I recently traveled to Costa Rica with Fair Trade Towns USA on a Global Exchange "reality tour" where I was able to first hand experience what coffee and sugar cane farmers do to make a living and how Fair Trade benefits their families and the entire community. I look forward to continuing my learning and involvement with the Fair Trade movement for very needed change in our international trade markets. Thank for all you're doing!

  4. Thank you for this Insightful& Inspiring body of work, Mitch!
    I am on the Board of Ten Thousand Villages Cleveland, and have started a Local Social Enterprise in Northeast Ohio called Lydia's Purse.
    We are "Sewing Handbags & Sowing Hearts"~REpurposing discarded high quality home decor swatches into designer market totes. It's a great metaphor of the Life Transformation the women go through as they leave Rescue Missions and re-enter society!
    It is our Mission to EMPOWER Women to break through the cycle of generational Poverty and live lives of EXCELLENCE!!
    Please keep sharing!!

  5. Well said Mitch! I too was recently in Costa Rica, along with Christina. We witnessed the lack of local fair trade markets, whether in cooperatives or indigenous villages. It is so true, that in order for the principles of fair trade to directly benefit producers, we need to monitor and evaluate as much as we can. It is such a challenge because we all need to collaborate. We meaning businesses, institutions, researchers, producers and advocates. Seems like your on that track!

    Thank you and keep delving :)

  6. Great article. Thank you. I encourage you to get involved with the Agricultural Justice Project's Food Justice Certified label, a domestic social justice label.

  7. I appreciate you outlining the steps to become an advocate for fair trade. I think this is a great movement that is helping great artisans from Madagascar and other impoverished parts of the world. I more people will become advocates and supports as they find out more information about fair trade and the products that are produced by it.