Saturday, September 12, 2009

Celebrating SERRV and Signing up for the Next 60 Years

Last night I had the fun of celebrating the staff and volunteers of SERRV, a Fair Trade Organization featured in the "fair trade histories" chapter of my book. SERRV was founded 60 years ago and has been instrumental in creating the Fair Trade movement we know today. The anniversary party the SERRV folks generously hosted last night at their New Windsor, Maryland facilities was a time to reflect on the principles that have made SERRV so successful. It was also a chance to toast the people—-many of whom I am proud to call friends--who infuse the organization with great talent and persistent commitment to the Fair Trade values.

SERRV International started as a program of a faith-based organization, the Church of the Brethren, and then became independent in 1999. Its name was originally an acronym for Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation and Vocation, reflecting its start as an income generation project through the sale of wooden cuckoo clocks carved by refugees in Germany. Across the years SERRV has worked to eradicate poverty through direct connections with low-income artisans and farmers in 35 countries. The name is now less an acronym and more an ethos: to SERRV.

Giséle Fleurant, Executive Director of Comite Artisanal Haitien, was on hand at the party to thank SERRV for its long-standing commitment. She noted that across the years and struggles the people of Haiti have faced, SERRV has been a steadfast customer of products such as hand-hammered and cut recycled oil drums (The photo of me at the SERRV store has some Haitian artwork in the background). Mike Muchilwa, a co-founder of Cooperation for Fair Trade in Africa, also spoke passionately and personally about how SERRV enables often-exploited artisans like the carvers of Nyabigena Soapstone cooperative in Kenya to access markets on fair terms that respect the dignity of the producers and invest back in their home communities.

Recently SERRV re-branded itself, dropping “international” from its name and fashioning a new logo and minimalist look for its catalog. Despite these recent enhancements, SERRV’s values haven’t changed much along the way. It simply and humbly approaches producers as partners, seeking joint solutions to the challenges of poverty. It offers ideas for production techniques, makes grants of financial resources, and markets products through direct sales, the internet and catalogs. With my day job at CRS, I’m been fortunate to be alongside SERRV staff in Ghana and Madagascar, and I have witnessed them as creative, caring, no-nonsense professionals committed to empowering communities.

Paul Myers, President of the World Fair Trade Organization, pointed out in his remarks that the long-standing practices of SERRV have paved the way for more mainstream companies such as Cadbury in the United Kingdom to enter the Fair Trade marketplace. If it had not been for the pioneers of organizations such as SERRV, the Fair Trade market would not have grown to more than a $1.5 billion dollars here in the States with 5 billion producers benefiting from increased income and expanded opportunities world wide.

Paul noted that the Fair Trade movement was now on the cusp of a new era. Many gathered nodded their gray hairs (mine included!) in agreement, but I don’t think many of us thought that the Fair Trade movement is going to coast easily into such a new period. There are many challenges facing the movement-- from organizational conflicts, to exclusionary practices among producers, to consumer confusion. Like any movement we are filled with fallible human beings. With 60 years experience we are finding that our shortcomings can slow us down at best and do damage at worst.

What gives me hope for the future is a conversation I had with a woman named Sally Keller. Over post-party breakfast, Sally related to me how a personal invitation to become more deeply involved in SERRV led her to a life of professional and volunteer Fair Trade service. She operates a store, Global Village Crafts, in her Utah and travels with her husband to countries such as Peru and Nepal to do development work. She does it not to get rich or travel to “exotic places.” Fair Trade makes sense to Sally. She has witnessed the difference it makes to the people she meets along the way. She, as a SERRV volunteer, is a fine example of a movement that works in direct, meaningful ways to transform lives and communities.

As long as folks like Sally are signed up for another 60 years, so am I.


  1. Hi Jacki,

    What an inspiration SERRV has been and remains for those of us just beginning our fair trade support journey.

    Unfortunately, I too sense the challenges that confront the positive progression of a fairer trading system for all.

    I was particularly interested in your comment about the challenge of "exclusionary practices among producers". While I have some understanding of the other challenges I am not sure what you meant by this challenge. Would you be willing to share more about what you undestand by these 'exclusionary producer practices'

    I was also affirmed by Sally's great story and live in hope!

    Many Thanks

  2. Hi scott, i'll post when I get back from vacation. But in the meantime maybe otherreaders have their own examples....?

  3. Scott and all, Thanks for your patience and for the question.

    First I want to say that I haven't been "in the field" for about a year now and so I am more and more having to rely on second-hand assessments of the state of the movement in producer countries. But the specific reference I was making about producers sometimes excluding each other comes from a trusted colleague, a trader, who works primarily in India. He was lamenting the catch 22 that some artisans find themselves in as they try to access a growing Fair Trade marketplace.

    While it is true that the demand for Fair Trade is growing and that theoretically means that more producers will be able to sell their products to meet demand, what is sometimes happening is that those associations who hold contracts are not eager or able to welcome new artisans into their business or NGO. One reason may be because the "new" artisans can't yet meet quality or volume requirements. Also my colleague's experience was that sometimes the producer groups who hold contracts want to "protect their market share" as it were. To add new artisans to their roles would be to dilute the income generation for existing members.

    I raised this dynamic not to point a particular finger or to discredit artisan groups in general, but more to acknowledge that the Fair Trade system is not perfect. I also want to try and make sure we recognize that all those involved in the value chain are subject to difficult decisions and choices.

    The principles of Fair Trade are very appealing on many levels but their practice is sometimes hobbled by all-too-human realities. In our passion for Fair Trade I don't want to mythologize producers or aggrandize FT businesses. That said, I still think Fair Trade points us in the right direction and helps us find the best way forward.

    Hope this clarification helps and I'd be interested in any reactions.


  4. HI Jackie,

    Thanks so much! Your response was certainly worth waiting for. I can now understand what you were referring to as 'exclusionary producer practices'.

    It is an interesting and challenging issue. I imagine confidence by producers in their partnerships arrangements with others in the supply chain would help in some way, but it is like most fair trading issues multifacited!!

    I really appreciate your sharing your understandings!