Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Our Values, Our Fair Trade Principles"

Ethical principles form the foundation of the Fair Trade, and when discussing these principles in practice we are really talking about the way business should be conducted around the world on a day-to-day basis, placing people and planet above profit and private gains. The principles are not a political ideology, but sensible, humane and logical aspirations for living on a shared planet.

In the last series, "From Principles to Practices", I focused on the importance of breaking down principles to an everyday occurrence. Coincidentally on June 20th, I received a weekly newsletter from Carola Reintjes, Chief Executive of the World Fair Trade Organization. In this newsletter she presented a terrific idea for promoting Fair Trade principles. With the permission of WFTO, I have reprinted that newsletter here:

Dear members, dear FAIR traders,
Shalom, Jambo, Dobar dan, Bula Wantok, Buenos días, Good day, Ciao, Bom dia, Nihao, Asalamou Aleikoum, Bonjour, Mabuhay, Konnichi wa, Namaste!
Today I would like to share with you a very simple proposal. I strongly believe in the simple and small things in life. Simple things and small gestures can have high impact, and can potentially change lives.
If a journalist asked you what it is that makes you different from other business, some of you might tell a long story, others might just say “We are fair traders”. But when this journalist keeps on insisting (surely a habit which characterizes all journalists around the globe), and asks what makes a Fair Trade Organization different from conventional companies, our answers will be very similar. We might not use the same words, we might express in multiple forms, but we will try to tell the journalist that our business is based on values. Some of us might mention our Fair Trade principles. The journalist will feel our pride when we explain to him/her our value-based approach to production and trade.
At the Mombasa AGM we approved our new WFTO Fair Trade System for membership, monitoring and certification which has at its core our 10 principles. We slightly changed the wording of our principles and incorporated the cultural identity into one of our principles. 
We would like to challenge you around our 10 principles. Can you imagine yourself, your colleagues, all employees, workers and producers knowing our principles? Just imagine! It would be very powerful.
Just imagine a visitor coming to see you, a buyer, a consultant, or an auditor. Imagine whomever he/she asks about your values, about the principles, and about how you incorporate these principles into your daily work, there will not be 50 different answers but only one common answer: a clear reference to our principles, and a clear explanation on how you work with these principles, how your organizations embeds them into your daily work.

Now my simple proposal:  
  •  Print our Fair Trade principles; 
  •  Make sure you only use the recent version approved at the Mombasa AGM; 
  •  (Download) the document in English (see below) and Spanish (see at bottom);
  •  Eliminate all previous versions from your files, only use this last version; 
  •  Distribute copies to your colleagues, employees, workers and producers; 
  •  Hang them on your wall at your work-place (desk, table, wall, …); 
  •  Assure everybody does the same; 
  •  Try to organize a short session every week, or ask for it to be organized; 
  •  During the session discuss collectively one of the principles (one every week); 
  •  In ten weeks your staff, workers and producers will have gone through a wonderful training on the 10 principles; 
  • Tell us about your sessions, tell us about your good experience,  but as well about the problems you come across when implementing the principles; 
  • Take photos during the sessions, film your sessions; 
  • Share your experience, photos, film, drawings, with us; 
  • We would like to share your good experience with other members, we will tell your story to motivate others.
This simple proposal is meant for all of us, producer organizations and marketing organizations, manufacturers and traders, exporters and importers, wholesalers and retailers. Don’t just assume that in your organization people are well trained on our principles, just because your organization has been in Fair Trade business for 20 or 30 years.
You might need to translate the principles into your local language/s.
You might need to convert them into graphics, drawings.
We surely cannot make the mistake to be exclusive around our values.  

All of our employees, workers and producers have a right to clearly understand what they are working for. Many hours of their live will be dedicated to Fair Trade, so we better make sure we reach out to all the people we are responsible for.
Our Fair Trade principles are our family silver. They make us unique in a highly competitive and exploitative world out there. Let us make sure we dedicate the attention our values deserve, and let us make sure each of the persons we are responsible for in our organization clearly understands and implements each of the principles.
We wish you a GOOD week, and an interesting first session,
On behalf of the Secretariat,
WFTO © 2011
WFTO 10 Fair Trade Principles June2011-2

I like this idea because Carola's proposal is practical. It requires no costly effort and is essential to the sustainability of the Fair Trade Movement. More importantly, this activity needs to be done by organizations throughout the supply chain! There are many creative ways to make this a fun interactive and memorable activity. The best way to transfer ownership of these principles is through providing opportunities for staff and workers to teach others!  

The Principles of Fair Trade in Bahasa Indonesia,
at the workshop of a Mitra Bali silversmith

Most producer groups Chou and I met with on this journey had some degree of knowledge of the Fair Trade principles. Admittedly, there was room for improvement for some and an activity such as Carola suggests will definitely improve the situation. When principles are not shared with producers and key people within a Fair Trade Organization it can have disastrous results. In Cambodia, we witnessed how Fair Trade can fail those it is intended to benefit when the principles of Fair Trade were not integrated into the day-to-day operations and were not passed on to empower the craftswomen and men. Admittedly, it was the most challenging post to write because it was contrary to the results I had hoped to publish. 

In that blog post I
asked myself, "What do I do when I go to listen to the voices of Fair Trade, but the voices are absent? By absent, it is not that they are missing as in people do not want to share their views on what Fair Trade means to them... I found myself asking, what happens when, for no fault of their own, the very people who you go to listen to, don’t have an answer because they don’t know what you are asking?"  For insight to the personal and organizational effects of disregarding the principles, you can read the blog post:

However, the practice of our shared principles is not for producers alone! I can name at least one American certified Fair Trade importer who could really use Carola's activity (Read: Coffee Part II - "It's not my Problem"), and from what I have heard, it sounds like the problem is more wide spread than we would like to admit. 

Since starting this blog, I occasionally receive emails from people who plan to take similar journeys related to Fair Trade. Sometimes they are socially conscious backpackers, other times they may have something they wish to contribute to the Fair Trade movement and feel that a journey to meet producers is a good approach. Recently, I received an email from a Fair Trade / Environmental Activist in Spain. He shared his plan to conduct a journey of his own to follow-up on Fair Trade. However, as an advocate he expressed a sincere concern regarding the Fair Trade Movement in Spain that should be ringing alarm bells for all of us. With his permission, I reprint part of his email here: 

Hi Mitch,
I've just landed to your blog and I must sincerely congratulate for all your work and investigation in favor of fair trade. I work as environmentalist for Friends of the Earth - Spain, at the same time I'm involved in various non-prof fair trade, social and wildlife groups that keep myself happily busy and always on guard to fight for human and nature rights!!!

After many years involved in fair trade, social issues and environmental protection, I've decided to take a some time off to travel Asia and South America with the aim to visit communities and see if fair trade is really working as a catalyst for social and economic change and to value if we are all working towards building a sustainable future for both humans and nature.

I must say that there is a lack of transparency in FT issues in Spain, all shops buy direct from importers but there is a few information from importers on the real impact on communities: working conditions, families, health, education, rights,...everyone seems to be pretty happy just buying FT goods and no-one ask any further questions. To this point there are quite a few voices raising to demand more information and a real reports and analysis on FT impact on communities....but no-one seems to hear our demands.

In order to solve this lack of transparency and impact issue I've decided to travel to Asia and Latin-América to see things for myself. This journey will keep me on the move for at least two years. If everything works OK I hope to spend a year in Asia and the rest in Latin-América...

Warmest regards from Spain and all the best with your project, you are carrying out a fantastic work !!! 

I am encouraged by his personal commitment to follow-up on the impacts of Fair Trade. However, he also brings up a serious issue that directly relates to the importance of knowing the Fair Trade Principles regardless of where you find yourself in the supply chain. As an importer, retailer, consumer or advocate, how can we promote Fair Trade if we don't share the direct impacts of Fair Trade principles in a community?

One of the main motivating factors for Chou and I to embark on this journey was to learn about and present the impact of Fair Trade on producers. I have been in many Fair Trade shops and I am often disappointed that the only information about the producers is on a small sales tag. Surely Fair Trade retailers can provide more information than that! 

There are many ways to bridge the existing gap between producers and consumers. Here are a few examples that I have seen:
  • Provide handouts or brochures that offer links to producer websites.
  • Feature a simple one-page summary of a producer group each month with a couple photos.
  • Offer opportunities to travel to meet producer groups in near-by locations, or for the adventurous offer Fair Trade travel packages to foreign countries - I recently reviewed a brochure for Fair Trade tourism in Cebu, Philippines! Use the trip to take photos and get their stories to share in the store when you return!
  • Bring Fair Trade producers to connect directly with customers for a special occasion or fundraising event.
Information about the producers themselves, their community, the social issues they are addressing, and the impact of Fair Trade can be used as a selling point to connect consumers to producers; a value-added measure big box-store retailers can not offer. Unlike conventional trade, Fair Trade is intended to bridge the distance between producers and consumers; this is exactly the reason importers, retailers, their staff and Fair Trade volunteers could all benefit from Carola's suggestion. 

If the principles are understood throughout the supply chain, the information regarding the impact of Fair Trade is more readily shared! In many cases Fair Trade producers have websites and it is possible to see the impacts of Fair Trade through the information they provide. In other cases producers may not have access to the internet. In either case, the onus of responsibility for providing such information is on the importers and retailers alike

As Carola wrote, "We surely cannot make the mistake to be exclusive around our values." Find out how those principles are making a difference and share your findings!

Thank you for following our blog. Chou and I welcome your comments, ideas and suggestions as we delve into the multitude of issues surrounding Fair Trade. 

To be charitable is a virtue; 
     to be empowered is a human right. 

Fair Trade empowers the disadvantaged, integrates the marginalized, and supports the impoverished with viable livelihoods. Click here to donate to the Fair Trade.

Mitch Teberg, MA

Los Diez Principios Comercio Justo June2011


  1. Again Mitch, thanks for an informative article.

    While there is a lot of focus on Producers and their adoption of these principles, what about the retailers themselves? Are they offering employment opportunities for the disadvantaged in their own communities and capacity building? Is there adequate transparency with customers on retail pricing?

    I would like to see these Principles applied across the entire Fair Trade supply chain. OK, the retailers are providing outlets for Fair Trade products, but I think it needs to be more than this.

  2. I'll second what Indochine Natural said. As a retailer there is more to the business than just being an outlet for exclusive WFTO endorsed products. What about the role I play in the local collective, or the info I send out about FTAANZ with each order? I really need to sit down and make these part of a mission statement, so that they are properly accounted for and in the forefront of my mind as I go about the daily business.

    PS: I found your blog through a post on Etiko's FB page, thanks for sharing it.

  3. Thank again Mitch for sharing with us your work, ideas and the lastest principles and proposal from WFTO. I have downloaded both files and I already working on a post in my blog so the new documents travel worldwide.

    Also, I must say that I would also LOVE to see these Principles applied across the ENTIRE Fair Trade supply chain.

    I believe the whole Fair Trade chain and consumers should be more aware of ALL conditions and demand more transparency and comitment to FT principles "here and there".

    Also, I like to see FT community as a "life-form" that evolves and therefore I'm happy to read we keep on revising principles and goals, especially because I believe FT as a global movement will have to face a huge crisis when the Peak Oil is reached and long distance logistics become unsustainable. That said, I believe FT will have to evolve into a more local and proximity based system, therefore, I reckon actual FT goals must also focus seriously on helping communities worldwide to understand this very near issue and start developing tools and plans to develop further local commercial and responsible networks within their local regions.

    Regards from Spain Mitch and FT friends :)

  4. Thanks Playing Fair for your comment, I wish a few more Fair Trade retailers shared your view.

    What is worrying are retailers who are part of large Fair Trade franchises, as they seem particularly far removed from producers and simply rely on all decision making and supplies to come from the franchise central warehouse.

    As a Fair Trade producer ourselves, unless you are in the "clique" and lucky enough to be in with these large franchises, we have found it VERY VERY difficult (actually impossible) to break into the Fair Trade market for our products. Many we contact respond that they are supplied by one of the large wholesalers/franchises and are not interested in small independent producers such as ourselves. Admittedly, the current economic downturn isn't helping.

    Within this context, Mitch's focus on local Fair Trade makes a lot of sense.

    We agree with Jose….these Fair Principles should apply arross the entire supply chain. Why can’t Fair Trade retail stores employ the disadvantaged and provide them with capacity building as us Producers are doing…..why can’t they provide full transparency on pricing to their customers?

  5. Hi Indochine Natural. I'm sorry to hear that about the larger retailers, that sounds really frustrating. I've never tried wholesaling myself so I'm not really sure what you could do about it. Though I should say, one of my suppliers actually approached me about stocking their goods, and they're a small supplier themselves. Perhaps you could search out the little retailers and email them instead?

    As to transparency on pricing, on one hand I share your frustration as I can sometimes tell that a retailer has hiked the price up more than they should, and it irritates me to see that because it lowers throughput and so producer's share. I think however some do it because high-priced goods are perceived as being worth more (Veblen good), and at this stage (in Australia at least) we're chasing a niche market. On the other hand, how would we provide transparency on pricing to the customer without ruining the customer experience and undermining our goods? No one ever says anything about the wholesale price unless they're having a clearance sale, and for good reason. Unless the customer is a small retail owner themselves, they won't have a full appreciation of how high retail overheads can be.

  6. Thanks Playing Fair for your comments, VERY much forums such as this we hear very little, if anything, from retailers so your responses are refreshing.

    An issue for small producers to export as individuals is that shipping costs become prohibitive, and this is where the big franchises have an advantage. I have always had this dream of being able to provide capacity building to groups of small producers to band together and consolidate shipments of their products to put them on an even footing. Isn't one of the aims of Fair Trade to cut out the middlemen?

    Yes, I agree on re your point on the high retail overheads. However when we are dealing with producer partners for some of our products we clearly show our overheads in the pricing structure, and these are generally accepted.

    One of our products is produced by a group of rural based intellectually disabled, and some of the members (the NGO members) felt that the high end price in retail shops amounted to exploitation of these intellectually disabled, so we did have to do some work going through the entire supply chain....and this is what Fair Trade is all about. I just think that it should also happen at the retail end.

    I think the equation is unbalanced....heaps of compliance at the producer end (which is great) and very little at the retailer end. The core Fair Trade principles should flow through the entire supply chain.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts....we find it heartening that there are people out there who are grappling with these issues at the retail side.

  7. I forgot to add.......Mitch's focus on local Fair Trade could very well provide this catalyst for local producers to band together, consolidate shipments and export. It would be a win-win for producers and retailers and cut out these middlemen, putting retailers one step closer to producers.

  8. I know what you mean about the shipping costs; basically I lose a good deal to transport simply because of the scaling issue, and in Australia there's just no way around it. Australia's a long way from anywhere.

    I really *really* like the idea of banding together on shipping. The trick would be to find a way to coordinate ... surely there are people in Thailand doing fair trade on some other product, I could my package together with theirs, but how would we find out about each other? This sounds like something the large organisations, like FTAANZ here, would need to assist with. Perhaps an online member board where we can advertise where our desired shipment is coming from and see if anyone wants to pool with us. Would that work?

  9. My thinking exactly along the lines you have suggested Playing Fair. I would have thought that organisations such a WFTO-Asia would be working towards facilitating something like this. I'm not sure about FTAANZ and perhaps they are a bit removed from producers to be effective.

    But ultimately I would like to see this initiative come from producers themselves as a way of gaining more control of the supply chain. This coupled with local Fair Trade I think would work well.....the local Fair Trade establishes local networks, and then it is only a small step to consolidate networks across a range of products and then to consolidate shipments.

  10. So what would it be? We need a forum, with search capability. A drop-down menu so you can select your country. A calendar so you can select the range of dates between which you want to ship. A little space to write a note about the shipment you want to pool with some contact details. Would it be tricky to create? An sqlite database with django on top? It sounds pretty simple, but then I have tendency to underestimate how tricky coding for the Internet can be (a lesson learnt getting my store to play nice with Windows Internet Exploder :-))

  11. I wasn't thinking of an online forum, but more of a new mind-set amongst groups of Fair Trade producers to re-take the initiative for their own products, and as an extension to local Fair Trade.