The conference this past week has been a tremendously eye opening experience. I met a number of motivated, passionate, and caring individuals who have dedicated their lives to affirming the necessity of fair trade. Through speaking with dozens of members, I realized that there were a broad variety of different approaches concerning how exactly the Fair Trade Federation should proceed in the coming year. Some believed that fair trade should stay a movement which focuses on growing small, organized collectives. Others believed the best opportunity for change arises by working to transform large corporations which support exploitative labor. It was discussed that fair trade should return to its traditionally political roots. It was also said that fair trade communities should adopt a business approach in its attempt to instigate a change in labor practices.
As for my own perspective on these topics, I do not think any of them will produce the change we seek because all of them are wrong. From my experience at the conference, it appears that the FTF community has fallen prey to a form of divisive, bifurcated thinking which plagues stagnating organizations. No one is to hold blame for this occurrence, however, as this is a natural result of the circumstances.
Fair Trade as the Core of the FTF's Uniqueness
In a community which lacks identity, the strongest impulse is always to condense that which is scattered, to ground that which is flighty, and to solidify that which is abstract. The definition of fair trade is all of the latter and more. The 9 principles we abide by and our commitment to 360° fair trade are enough to govern the machinations of an individual business. Nevertheless, if you go deep enough within the philosophy of the Federation, you will find that the very words we use to denote our existence (the FTF) lack a stability appropriate for an endeavor of this caliber. According to the Fair Trade Federation, we understand the definition of “Fair Trade” to be:
An approach to business and to development based on dialogue, transparency, and respect that seeks to create greater equity in the international trading system.
I am not debating the importance or validity of dialogue, transparency, or respect within the definition but the use of the word “approach” when attempting to define fair trade. Approach has many different connotations depending upon it’s setting, yet the meaning important for this discussion is the one equivalent to ‘method’ or ‘perspective.’ Inherent within these synonyms is the concept of subjectivity as the root of its being. Every individual within the fair trade community has their own approach for how exactly they should conduct fair trade business. The three pronged definition acts as a guideline which allows them to develop a uniquely tailored perspective when deciding how to run their company. This method is different between every member of the FTF and, if you were to ask each member to define fair trade, you would probably get a different definition every time. When looked at from the broadest perspective, we are essentially a community running on fair trade spirit. There is something beyond us which guides the entirety of our Federation. Every person has a unique micro-approach that collectively works to dictate how the whole organization is to move. As Chris Solt often says, “This is your organization.” The direction of this collective cannot be and has never been dictated by a single person. Essentially, we have a general understanding of the fair trade movement which we are trying to interpret through our specific experiences. I believe that this disconnect is the cause behind why the FTF has failed at raising their membership over the past few years. We lack a truly shared understanding of fair trade, something which would act as a unificatory force within the community itself.
Collaboration as the Solution to Stagnation
There is a famous allegory which tells of numerous men who walk into a darkened tent with a single candle. Their goal is to understand what an elephant is. With his limited perspective, each man grasps onto the first thing he sees and proclaims “This is an elephant!” One man says it is rigid and white, one man says it is rotund and gray, and another says that it is flexible and breathing. Each man is correct, yet each man is wrong. The Fair Trade Federation is stuck within an identical predicament. Every single one of us has some amount of familiarity with the elephant, yet no one possesses the knowledge of it in its entirety. Each individual recognizes that the other is describing an elephant, yet everyone disagrees on what constitutes the thing we are describing. Without a doubt, some members have a much brighter light than others. Those luminous years of experience can guide us towards a better understanding of the creature that is fair trade, yet if someone knew enough to show us fair trade in its entirety it would have happened within the past quarter century.
My purpose behind writing this article is to have people wake up and recognize that the Fair Trade Federation, in fact the fair trade movement itself, cannot flourish within the next 25 years if we do not begin sharing our light. The majority of members seem to be garnering their experience within this movement and promoting their own understanding of what fair trade should be. How can we say what fair trade should turn into if we do not even know what it is? Attempting to do so is to embrace that divisive thought I mentioned before. The Fair Trade Federation requires a crystallization of its community experience if it is to make the change it wishes to see. We can no longer exist as partially enlightened business people and expect a radical transformation of the consumer market place.
The current demand for fairly traded goods is little more than the unconscious pull of that “fair trade spirit” I mentioned above. A consensus reached by many visitors to the conference was that we are hotly debating a topic which truly affects very few people. To metaphorically understand our position, we are an ember of change within the dead forest of consumptive industrialism. Just because this ember exists does not mean it will transform into an indomitable fire. Our organization can survive within this global market place, however, if we stop chasing the next small twig and focus on cultivating the ones we have already ignited. Pooling our efforts and concentrating on the potential within the Federation will manifest the transformative blaze we all uniquely possess. What implications does this have for the practical endeavors the FTF has to undertake?
For one thing, it should reorient our attention from the markets and possibilities outside our control towards the ones within and between us (something that has already begun to happen). This means that our Federation must shift from being a conglomeration of loosely allied organizations into a consortium of interacting units. Such a transition will only be capable through a self-dedicated commitment to collaboration between various competing and unrelated members. We can no longer grow as a federation which holds itself together by similar ideals, but must learn to stand together through committed action. This also means that we should consider granting the Federation’s leaders fiscal autonomy for completing decisions which will assist in the clarification of a distinguishable and coherent brand identity. Whether it be by volunteer sub-committees or a paid marketing expert, FTF members must have expert direction if they can effectively promote the FTF logo. As unappealing as the truth may be, public change often requires a stronger brand image than operating philosophy. The third action an inwards shift requires is the concerted effort of individuals and groups to begin discussing an active definition of "fair trade." I am not saying we redefine the definition which is used by the FTF, but that we begin to reinterpret that definition as something applicable to the Federation as a whole. We have been using the definition of fair trade to delineate our actions outside of the FTF, but how can the definition be applied to what goes on within it? How should we understand fair trade when it is a philosophy between multiple companies and not just underprivileged producer groups? Does dialogue, transparency, and respect still maintain its importance when we deal with our fellow members or are we somehow outside of that requirement? As stated within our Organizational Vision we are, “a collaborative community whose members and partners support each other, learn together, and harness their power to grow.”
The Federation’s Interaction with the Average Consumer
A reality which every FTF member must understand and embrace is that we are currently making a negligible difference in the fate of the planet. This is not a pessimistic observation but a realistic fact. As a whole, the realm of fair trade has been reduced to in-fighting, squabbling, and outright competition over something which has less financial power than the world’s top 3 companies. I am not devaluing the influence we have at the individual or communal level, and I am not trying to underestimate the potential within this movement. What I am saying is that is it imperative we collectively gain a perspective on what we are actually doing. If we lose sight of the forest for the trees, we will self-destruct before we ever sway the machinations of large corporate entities. With our commercially trivial position understood, we must begin to comprehend the nature of our interactions with the consumer marketplace.
No American fair trade organization is currently at a level where it can artificially create the demand for its products to facilitate perpetual growth much less foster meaningful development. In other words, you will not see a FTF advertisement at the Superbowl or the Grammys. The fair trade community is not even at a level where it can hold substantive talks between disparate organizations. How can it expect to engineer or foster a major change in consumer mentality? This reality dictates that fair trade, to some degree, should be exactly what the average consumer expects it to be. Due to the relatively blind movement of consumption patterns within the U.S, a movement such as fair trade is largely at the whim of the masses. There are a number of awakened individuals who are actively funneling their time, money, and attention towards this movement, yet their influence is no match for 300 million consumers. If we are to survive this challenge of the global market place, attempting to define and instruct a buyer on exactly what fair trade is (or should be) will get us absolutely nowhere. If consumer consciousness was at a level where it could be dramatically impacted by lofty ethics and an acceptance of human value over financial value, I would not have to be writing this post. In order for us to foster continuous growth towards the center of global commerce we must “ride the wave,” so to speak, of purchasing trends and constructively respond to them at every opportunity. If people believe that fair trade is expensive, we work to give them affordably priced products. If people believe that fair trade means low quality, we provide high quality items as a counter. If fair trade is connected to uninspired designs or brands, we come out with the most modern and relevant products possible. This will seem obvious to anyone with half a business sense as we all seek to provide the items which do best in our markets. What I am proposing is that the way the FTF promotes its “Consumer Knowledge” organizational value is by reaching out and asking the consumer what they understand fair trade to be. The accurate interpretations can be reinforced, the uncertainties can be answered, and the incorrect assumptions can be corrected. Such a process will educate the consumer about fair trade and educate the fair trader about the consumer market place. This provides a direct connection to what 300 million people understand our market to be and lets the community members adjust their businesses accordingly, ergo we take our first step in navigating the domestic marketplace as a true federation.
The most important facet I want the reader to take away from this letter is that our development and survival is dependent upon the FTF community choosing to grow together. We need to look at how the separation within the FTF has stymied our development as a community and ask what we can to do overcome this delay. We must see that consolidating the FTF’s collective knowledge will be a tremendous help for guiding new business and discerning the next steps the FTF should take. Something that is clear to our members is that a unified brand image is essential for proper consumer interaction. However the change may be enacted, directed marketing campaigns based on consumer feedback will go a long way in helping us understand what new changes to embrace and which ones to rebuff. All of this is dependent upon us trusting the other members of this organization and being willing to collaborate for the benefit of the producers.
Fundamentally, nothing about working in this field is easy and, as demonstrated by numerous speakers at last weeks convention, it takes tremendous effort and discipline to materialize the right kind of change in the world. Yet as maintained within our commitment to Community: “We value the global fair trade movement, recognizing that we are intrinsically interdependent, and believe that our unified voices convey a powerful message.” In order to have a lasting impact on the world, we need to come together and craft a unified message which can truly bring about global change.