What is fair trade?
This was the question that tripped me up during an interview. A simple question, in theory, but at that moment, all I could remember from my preparation was their clean website formatting and something about good environmental practices and no child labour.
The international fair trade system, led by the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO), seeks to address extreme poverty, climate change, and global economic challenges.
A WFTO member, Fair Trade Forum – India (FTF-I), seeks to ensure “a dignified income and overall development of artisans, farmers and workers in the unorganised sector”.
At the time, I, fortunately, offered an answer that convinced my future mentors that I could understand the concept in the future.
I did understand that this was an opportunity to tell people’s stories and find out what was important to them. But I did not yet understand what would make these stories uniquely “fair trade”. When I arrived at my host organisation, my mentor asked me again, “Do you know how to describe fair trade?”
Still, I struggled to put it into words. At this point, I understood fair trade in India was connected to handicrafts and artisans, less so to the fair trade product with which I was most familiar: chocolate.
Upon arrival, I was handed multiple booklets and materials to read to expand my understanding. I interrogated my coworkers and researched academic analysis of this field’s effectiveness for poverty eradication. My limited understanding connected fair trade to fair business and labour practices; I could not decide if fair trade organisations were inherently conservative or radical.
As I scoured the Fair Trade Forum–India website and booklets, I scribbled down notes. A previous annual report offered these definitions of the term:
“Sustainable consumption and production.”
“Organised social movement and market-based approach to empowering developing country producers and promoting sustainability.”
“Fair Trade provides marginalised producers with a chance to succeed at the marketplace that generally excludes them and offers consumers the means to make their purchasing power a force for real social and economic change needed for inclusive growth.”
Fair Trade Forum India also strives to be the “unified voice of grassroots producers all over India”.
But not every description was academic or technical. I started to understand that handicrafts are more than just a business for fair trade for India. In that same annual report, Fair Trade Forum–India drew inspiration from a quote from the 1982 film Gandhi, spoken by the actor, Rohini Hattangad, depicting Kasturba Gandhi:
“There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.”
I had no idea that fair trade could be Gandhian.
Like any human endeavour, it is an imperfect system. The efforts for “fair” wages must still compete with the demands of a market that often rewards low production costs, including low costs for the work of the producers themselves.
I finally understood both the intentions of the Fair Trade Movement and the challenges to a system attempting to guarantee fair labour practices, but I did not understand what this impact looked like for employees and members of fair trade organisations (FTOs) themselves.
As I began to visit, stay, and interview at FTOs, I asked each of my interviewees what fair trade meant to them.
Some answers were standard, encompassing a basic definition of fair trade.
But many others described a work environment that felt like a family, a source of employment where they felt their supervisors and coworkers looked out for them.
Now that my field visits are completed, the Self Help Initiative Linking Progressive Artisans, or SHILPA Trust, in Bengaluru, comes to mind as an FTO that exemplifies several sides of the subject.
SHILPA started as a producer group, led by producers to eliminate the middleman. It acted as a resource organisation to assist and connect artisans in the traditional crafts in the area: woodcarving, lacquer ware, screen printing, batik, silk, and more.
Speaking with several members, I heard how SHILPA supported role artisans to continue practising their traditional crafts in a way that was financially sustainable. I also found how SHILPA sought to break tradition by eliminating exploitative middle management systems between artisans and buyers and to support artisans with scholarships for their children and health insurance.
Even further, SHILPA began training women in crafts historically male-dominated, such as woodcarving and lacquer ware. It became clear to me that SHILPA was seeking to make these handicrafts more accessible and inclusive for those who may not be considered “traditional craftspersons”.
I am still uncovering what “fair trade” is and its positives and negatives, but with each visit, I have gotten closer to understanding the efforts and impacts of the movement in India.
In the words of M Bhupathy, Secretary of SHILPA Trust, “We have to follow those principles for the betterment of the people engaged in this craft… by including technology and designs; and knowing the demand of the market, the certification and quality process. If we follow all of these things, we can develop the lives of the artisans as well as sell the products to the consumers.”
About the Author: Kara Morgan has worked with Fair Trade Forum – India and Fair Trade Connection as an AIF Clinton Fellow to amplify the voices of fair trade organizations and their impacts on the artisan and farmer communities around the country. She is a political science and international affairs graduate of Northeastern University, fell in love with India during a month-long academic trip focused on the impacts of climate change and resilience efforts around the subcontinent in 2014. She returned the following year to lead the next group of students. Armed with her appreciation for storytelling and journalism experience at an anti-corruption media organization in Bosnia and Herzegovina and for an environmental organization in the U.S.