The early days of fairtrade – a personal story

I gave a lecture last night to a warm and wonderful audience of four hundred people at Keele University as part of their World Affairs series. To start, I told something of my story, a personal view of the early days of the Fairtrade Mark…

I am not well-known, a politician or an academic guru.  When I left education, I had a degree in philosophy and two words of career advice from the university (“good luck”).

I was shallow, middle class, but a Live Aid generation kid – concerned and also optimistic about most things. 

One of the initiatives I helped to get going, with a team of others, was an idea to engage consumers in the challenge of global development.  

We had the oddest inspiration which was the quality label, Woolmark. 

 Woolmark dates back to 1964. It is a simple beautiful label, which has an intriguing story.  

At a time when nylon, polyester and acrylic were on the rise, sheep farmers in Australia recruited a jury of designers and launched an international competition to create the Woolmark. One of the jury, Franco Grignani, couldn’t resist and entered the competition under a pseudonym. He died in 1999, never admitting he was the author. 

What we wanted to do, as one of the team leaders, Martin Newman, said was to do for global justice what Woolmark had done for sweaters. 

You wouldn’t have given us much odds – if you were a pessimist that is.

Of course, fair trade was available already in specialist outlets, thanks to pioneers such as Traidcraft and Michael Barrat Brown’s TWIN. We were encouraged by the example of a coffee label that had gone mainstream produced by a co-operative of indigenous farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico (UCIRI, Union de Comunidades Indígenas de la Región del Istmo), sold to supermarket customers in the Netherlands under the label of Max Havelaar. 

To succeed, we thought we needed a different name. Max Havelaar is famous in Holland, and its former colonies, as someone who resisted Dutch imperialism. But not outside. 

We also thought that we needed not just a label but a set of fair trade rules that would form the basis of a system of certification.  

So we called it the Fairtrade Mark. It was me that removed the space between ‘fair’ and ‘trade’, which still pains me a little, from an English language perspective, when I see it on products, but meant that it could be trade marked as this was not a word in everyday usage. 

 Together with Belinda Coote, then at Oxfam, in the lead, and Richard Adams, one of the key movers, I helped to write the first criteria. They were pretty poor, but they were a start. 

The development agencies backed the project. Meanwhile, pioneers such as Equal Exchange, TWIN and Traidcraft did the hard work of developing one of the first products, Cafédirect, with an emphasis on quality, ready to carry the Mark. 

What we faced, initially, were pessimists. I remember one supermarket chief saying to a colleague, Pauline Tiffen, that he wasn’t going to stock fair trade goods, because only vicars would be mad enough to buy them. 

He was wrong. Well, half wrong. The vicars have been a good market for us. 

Marks and Spencer couldn’t believe that any label would be more trusted than Marks and Spencer (only a short period before investigations into workers rights and child labour hit the headlines)

The Co-op was the first retailer to open the doors 

Today, fairtrade is the best known social label in the world, benefiting over seven million people in impoverished farming communities around the world. 

Three quarters of all fair trade is now produced by co-operatives.  

Of course, it is not all perfect. Beyond fair trade, the wider position of 500 million smallholder farmers around the world and their terms of trade has not always improved. The extension of the mark to plantations, such as for bananas, brought questions around labour rights, particularly for seasonal workers, the US has split off from the international fairtrade movement, in part to work more closely with corporate retail outlets, and there has always been the challenge of turning trade into lasting development.  

 But it has value. A life spent in ethical business and markets has made me now, what I call, a ‘sceptical optimist’. I believe that the fear that you can’t do everything shouldn’t prevent you from doing something. 


3 thoughts on “The early days of fairtrade – a personal story

  1. This is a thoughtful way of reminding us all that the somethings do become more than the parts! Plus a nice trip back in time for me personally! Pauline

  2. I had NO IDEA you were part of the team behind the Fairtrade mark. Great job! So what else have you been up to? #goesofftoreadWikipediabiog.

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