Friday, May 6, 2011

Celebrating the Malaysian Fair Trade Initiative

Work like you don't need the money.
Love like you've never been hurt.
Dance like nobody's watching.
- Satchel Paige

Unobserved and unimpeded, 
    I danced round and round in celebration... 

This exciting Journey  
    has far exceeded my wildest expectations

For me, the experience in Malaysia has proven to be a pinnacle of achievement; the application of lessons learned over the past five months culminated in the launch of a national Fair Trade Movement. A day I will cherish for a lifetime! The idea to create an awareness raising movement in Malaysia came through discussions with  Dr. Mike Thair and his wife, Linh of Indochine Natural Handmade Soap. They had been following my blog and presenting me with thought provoking commentary along the way. This turned into a discourse on how to create a national Fair Trade Movement that could be applied in the Malaysian social and political context. 

So, from the organic coffee farmer cooperatives of Aceh, my Journey brought me to Penang, Malaysia where I met Dr. Mike Thair and his wife, Linh. I also met his staff and his talented producers. It was a great opportunity to see how a soap-making business took Fair Trade to heart in their practices. I was most interested in his efforts to provide an income-generating opportunity for mentally disadvantaged men and women through soap-making with used cooking oil collected locally. It sells very well in Japan! 

Meeting with local consumer awareness organizations in Penang proved a bit difficult due to timing, however we did utilize the time to spearhead the efforts in Kuala Lumpur. We set the date for the first meeting to be Saturday, April 30th. That gave me two weeks in KL to do the groundwork.

Looking for a Few Good Catalysts!

From the moment I arrived it was a busy schedule. I met with interested individuals, academics, Non-Government Organizations, retail businesses and marginalized producer groups all of whom had some degree of knowledge on Fair Trade and were very interested in introducing this concept to Malaysian consumers. At every opportunity I discussed the possibilities of creating a Fair Trade Initiative and the importance of getting a core group of people involved that would take action. 

Mike Thair introduced me to Callie Tal, the CEO of JustLife, an organic shop, food store and retailer with six locations in KL. This successful business venture also serves as a much needed awareness raising platform on the importance of organically grown produce. Callie and her husband Darren have an interest in Fair Trade since they utilize an ethical business model in their transactions with the intention of making organic farming sustainable in Malaysia where there is a high dependence on chemical farming due to government policy of subsidizing the use of cancer causing chemical fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and a wide array of death dealing chemicals used so carelessly in our foods (for more information check out the Pesticide Action Network - UK or the Pesticide Action Network - North America).

From the moment we met we had a terrific discussion on their source of organic produce which was coming from local farmers and also from more distant locations like the US and Australia. They have a great initiative, but I could see that the carbon footprint from the more distant sources has been worrisome to these conscientious retailers. Their Basic Question has been, How to provide organic produce without the CO2 from transporting long distances, yet have enough of a shelf life left to be consumable? A genuine dilemma for the socially and environmentally aware...

During my stay in Takengon, Aceh, I had the opportunity to meet directly with Johannes Egger, the FLO-Cert auditor. We discussed his audits of cooperatives in the region, and one recommendation he frequently makes is the need for farmers to diversify produce in addition to coffee. He pointed out there is an effort to grow avocado and I did see this. However, in his audits he continues to stress the need to introduce other varieties of produce to maintain a balance in soil nutrients and depend less heavily on coffee for family incomes. 

Consider with me,  just for a moment, 
     a Vision for the Future of Fair Trade...

Imagine, Fair Trade Localized in the South
     Ending a Dependance on Trade to the North
Envision Fair Trade Directly Contributing to Local, 
     National and Regional Economies in the South

For Fair Trade to be Sustainable,
     This Vision Must be Realized

With an interest in helping the farmers of Aceh lessen their dependence on coffee exports to the North through particular unscrupulous FLO-Certified importers who have little regard for the Principles of Fair Trade (Read Coffee Part II - "It's not my Problem"), and to more fully utilize their organic certification status, I mentioned the potential that was just across the Strait of Malacca in the mountains of Aceh. By putting JustLife in contact with the Indonesian Fair Trade Producers Association and with the Fair Trade Exporter, Mr. Sadarsah in Medan, I could do my part to localize Fair Trade in the South and greatly reduce their carbon footprint. This Vision of Fair Trade Localized is attainable!  


I also had an opportunity to meet Elodie Viosin of Tanma, an organization founded under Tenaganita to directly assist Burmese Refugees in Malaysia. By refusing to recognize their UNHCR refugee status, the Malaysian State adds to the anguish of Burmese Refugees by not permitting them legal migrant status and ignoring their rights under the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Marginalized, persecuted, scapegoated, subject to raiding parties, and often used as a disposable labor pool, refugees find themselves in a precarious and depressing situation where there is little if any hope for a better future. 

Rampant alcoholism and drug abuse are common methods of escape. Perpetual fear of being shaken down for what little cash they have by local police, and the constant threat of being detained and shipped off to detention centers is enough to wear down the nerves of any human being. Employment is tenuous at best, and with no job security Burmese men are frequently exploited and cheated out of wages. Worse yet is that they are living under the constant threat of having their children targeted by pimps, traffickers and pedophiles due to the lack of legal and police protection. Life quickly becomes one of self-imprisonment behind locked doors with few outside connections beyond those who can be trusted.  

Despite the odds, Tenaganita and Tanma have been amongst the very few active supporters of this marginalized community while the vast majority simply turn their head from the human plight before their eyes, in the news and in their communities and don't consider it their problem. A sad commentary for a nation which prides itself in it's national identity. 

I had the opportunity to meet with two groups, the Chin Women and Children's Center making hand woven textiles and Kaoprise Beauty producing high quality, all natural hand-made soaps. I purchased several! True to his form and committed to the practices of Fair Trade, Dr. Mike Thair has been assisting the soap-making venture providing technical assistance and business advice. 

The groundwork to generate interest in this Malaysian Initiative was greatly assisted by the efforts of like-minded souls who had established an informal network already. I had the great opportunity to meet with Sze Ning, co-founder of Elevyn, an online Fair Trade shop where Tanma products can be purchased directly! 

When visiting the Chin Women and Children's Center where they were making woven handbags and hand-knitted dolls, I saw a young girl with her mother. She must have been about six years old, and the doll her mother had just completed was actively being hugged and loved. If this were an example of child labor, I can think of no better way to value-add to a Fair Trade doll than having it pre-approved in the loving arms of a six year-old with the most beautiful smile that lights up an entire room. In the midst of darkness, Tanma truly gives a glimmer of hope. 

In addition to setting out to bring like-minded and enlightened souls together to start a Fair Trade initiative, this journey to Malaysia was also a reunion. In 2009, I resided in KL for six months and during that time made a few life-long friends who turned up in my list of people to connect with to start this initiative. 

Nooreen Preusser is an enlightened being, kindred spirit, close friend and Director of P.S. The Children, a child-centered Child Rights organization that had a tremendous impact on me when I participated in a Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Course in 2009. Whether or not child sexual abuse is acknowledged by a state or religious establishment as a social problem, it is a universal occurrence that permeates all nationalities regardless of ethnicity or religion. Ignoring it only sanctions the abuse and facilitates the abuser. The only way to prevent it is to raise awareness of this issue to protect our children. I believe Fair Trade is a necessary platform from which to combat child labor, prevent child sexual abuse, and promote children's rights to education, play, health and safety.

In the midst of motivating, mobilizing, planning and reuniting, I received a call from a reporter from The Star, Malaysia's leading English newspaper. Leong Siok Hui, a senior reporter asked a few direct questions that implied she was well versed in Fair Trade, and afterwards, asked if I had attended the University of Montana in the USA -  as it turns out, we were classmates in the same Japanese language class. Little did I expect this reunion! 

The Start of a National Fair Trade Initiative

The Founding Members of the Malaysian Fair Trade Initiative,
in all there were about twenty!
Following two weeks of introductory meetings, in-depth discussions, training opportunities, planning and unexpected reunions, my efforts to generate interest in creating the Initiative paid off on Saturday, April 30th! The purpose of this meeting was to bring together NGOs, producers, farmers, Fair Trade businesses, retailers and socially conscious individuals all with a common interest in generating a synergy that would launch a national Fair Trade movement!

To start the meeting, I read a letter from Chief Executive of the World Fair Trade Organization, Carola Reintjies, welcoming Malaysians to the global Fair Trade Movement. Soon Malaysia will join the ranks of Fair Trade Movements in over 70 countries! The support and encouragement I have received in this effort has been terrific.

Because those in attendance had an understanding of Fair Trade, we did not need to cover the basics, and instead we dove headlong into our purpose. After a round of self-introductions, I seperated them into small groups to work together in a warm-up task:
  1. Describe what is the Malaysian Fair Trade Initiative about 
  2. Identify a common aim - "What is our message?"
  3. Suggest possible names for this initiative 

Darren of JustLife explains the importance of raising awareness
of Fair Trade with consumers and at all levels of the supply chain

Each group diligently worked together then presented their results. A lively and in-depth discussion ensued and over the next few hours the open conversation covered multiple aspects of Fair Trade: 
  • Fair Trade as a social movement and ethical business model versus a charity
  • Empowerment as a human right
  • The Global Movement of Fair Trade
  • The difference between FLO-Cert and the World Fair Trade Organization, and the synergy of the global movement
  • Global and regional strategies of WFTO and WFTO-Asia
  • Concerns over the chasm between the NGO sector and the private sector, and how Fair Trade straddles the gap
  • Practical limitations faced by producers, and changing expectations of buyers
  • The need for efficiency to be economically viable as a successful business venture 
  • Experiences shared in working with marginalized communities
  • Obstacles faced by retailers in sourcing and supply 
  • Common business practices in Malaysia and how to apply Fair Trade as a practical business model while being competitively priced on the market
  • and so on...
Dr. Mike Thair openly shares his experience in applying Fair
Trade principles into business practices and how it can be
utilized in the Malaysian context. To his left, his wife Linh and
Fair Trade Executive Director at Indochine Natural, and to the left
of her is the Elodie Viosin of Tenaganita.
Through this open discourse, the founding members began to create a collective vision for the future of Fair Trade as it is to be applied in Malaysia. As the meeting came to a close the  atmosphere was abuzz with the positive energy generated. With synergy generated and so much yet to cover, we ended our first meeting with a commitment to continuing these efforts to bring positive change to Malaysia with a global impact. Unnoticed, I took a quiet moment to close my eyes and slowly inhale; it was a natural high to have been part of this amazing day.

We set a second meeting date for Wednesday, May 25th to keep the momentum going and give enough time for the issues covered and lessons learned settle in. If you are in Malaysia and are interested in becoming part of something that is far greater than the sum of its members and far reaching on a global scale, join this grass-roots initiative! Unfortunately my Journey must go on to Vietnam, however I am confident what was initiated on April 30th will have a lasting impact on a nation!

The Founding Members of the Malaysian Fair Trade Initiative also include: 

A non-profit Christian organization
committed to serving the poor and needy.
Promoting Change.
Inspiring People.
Engaging Businesses.

Malaysia's 1st cross-disability national magazine
for persons with disabilities

If I can do it, others can too! 

     Looking for a Few Good Catalysts!

          ...The Search is GLOBAL!

On this World Fair Trade Day, Saturday, May 14th, I encourage readers of this blog to unite with other like-minded and enlightened souls to bring change to your community, particularly if you are not already involved in a Fair Trade Movement. If you are involved in World Fair Trade Day events, read Catalysts for Social Change and bring a printout of the Fair Trade Advocacy Matrix with you to discuss ways to expand Fair Trade in your neighborhood, your town, your city, your state and your country! Regardless of where you are, you can make a change! If you are inspired by this blog, I am looking for a Few Good Catalysts to join me in creating Fair Trade Movements on World Fair Trade Day!   

Since 2006, I have been an Individual Associate of the WFTO. Without the backing of WFTO, the Fair Trade movement would not be sustainable, and most likely you would not be reading this blog. Let me be clear, I receive no payment from the WFTO, nor am I a representative of the WFTO. However, as an Individual Associate, I support the WFTO and its activities. If you want to have an impact on future generations by making the world a better place, I encourage you to take action on World Fair Trade Day and to donate to the WFTO

Donate to the WFTO Today
     Empower the Disadvantaged and Marginalized 
          Make an Impact on Generations

As for myself, this has been a completely self-funded and self-motivated inquiry. There have been no strings attached to what I post and I am beholden to no one other than the producers of Fair Trade products by my own accord. My intention is to compile my journey and the findings of my inquiry into a publication to be sold at your local Fair Trade shop or local socially conscious retailer. Soon enough I will be looking for a few good publishers...

On a personal note, today as I post this entry to my blog, there has been another distinguished accomplishment: the number of hits surpassed 10,000 with 50 followers in just 6 months. To those of you reading this blog, thank you. I never count my own hits on this blog, so they are all generated through you reading and sharing the site. Again, thank you.  

At some point you may have noticed my blog is not flooded with adverts, I oppose the commercialization of public media. When you visit my blog there is a notable absence of flashing, spinning and bouncing adverts bombarding the reader. Why do I take such a stance? I recently went to an online dictionary and clicked on an answer to trick question - it went directly to a porn site. I will not allow advertisers to negate my integrity.

For the last several weeks I have been supported on this journey by my life partner, Chou who had to return to Vietnam after graciously accompanying me for several months from Hoi An, Vietnam and into Cambodia, from the North to the South of the Philippines, and into Indonesia. Without her, these blog posts would not have been possible. Currently I am in Hanoi, Vietnam while she is setting up our residence in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). 

In Hanoi, I am consulting for Helvetas to create Fair Trade training material and methodology for Fair Trade producers worldwide. Helvetas is one of the co-founders of Max Havelaar Switzerland and supported the establishment of the Fair Trade Labelling Organization (FLO) which is one of the major organizations promoting Fair Trade worldwide. 

Thank you for joining me and Chou on this journey. If you have any comments, suggestions or ideas, I welcome all and invite you to comment below or catch me on facebook

To become a Catalyst for Social Change, all you need to do is take the initiative to start a Fair Trade Initiative!!   

Mitch Teberg, MA


  1. Quite a journey Mitch, and probably one of the most significant inputs into Fair Trade in our region in recent times.

    Thanks for making the effort, you have certainly made a difference.

  2. Cool Mitch, i have followed you now.. i learnt a lot from you and your journey is truly an eye opener for me,cheers Ferry

  3. Well done on kickstarting this initiative in Malaysia. I am Malaysian but im currently in my final term of my undergraduate degree in Environmental Economics in the UK and I am now working on an essay about how Fair Trade does little to further sustainable development. I stumbled across your blog whilst googling FT products in Malaysia, im deeply inspired by it and especially taken by your idea of localising fair trade. It never crossed my mind, its genius! I certainly hope that Malaysians welcome the FT mechanism with open arms and I hope to see lots of FLO certified products popping up across the nation in due course. I definitely want to be involved in this initiative some how, will keep checking this blog!

  4. My husband and I would like to contribute our expertise for Fair Trade. I am a life & wellness coach whilst my husband is a tea expert, wit extensive knowledge in varied crops like cardamom, pepper, rubber and cocoa. Could you furnish us with details of how we could ensure that fair trade exists in Malaysia.

  5. Hi Mitch, Im Stephanie from Stephanie Ng Design ( and interested to see how we can use fair trade artisans for our business. Can you drop us a line asap so we can start discussions as to how to go about it?

    Would love to support.