Human rights is our collective dignity, and it’s baked into our mission-led enterprises

By Erinch Sahan

Seventy years ago today, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the world. It is a turning point in world history, spawning other treaties, laws and regulations across our planet that protect the rights of every human. The idea of human rights embodies our collective dignity. It gives us hope.

The Fair Trade movement is intertwined with human rights. Across the 10 Principles of Fair Trade boldly live the principle of no child or forced labour, gender equity, freedom of association and a host of other human and labour rights that have emerged over the last 70 years. Human rights is embedded in the heart of Fair Trade.

For us, as the global community of Fair Trade Enterprises, our main contribution is to demonstrate that businesses can go beyond respecting human rights. We are showing that business can be built to prioritise the interests and voices of the people who hold these rights. Yes the WFTO verification system uses peer reviews and independent audits to ensure respect for the rights of workers, farmers and artisans. And we do check that the purchasing practices foster a respect for human rights (through fair prices, long-term trading commitments, transparency). But when the mission of an enterprise is to benefit workers, farmers and artisans, and this is baked into their business model, then human rights becomes pivotal to their everyday work.

What’s key is the design features of Fair Trade Enterprises, which provide a fundamentally different kind of power relationship for workers, farmers and artisans who would otherwise have little power or priority within a typical business. Take for example CORR The Jute Works in Bangladesh, structured to give their 5,000 artisans majority control on their board and ensure profits are used to benefit these artisans. Other examples are Township Patterns in South Africa or Global Mamas in Ghana, businesses that exist solely to support artisan-owned producer groups, reinvesting profits for that purpose. Or Maquita in Ecuador, which runs several social businesses, investing all profits to benefit their community and ensures communities are represented on their board. In India, models like Creative Handicrafts and Last Forest demonstrate worker and farmer ownership can compete with profit hungry apparel factories and clothing outlets. Or Mahaguthi in Nepal, which protects its social mission by requiring all profits be reinvested to benefit its workers and artisans. The chief executive of such businesses aren’t pressured to drive down costs and squeeze their suppliers. On the contrary, the workers and farmers are the voices that dominate their board rooms, forcing management to run the business in their interests. There are now 330 such Fair Trade Enterprises that span over 70 countries, proving they can work commercially by prioritising a social mission.

The Fair Trade Enterprise model is an experiment in baking-in human rights in the DNA of business. Human rights is not an add-on or something that creates additional considerations for these businesses. It is in the central mission of these businesses as their success is measured based on how they impact the most powerless people they come into contact with.

Human rights and Fair Trade can never be separated. No one knows this better than our global community of Fair Trade Enterprises. Our movement celebrates Human Rights day proudly as activists and entrepreneurs across the world.