Unlocking the power of the many: the Fair Trade movement

Britain’s joy over the 2012 Olympics put me in mind of the 2006 Winter Olympics when the nation was gripped by, of all sports, women’s curling. Why, I wondered? But when I sat to watch, the appeal was clear: here were totally ordinary women - bank clerks, teachers, hairdressers, who don’t have figures like tea-trays or muscles like Superwoman, doing totally extraordinary things - and winning gold.  Fairtrade has just that powerful appeal.

It is driven by ordinary shoppers and farmers linking up together - and together accomplishing creating a whole new way of trading internationally. That is what is so exciting – the fact that so many people across the world feel that Fairtrade is ‘theirs’. It doesn’t make global decision-making any easier, but it does mean that the movement is driven by a passion that helps deliver results. In particular, the producers have lead the way, with inspiring leadership and vision, and a gritty determination to succeed despite often overwhelming odds. There were plenty of mistakes along the way: such as the hairbrushes made from cactus spikes! And plenty of serious opposition – including the alleged sabotage of boats carrying the first Fairtrade bananas.

Fair Trade: how it started

In the UK, the Fairtrade Foundation was established in 1992, by Oxfam, Traidcraft Exchange, Cafod, Christian Aid, the World Development Movement and the Women’s Institute. People laughed at us. The public, they sneered, would never pay more for a product just because it was traded fairly; it would only, they scoffed, remain a niche for yoghurt-weaving vicars. Yet by 2011, we were reaching over 1.5 million farmers and workers. Sales of Fairtrade in the UK alone topped £1.3 billion, as we work with over 500 companies selling over 4,000 products. Some niche! In fact such sales are bigger than the sales of Coca Cola last year.

Making it easy for people to change

This story of Fairtrade proves just how decent the public are. We all love a bargain; but when people know that those bananas are only cheap because someone on the other side of the world cannot send her kids to school and put a main meal on the table at night, then people reject that. They are ready to put their money where their mouth is; but we had to make it easy for them. 

Empowering local action and local activitists

Critical to reaching out to the public has been the role of key opinion formers and activists, as exemplified by the Fairtrade towns movement. It was started in 2002 in the Lancashire market town of Garstang where local campaigner, Bruce Crowther, had the idea of creating a ‘Fairtrade Town’. At first, the Fairtrade Foundation ruled it out of order; after all the FAIRTRADE Mark is a certification mark for products which meet standards; towns, went the logic, could not become Fairtrade. But of course it was a genius idea, which the Foundation wisely came to accept, because it was rooted in people taking concrete steps for change in their own town or village. Ordinary people often feel powerless in the face of major challenges such as global poverty; what can little ol’ me do, sitting in Somerset, say? But of course everyone can persuade their local cornershop to stock Fairtrade chocolate; the school to have an assembly; the Town Hall to drink only Fairtrade tea and coffee; Kwik Kutz the hairdresser on the High Street to have Fairtrade coffee....

So the idea of Fairtrade Towns just flew. People were able to take local action, and they were inspired by success. Especially when their action had a wider impact. In Leighton Buzzard, a cycling grandmother knocked on the door of the local wine bar to ask them to serve Fairtrade tea and coffee; as a result of that action, the whole Slug and Lettuce chain switched to Fairtrade.

Building on local trust and word of mouth

This is the local community drive that took awareness of the FAIRTRADE Mark to over 80%, with unusually high levels of trust; and with no marketing budget to speak of. Because of course people who do not trust the Government or politicians, or companies, do trust their friends and neighbours and believe what they hear at the schoolgate.

Today there are over 500 Fairtrade towns, nearly 7000 Fairtrade faith groups and nearly 1,000 Fairtrade Schools, Universities and Colleges actively promoting Fairtrade in the UK, and 1000 Fair Trade Towns in more than 20 countries around the world.  Likewise, people were inspired by the results. They wrote and asked companies to stock Fairtrade products; and they responded positively! Likewise, Fairtrade as a system is rooted in working with ordinary farmers and workers – enabling them to trade more directly, on fairer terms and so to tackle poverty for themselves. It is an inspiration to meet farmers who walk with their heads held high because they have brought clean drinking water to the village, schools, health centres and even electricity.

Go where the energy is

Now, we in Fairtrade, have to be open to the next big idea. At the moment, the campaigning energy is coming from schools. So we are supporting them – going where the energy is. But we also need to keep our eyes and ears open, and be sure that we do not reject the next mad idea that could in fact be our future.

…and find people who can help

We also know the importance of collaboration. From day one, we have worked with and through organisations such as Oxfam and the WI who have large outreach and membership programmes, as well as with companies and retailers keen to tell their messages to the public. This helps us magnify the message: a kind of megaphone marketing of an anti-poverty message. I still get a kick from seeing articles about tackling poverty and Fairtrade in magazines from ‘Vending Today’ to ‘Fabulous’; that is exactly where we should be, not talking to ourselves or each other but to the world who are not development activists or experts but are so ready to play their part in tackling poverty. 

Determination, and hard work

None of this is easy. Collaboration is never the quickest way to agree on an activity, especially when partners have very different objectives, as when we bring companies and NGOs together. Surprisingly, people even in organisations with the most exciting ambitions and innovations, quickly became very risk averse and conservative. I am always amazed by the degree of caution, and the levels of bureaucracy that can creep into NGOs. For example, people are always quick to spot the risks and the down-sides of Fairtrade working in new products, such as gold which we launched in 2010, more than they can see the opportunities. Yet NGOs must always remain at the cutting edge, pushing ourselves. Otherwise we just become part of the new reality, the new establishment, comfortably fitting into our charity box.

Balancing internal organisation and outward-looking action

There is also a real danger of organisations turning inward, too busy with our own internal structures. One of Fairtrade’s core strengths is its global spread, working in over 80 countries and part-owned and run by producer networks.  Getting the structures right globally, getting the balance between democracy and decision-making, is very tough. Our very strength – that we are rooted in strong and passionate grassroots movements around the world – can also become our weakness; if we are not careful, we could become paralysed by debate. On the other hand, we don’t want to be run like a multinational. We have looked for models of organisations who have got it right – and discovered that the positive examples are thin on the ground! We want to be strongly networked, with centres of excellence across the world and a firm backbone of services provided centrally, while we need to shift the centre of gravity to the global South. All this is challenging to implement. Questions about ensuring accountability and transparency, and building trust, loom large. But these knotty debates can also absorb all our energy, preventing us from looking up and out.

Certainly, we know that Fairtrade’s success to date cannot be an excuse for not recognising our need to go on transforming the way we work, now and in the future. Our success is tiny compared with the needs and opportunities we have to transform the way global trade works for disadvantaged producers and workers in the Global South.

Whilst changing the world, look at how the world is changing

We’ve been working so hard for so long to change the world that we probably have not always paid enough attention to how much the world itself has changed around us. People have been learning from us - and we need now to learn from others. Currently our Fairtrade label is very widely recognized as a beacon standing for sustainable development through trade. It is the label that stands up for people. It is the label that has credibility based on shared ownership. Suppliers and retail companies, development agencies, Governments and even other labeling systems are all keen to have partnerships with us. We need to listen to and address their needs if we are to lead, to learn and to collaborate with them in the future. Getting that sense of urgency through the organisation takes huge leadership.  But we are pretty determined to get it right, unlocking the power of the many. And our vision for the future is inspired by all that ordinary farmers and workers in developing countries have achieved through Fairtrade.


For more information on the Fairtrade movement, visit






February 2013

About the author

Harriet Lamb's picture

London, UK

Harriet Lamb is Chief Executive of Fairtrade International. She began her Fairtrade career as Banana Coordinator at Fairtrade International... (Read more)

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