Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Be Change, Don't Just Buy Change

Regular readers know I’ve been struggling a bit with Fair Trade. The rhetoric hasn’t been matching the reality I’ve come across. Recent discouragements include an importer explaining that—even with evidence that minimum prices set a decade ago are not enough for producers—the company can still be proudly “Fair Trade” because it meets the basic requirements of the system. I’ve heard a Fair Trade leader dismiss concerns that a cooperative isn’t managing its books well enough to trace the money back to the farmers. This company wasn’t concerned about lack of financial accountability because, when it comes down to it, most small organizations don’t master that level of detail. Perhaps most unsettling and upsetting is when I hear from people whom I have personally encouraged to run Fair Trade businesses. Year after year they report not drawing salaries, tapping personal savings.

Am I promoting something that isn’t working for producers or businesses? Is Fair Trade really business as usual, just dressed in do-good clothing? Am I sticking with the movement not because it addresses poverty and builds communities, but because it is what I know?

I am digging into these questions by talking to friends and colleagues and refreshing my memory on key thinkers who have inspired me. I dusted off books like Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Peter Berger’s Invitation to Sociology. I renewed my interest in the work of Margaret Wheatley, Pema Chodron, and Gandhi.

What I began to realize--or remember--is that while there are true disappointments in my work, it is foolish to look for the perfect system to promote. A colleague from Ghana once pointed out to me that all institutions are filled with human beings, so all will be flawed. I am setting myself and others up for failure if I imagine Fair Trade, or those who make it possible, perfect. Sometimes commitments to high standards can be emotional tricks that lead to self-defeating arrogance.

What is called for is not a pure point of view. What is called for is “total involvement with total detachment.” Part of the reason Fair Trade was failing in my eyes was that I was focused on the outcomes of Fair Trade instead of its mechanisms. In striving for a system without blemish, even for a elevated place of influence within, I was leaving behind my truth: that the process is more important than the product. I am not called to encourage millions of people to buy a certain type of product. I’m called to help create a movement that welcomes millions of people of good will into it.

Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” He didn't say "Buy the right products from the right companies doing all the right things right now." He and others who I look to for wisdom, including many who have reached out to me on this blog or via Facebook, didn't really call for pure perfection so much as right intention.

I don't have to have all the answers, and I still have many concerns that the Fair Trade system isn't always credible and falls short of delivering meaningful impacts. But I and my colleagues don't have to be spotless. For myself, I have to make sure my point of view is grounded in my core values, is tested by those touched by my work, and is offered in a ways that creates solutions.

Thank you for being part of my personal reality-checks and part of the movement's way forward. I hope to meet you along the way or read your reactions and experiences on the web.


  1. Jacqueline,

    Just stumbled upon your blog while doing some FT research. A friend and I are headed to Central America this fall to research producers for a very small clothing line. Fair trade, of course; although certification may be more difficult than we anticipate.

    Just wanted to let you know that I've learned a lot here in a short time. I'll be reading!


  2. Anonymous10:01 AM

    Hello Jacqueline,

    Great article once again. Can I ask which company was labeled FT while they paid below necessary prices? Or the source for this information? I am currently researching how FT holds up in the reality of free trade, and it would really help me if you would share that.

    Thanks in advance!


  3. Teresa and Kristin,

    I'm glad to know my postings are helpful.

    In terms of calling out the company that persisted in paying minimums, I'd prefer not to do that. For one thing, I try not to be in the finger-pointing camp (there is definitely a role for respectful corporate activism of that sort, but I just don't play that role.) And it wouldn't be "corporate" call outs because the folks I have am fortunate to know and work with are usually mission-based companies who are struggling a lot more mightily than many corporations to achieve fair business models. Yes, I get disappointed when they fall short and I tell them so, try to offer my perspective, etc. But I am not going to dilute trust or tarnish their brands to make a point.

    That said, I'm sure, Teresa, in your research you are coming across products that FLO certifies whose prices or required wages have not been raised in more than a decade. Start there and perhaps check in with TransFair USA (now called Fair Trade USA) about which licensees have a history of committing to more than minimum in a particular sector (as I describe in my book about several members of Cooperative Coffees).

    Hope it doesn't sound like I am sending you on a detective mission, but I think process of elimination might work for you. I hope you will share the outcome of your research with me and the readers!