Sunday, November 25, 2007

Fair Trade is Not for Everyone?

Before Thanksgiving I was invited by the NYU Oxfam group to join them to talk about the "How, What and Why" of Fair Trade. Cosponsors of the event--Joe Falcone of Fair Trade Apparel, Anne Lally of Fair Trade Resource Network, and Scott Codey of NYC Fair Trade Coalition, joined with Brittany (I missed her last name!) of the Oxfam club for a pre-event dinner at Think Coffee, a cool and comfy coffeehouse that had co-sponsored my book launch a few months back. Once we got on the Greenwich village campus we gathered with about two dozen students for a lively discussion.

The group was very fortunate to have two business people join in, and I want to share dilemmas posed by David Bolotsky of Uncommon Goods. I knew of the company through its catalog, which I receive just about this time every year. I never made a purchase because, although the home decor and gift items looked really unique, I didn't know the company and it wasn't affiliated with any associations that I use to screen companies, such as the Fair Trade Federation. Its literature talked about social responsibility, but I wasn't sure if that was just a marketing ploy. It was great to meet David and hear about his passion for greater economic and social justice to workers in both the developed and developing world. He also helped the NYU group recognize that as Fair Trade currently exists it doesn't technically include his company.

One of the criteria of Fair Trade is that producers are organized into democratic associations or cooperatives, but David, as a seller of manufactured goods such as wall clocks or sculpture hand-crafted by an independent artist, doesn't fit that "standard." He personally screens the artists and vendors that he sources from, but given the variety of his company's offerings and the realities of production he technically isn't Fair Trade. Besides keeping his company from being able to claim "Fair Trade" status, David expressed the concern that requiring cooperative ownership/democratic decision-making may have the unintended consequence of limiting the number of workers assisted. Business models like his don't "fit" into the Fair Trade definition promoted by folks like me.

He's got a very good point. I try always to stress that Fair Trade is "a" solution in confronting poverty and inequality not "THE solution" given the variety of circumstances that materially poor people face around the world. If you are starving and are too weak to work, for example, a booming Fair Trade marketplace isn't the support you need immediately. Likewise, not all businesses that are worthy of consumer support get a Fair Trade endorsement for just some of the reasons David mentioned--he is a sole proprietor, some of his producer partners are not democratically organized, and his business practices, while sustainable, don't garner a label like "USDA Organic."

What options does David have?

That's the question he posed to me, and I came up pretty short, as none of my typical "go to" associations like Coop America or the BALLE network seemed to be a "home" for Uncommon Goods. I am hoping that is more a reflection of my ignorance than possibilities for his company. So I turn the question to you bloggers. Do you have ideas for entrepreneurs like David who want communicate to consumers that they feature merchandise created in harmony with the environment and without harm to animals or people but who don't fit the current Fair Trade model?

I know this is a busy season for many of us, but in the spirit of giving, if you have ideas or advice, please post them!


  1. He should start his own organization in his city/state for "socially responsible businesses". He can use the term fair trade if he pleases (as long as he doesn't say he's "certified"), and he can invite others to join his organization. There is strength in numbers, and it'll give him something to back his ideals up.

    Of course, the organization should have a clear structure, mission statement, and facilitate networking amongst socially responsible businesses in the area.

    This is a quick idea, I'll think of more.

  2. Anonymous9:05 PM

    Thanks for taking this on, Jacqueline. I also don't meet all the
    criteria, though I sell rugs directly from Moroccan women on the
    internet pro bono at and click Women
    Weavers OnLine link. They are not organized into coops [which I've
    found can often be exploitative of uneducated people]. So I'll be
    checking your blog for solutions.

    Best regards,
    Susan Schaefer Davis

  3. Anonymous9:06 PM

    Hi Jackie!
    I just would like to say kudos for bringing this up. I personally fit in this category as well since I am a Personal Chef and Private Baker that uses organic, local, and Fair trade products and actively supports Fair Trade groups in my area (Houston). I tried for months to reach Transfair to find out how I could maybe use the wording "Fair Trade" on my client's food packaging for gifts, but I couldn't even get a phone call or e-mail back because I guess it doesn't fit in any category.
    So...needless to say, I just quietly support Fair Trade and speak about it's benefits when interviewing a new client. I removed most of the Fair Trade ties from my business homepage not to cross any lines, but I kept an Oxfam link. Also if you look in my Q&A, I talk alot about it So, us little folks depend on word-of-mouth a lot!!! Let me know if anyone else has any ideas for me or you! Thanks!
    Bridget, owner of Fudgette

  4. Anonymous8:14 AM


    This is my take on the issue (just MY opinion). As a 'proprietor' of an 'independent, non-profit, fair trade store', this is an issue that comes up frequently and is of frequent discussion for our Board of Directors. We started out only buying from FTF or IFAT members only (they having the resources and credibility to determine and assure that they met the FT guidelines), and since then, we have met many entrepreneurs who are doing good work and for whatever reason are not FTF or IFAT certified.

    In addition, as FAIR TRADE become more known, there are companies that may imply that their 'ethnic-line of home design products' help those who need it most, but may not really be committed to FT principles for the long haul, in addition, they continue to work with sweatshops around the world, subjugating workers for meager pay and unfair labor practices. This is what we refer to in our BOD meetings a 'Fair Trade' (upper case) and (lower case) 'fair trade'.

    We carry some natural organic clothing, for some of these suppliers it makes sense to become certified organic through the 'Green Clothes' or other associations, not the FTF or IFAT. Church groups and or family members may have connections in other parts of the world where they formed a relationship and informal partnership. I have found a line of soup and cookie mixes that is a community-based job & life skills training program that may use non-fair-trade chocolate chips in their mixes. Does that mean I should not support them? Personally I think not, they are helping lift people up, I should however support and encourage them to move in that direction.

    Since we are a non-profit and committed to transparency (as well as being open to audit), we came up with our own 'producer-partner guidelines' (FTF suppliers, the Fair Trade Resource Network, the Fair Trade Federation and Jackie were all sources that were consulted when developing these) for us to use with non-FTF eligible producers. Once they are interviewed and have the form completed, it is then reviewed by our Retail Advisory Committee who makes a yes/no recommendation to our BOD. We feel that shows that we have made a good-faith effort to do due diligence. We also keep that paperwork on file.

    Finally, I'd like to share a story, my 84-year old mother likes to sew, unfortunately, her eyesight is such that she can no longer follow a traditional pattern. We get donated old, out-dated upholstery samples, she sews them up on three sides and adds a woven strap handle. She donates them to local churches, scout troops who fill them with toys/school supplies and give to needy children. This has given her a renewed sense of purpose and contribution. We started to use them in our store as 'recycled shopping bags' for our customers. Customers wanted to purchase them, so we began selling them for $5 each.

    Was the person who made the original material paid a fair wage? What about the strapping, the thread? I don't know. The person who makes the bags wants to contribute toward a better world and raise issues about fair trade and sustainability, so looking at intent and educating our consumers about these issues helps tip the scales.

    Most Americans seem very concerned about the lead paint on our cheap plastic toys (and as a parent, I don't want my child exposed to these materials). Yet so many here, gloss over the fact that a worker may be painting these products with little or no protective gear for longer than reasonable hours for sweatshop pay, receiving a much higher exposure to lead than our children ever will receive, even if they ate Barbie's head, so we can buy cheap products and line the pockets of big box stores. However, the good news is, many American consumers are concerned for that individual.

    Jackie, Thanks for bringing this issue to light, I hope discussion will continue. I don't know if this provides answers, hopefully together we can come up with ideas that are helpful. That is what makes this forum so useful.

    Blessings for a great Holiday.
    Kevin Frahm, Executive Director
    The Mission Marketplace

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