The Fair Trade Revolution–review

In The Fair Trade Revolution, editor John Bowles observes that 5% of people have a strong understanding of the ethics of fair trade and another 20% are empathic; does it mean 75% are uncaring? How many are (strongly) opposed, like this is some communist plot? Will we fair traders always be the vocal minority?

Fair trade, the book points out, is about healthy growers and a healthy environment, as well as healthy consumers. Body Shop founder Anita Roddick looked to fair trade to supply sesame oil and traveled to Nicaragua to see its harvesting first-hand:

‘Nicaragua has a special place in my heart. This tiny country overthrew a brutal dictator in a popular revolution in 1979 only to face a long, bloody civil war provoked and then sustained by Ronald Reagan and the United States, covertly, illegally and in defiance of the country’s own Congress. I went to Nicaragua in 2001, a decade after the end of the revolution and the Contra war. I stayed in the northern hills with the farming cooperatives of Achuapa that is a community trade supplier of sesame oil for The Body Shop…. Wherever I went, I met amazing, organized, committed people. For all the hardships Nicaraguans have endured and the efforts of successive right-wing governments to dismantle the social apparatus of the revolution, the spirit lives on!’

The book contends that ‘even through the coffee crisis the fair trade movement was accomplishing…the impossible,’ with a network of people, social and environmental ethics, respect and trust, and on-going innovations. As an anthology, it presents many voices from around the world. We hear first-hand how drought affects food-growing, which in turn affects lives.

However, the heart of the fair trade debate, as presented in the book, is whether its ethics and practices can grow big and expand to larger entities such as plantations and multi-national corporations, or must remain small and work with farmers’ cooperatives and little stores. How do we preserve the ethical intention while bringing growers and consumers together?

Ethics and practices link not only in the market, but also in schools, churches, towns and villages. Indeed, ‘Fairtrade Towns are not about special people in special places but about ordinary people in ordinary places doing very special things.’ People, whatever their walk in life, want to do the right thing, the ethical thing, for both grower and consumer. This is not new in human hearts, this compassion, but now it is global in reach.

The book observes that there is a ‘growing distaste’ for corporations and supermarkets, even overseas. Facts are not enough; people want action, but lobbying and such is hard work, with rare results; but, ‘fair trade works every time’ it and broadens the appeal of justice. Specifically, the book examines corporate social responsibiltiy and Cadbury’s origins in the nineteenth century and Cadbury’s ethos today, using chocolate ‘because of the stark–even obscene–contrast between the pleasure derived from eating it and the suffering that goes into making it.’ When people buy a Dairy Milk, they buy dinner for someone far, far away.

It contrasts differing theories of change, from the Fair Trade USA (formerly TransFair USA) desire to maximize sales growth and work with big multinational corporations and learn the language of the boardroom, to others–many alternative traders, some farmers–who want higher corporate barriers, fearing that big corporations would crush alternative traders and political and social change. Fair Trade USA eventually brought Starbucks and Dole into the fair trade movement–even though their fair trade sales are a very small percentage of the whole–thereby gaining increased visibility, participation, sales, and demand, but being accused of collaboration by those with an anti-corporation agenda.

A Nicaraguan points out, ‘We in Nicaragua still proudly refer to revolution. Others talk of caring, following your heart and doing your duty. Whatever it is or however we like to describe it, it is about striving to contribute to a better world through concrete actions. One day in the future, we will look back  and ask: ‘Why was trade ever unfair?”

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