Fair trade history and reflections, Roy Scott (Onevillage.org/fairtrade-history.htm)(UK)
«FAIR TRADE» : Will this be enough?
Some personal reflections and challenges from Roy Scott


After 40 years in «alternative marketing»,
or what is now often called «fair-trade»,
Roy Scott offers historical reflections
and questions the future

Roy Scott FRSA writes for Church Times, Fair Trade Fortnight issue, March 7, 2003

When I first got involved in development work back in the 60s, the big issue on trade was how to help get countries out of the mono culture of cash export crops, converting land instead for domestic food production, and encouraging the export of higher value finished products rather than mere raw materials.

People knew a little about the realities of so-called "sweat shops", but not a lot, and the conditions under which products were made were not really considered to be anything much to do with us as consumers.

I was working for Oxfam, who had in a very small way started buying handicrafts from commercial importers in order to raise funds for the aid programme. When I visited one of these UK suppliers, he congratulated Oxfam's astute buying because much income for Oxfam's work could be made by buying cheap and selling at a good profit.

I had to persuade the charity's trading board that what it was doing could be considered "exploitation", but was challenged to find an alternative way to do things. Thus, in 1965, I started Oxfam's Helping-by-Selling project – I suppose the forerunner of what is now called «fair-trade».

Through the experience of 10 years development, our pioneering moved from "helping" to empowerment, by realizing the merits of workers' cooperatives and artisans' societies.

We developed a model for a global cooperative called Bridge, that would have directly linked producers and consumers in lasting commitments beneficial to all. Parts of this proposal were adopted, including the Bridge name and its dividend systems to return profits to those who had contributed to making them (especially the producers).

As a result of the arrival of an alternative market, existing cooperatives were revived and new societies came into being in many places.

It became a large and successful business with enormous potential for a changed world.

Unfortunately, the idea was not allowed to develop as an independent cooperative, and its principles of partnership were diluted in the bid for quick growth. But those less idealistic ambitions didn't work very well, and after a very long struggle Oxfam in 2002 finally abandoned this import programme altogether.

Not all was lost. After leaving Oxfam in the mid 70s, on a UN assignment in the Philippines I discovered that cooperatives started with the support of that programme had fallen on hard times as a result of the withdrawal of orders.

It was in response to that situation that, with encouragement from friends, I started One Village in 1979.

In One Village, we have tried to continue the original ideals: long-term commitments, support of cooperatives and community enterprises paying higher prices in a positive and hopeful environment, reassuring producers about their cultural roots by building markets for products based on traditional styles and skills.

In calling this One Village, we try to say that the world is really one small and interdependent community.

Members of batik-makers' co-op, Chennai, India

As well as us, a whole movement has built up all over Europe and in other well-to-do countries too. Other organizations have developed, and communities have benefited.

This is not only to do with improving earnings, but perhaps more importantly sales of craft made articles are confidence builders for the artisans. Traditional products originating in their own places are recognized and appreciated by buyers far away. Skill is developed as people demonstrate their personality as creators.

We in One Village continue to grow, although of course we have not had the resources that were available to some others. We now have an extensive website www.onevillage.org, where shopping these products is easy wherever customers seek out craft made articles for the home.

Our friends in other organizations have shifted their emphasis away from craft and into commodities. They have very promising success in getting products manufactured from these commodities even onto the shelves of supermarkets, and that is a useful thing to achieve.

Generally in society, these days there is much more awareness of the interconnectivity of people, and the responsibility that falls with all of us to be right with one another; that all kinds of decisions and actions each of us take day by day really do have an impact on our brothers and sisters in the world community.

Even big corporations set on profit-making now specify minimum standards of working conditions when they buy clothes and other products in low-income countries.

The phrase «fair trade» is commonly banded about, and this helps people to think that they are doing right by the makers when they chose products and materials so labelled.

But the reality is that global inequalities continue and, according to the International Labour Office and others, the differences in living standards are widening rather than getting closer. A recent ILO annual report notes that world economic gains are usually accompanied by "persistent inequality and growing exclusion".

We in Europe are given to complain about all kinds of things that would be considered bliss by our neighbours in other places. Extra security and income offered by the alternative marketing network makes an enormous difference in the context of producers' own lives, yet the earnings and wellbeing of producers remain grossly out of line with those of consumers.

Some like to call this «fair trade» but perhaps we should be more honest.

As world systems race us away from justice, it is time for us to awake to the deeper and more far-reaching changes that are so urgently needed.

Consideration to the implications of our buying decisions is certainly one specific thing that we should all do. If we seek out always the lowest prices, we should be aware that someone else, or the environment, is likely to suffer as a result. With huge rewards going to company chief executives whilst actual workers are paid a pittance, it is also right to consider the culture of the companies from whom we buy, and to ask probing questions of suppliers whoever they are. All this can be seen to have an influence.

But of course it is difficult to do all that without first checking our own driving force and motivation.

Here we need notice that all around us is an assumption that the purpose of everything is the increase of financial capital.

This perspective is so pervasive we can so easily be carried along with it; for it to be so familiar that it escapes our consciousness. But striving ceaselessly for more capital is at best an impossible illusion; at worst it is probably the principal cause of injustice in the world.

Why allow capital to be the global target, when we could choose an alternative?

Suppose instead of financial wealth, social justice were our aim. Suppose we really believed in the power of working for the common good. We could then even start to review business and economic performance not by perceived capital values, by how much endeavours contribute to social wellbeing.

Then, perhaps, the world could change. Together we would certainly have a more realistic goal, because social justice is inherently sustainable. It would surely benefit the economically poor, and an ancient vision could re-energize all of us.


For more information and comment on the fair trade movement, please visit our series of fair trade editorial pages that begin when you click HERE.

December 2010
Roy Scott addresses members at the 40th anniversary of St Mary's Mahila Shikshan Kendra, Ahmedabad, a producers' society which he had helped get started so many years earlier. One Village remains a major partner for this enterprise that now enables livelihoods for about 500 people in an economically-stretched part of the city.   One Village Community Extra is the principal contributor to the society's producer bonus scheme, enjoyed by all members every year.
  Joining the 40 Years celebrations is Thomas Macwan, RC Bishop of Ahmedabad (far right on platform) and Dominican sister Lucia, founder of the project (see her at left below along with members enjoying the celebration address).



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