Sunday, May 17, 2009

Fair Trade Trips, Finns, and Futures

One of my first official Fair Trade gatherings was the 2002 convening of the NEWS! (Network of European World Shops) conference in Belgium. It was there that I met a delegation from Finland, who shared with modest pride the story of a cargo ship—dubbed Estelle—destined with humanitarian supplies for Angola. Although I don’t recall the names of any of the Finns I spoke to, I remember clearly how friendly they were to me (the only American at the conference in post-9/11 days) and how earnest they were about the symbolism and the impact of a Fair Trade journey from their country's shores to Africa.

Those good people of Finland have been on my mind this month as the United States has endeavored to win back from Finland the record for World’s Largest Fair Trade Break. I did my part at an event in Hyattsville, Maryland, hosted by the Book Nook and featuring Ten Thousand Villages from Alexandria, Virginia. Although the results won’t be out for another week or so, there is a small part of my American heart rooting for the Finns to retain the record.

But beyond friendly competition, the occasion of World Fair Trade Day got me reflecting on the Fair Trade movement. I was bemused, flipping through the NEWS! conference agenda dated by seven years, to see topics that are still relevant today:

• The Definition of Fair Trade (I recently posted about "who owns the Fair Trade movement" and "ownership" connotes controlling definitions)
• The Impact of Fair Trade (The topic of a chapter in my 2007 book was "Yes, But Does It Work?" )
• Fair Trade in Supermarkets: Threat or Opportunity (we could just replace the word “supermarket" with "big box stores”)
• Fair Trade: A Model or Symbol (the familiar debate of are we reforming the market system or replacing it with an alternative)

In fact, some of these topics were conspired at the Fair Trade Futures conference I helped convene in 2005 in Chicago.

Does this mean that the Fair Trade movement is stuck, asking the same questions over and over but not getting anywhere? Or is this a reflection of how young the movement is—asking itself essential questions of identity and power? For me, I think it is a little bit of both. But more that that, it is a sign that the movement is small and still shaped by a relative handful of organizations and individuals, here and around the world. We keep having conferences—and I am working to make another event happen here in the States in 2010—for a couple of reasons: some questions are perennial and unanswerable, for one thing. Also, the movement is young and attracting fresh interest in different communities throughout the world. And, to expand and diversify, the movement needs events and meeting places to attract new voices and views.

At the 2002 conference in Belgium, someone at a plenary challenged, “We say we are a movement, let’s move!” With another successful World Fair Trade Day celebrated in 80 countries, I think we can take satisfaction that we are moving forward. Maybe we are slow, like a cargo ship, but we have creativity, commitment. Millions of struggling artisans and farmers are willing to join us on the journey.

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