This week we're in Indianapolis Indiana at the annual Fair Trade Federation Conference. It's our first time at the event and we had a chance to sit down with the Fair Trade Federation's Executive Director, Renee Bowers and ask some basic questions about the Fair Trade movement.
ESCAMA: Hi Renee, thanks for doing this interview! Well, I guess it's best to start with the most basic quetion: What is the Fair Trade Movement? In your view, how can we best define the term the ‘Fair Trade movement’. What's it encompass and who are the participants?
RENEE: Here at the Fair Trade Federation, we think of the fair trade movement as a group of business owners, advocates, and shoppers who are enthusiastic about doing good for the world and aim to be conscientious about the way products are made. These people are aware that the way we do business across borders and the way we choose to spend our money will have a tremendous effect on other people. The movement prioritizes encouraging everyone to learn and think more about the origins of what we wear, eat, and use and to be more proactive about recognizing good business practices.ESCAMA: How would you best describe the role of the FTF within the Fair Trade movement? What things does FTF do and what things does FTF not do?
RENEE: The Fair Trade Federation is a group of fair trade businesses that are fully fair trade -- this means that fair trade is the reason they do the work they do and their main goal is to improve the lives of producers. FTF applicants go through a rigorous screening process that evaluates their business practices. Membership means they've reached a very high bar of fair trade -- one of the highest in the world!
We like to think of our role in the fair trade movement as a clearinghouse for retail stores and everyday shoppers. Fair trade is slowly becoming more popular and desirable for customers, but it's also become harder to figure out which brands are doing what they claim to be doing. We see ourselves as a group dedicated to celebrating and promoting the businesses who we see are genuinely doing the very best work in fair trade.
ESCAMA: Is Fair Trade lacking Mainstream Acceptance? Over the past 10 years ‘recycling’ and ‘organic’ have become a part of life for a lot of people. Fair Trade is often lumped together with these two yet mainstream acceptance seems to be lagging.
RENEE: We're seeing that more and more, once people understand the key principles involved in fair trade they really love the idea and wonder why the approach isn't instilled in more business.
And sadly, many businesses will do everything they can to keep shoppers of all kinds separated from the people who make the goods they buy -- so shoppers' knowledge of the principles behind fair trade is limited. We think that education and offering information is a key part of keeping the fair trade momentum going.... and we're totally convinced that mainstream acceptance is closer every day.
ESCAMA: Is the US at the forefront of the Fair Trade Movement? I've heard that the UK and other parts of the EU are pretty well versed in the concept of Fair Trade, do you think we can learn from some of the practices that have been seen in other countries?
RENEE: While the US is really making strides in the fair trade movement, it's true that shoppers and businesses in Europe are more informed about ethical shopping in general. That being said, the North American community of fully fair trade organizations – those that are mission driven, and concerned primarily with poverty alleviation rather than profit – is one of the strongest in the world. So, while we have lots of work to do in terms of public outreach and education, we have the advantage of having a very strong network in place.
ESCAMA: How can consumers identify Fair Trade products? If someone wanted to buy fair trade products – not foodstuff necessarily but rather clothing, toys etc – is there a way for them to identify what’s good and what’s bad?
RENEE: With any product it is a challenge to distinguish well-made items from those developed under harmful practices. A lot of the responsibility falls on the shopper to dig deeper into their favorite stores and brands to find more information about their priorities. There are lots of great businesses who work with integrity -- we just have to care about finding them! We'd advise asking your favorite stores how their goods are made and seeing how they respond.
In fact, that’s one of the reasons that the Fair Trade Federation exists – to give shoppers a way of knowing if their favorite brands are “walking the walk.” We would always encourage shoppers to shop member products online and to look for the Fair Trade Federation logo on websites and other materials.ESCAMA: What is the criteria for fair trade? Is there a manual, a guide, a criteria that companies should use to certify that a factory and products are ethically produced?
RENEE: Fair Trade is not something that is regulated or "owned" by any one body or organization, so it can often be confusing to know precisely how to work within fair trade practices. The FTF and the World Fair Trade Organization have established a good list of principles that embody the foundational ideas behind fair trade (read our list here). The FTF and the WFTO, for example, will encourage organizations to work towards a holistic inclusion of these principles into the work they do every day. We’ve codified this in our Code of Practice, which outlines exactly what organizations need to do to be fully fair trade.
ESCAMA: What’s your prediction for the future of Fair Trade?
RENEE: We absolutely think fair trade is growing and will only become more important to shoppers and businesses as time goes on. Our culture is quickly changing and people are more supportive of organizations that consider the environment as well as the long term health, safety, and well-being of other human beings. We imagine a future where businesses are considered "successful" when they have become profitable, but not to the detriment of other people and the planet. We're optimistic that fair trade will really be understood as the most transformative model for trade across the globe.