Cape Town, South Africa
Last year, in a week when we were super busy with the paperwork of Fair Trade (two audits and a peer review), this bit of wisdom popped into my Inbox:
Fairness is the willingness to offer dignity to others. The dignity of being seen and heard and having a chance to make a contribution. (Seth Godin 2018)
I must admit, I read it quickly and nearly hit ‘delete’. Then an uncomfortable little thorn stuck in my conscience. Here in two lines was the ‘why’ we got involved in Fair Trade.This is what drove us, because poverty is not just a shortage of money or opportunities, it is also about the indignity, the grinding humiliation of being un-heard, un-seen and ‘useless’.
We are at times so busy with the administrative work of Fair Trade, the audits and checklists; I wonder have we not perhaps neglected one of the basics? The dignity of the producer to be seen and heard and have a chance to make a contribution?
And what about our customers? When did we last ask them what they want Fair Trade to be? Are they not also part of the ‘dignity’ and the ‘making a contribution’ chain?
Traditional business is broken – that we know. Almost every single thing we use comes through a chain that may start on a farm (or a picture of a farm), but is delivered to us through a commercial machine that exists to make money for the shareholders.
That is why we‘re Fair Trade. But the brutal truth is that many Fair Trade models are not thriving. We have lost our way. We’ve become too complicated and if we are not careful, the Fair Trade movement will ‘regulate’ and pontificate itself into irrelevance. We do not need more rules which do not make sense to the two anchors of our fair trading chain: the producer and the consumer. We are not going to fix a broken arm by putting on a bigger bandage – and we have increasingly been focusing on the bandage.
So, what does all this have to do with women? The women leaders within Fair Trade?
Fair Trade is very much about women. A lot of what we do is for women. Women do a lot of the work of Fair Trade. Women working with compassionate men makes Fair Trade work. Fair Trade was grown and built with the courage of women and it is going to take a lot more of their courage to future fit Fair Trade for 2022, 2032, 2042, and beyond.
So, what is it that I mean by women’s courage?
Many women (and a few fortunate men!) possess a quiet strength that shows up as a humble insight when they realise they are going the wrong way (sometimes against the tide of public opinion) and gives them the courage to choose a different route and the grit to build the solutions.
This is where the courage of women in Fair Trade comes in to play. This is not a 1,000,000 people march or a gigantic billboard in the sky. This is about each one of us choosing to slowly but determinedly change one thing at a time, until all the upturned stones eventually redirect the river.
For a start, we have to rethink how we see ourselves. This is our first act of courage. So much of our Fair Trade focus is on scarcity when abundance is all around us. But because we cannot ‘measure’ the exact level of that abundance – and let’s be honest, we have called ourselves ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘poor’ for so long, we have forgotten how to recognize our abundance. We have come to think of the fertile soil we are standing on as ‘worthless’. Perhaps our first act of courage could be just that – recognizing our abundance. Then, think of ways to share, teach and grow. Tell me your story. Not how it is, but how you want it to be. How it could be!
Next, we have to accept our responsibility for the fair trading chain. If we are striving for sustainable, fair trading enterprises and responsible consumers in resilient, humane industries, we will have to build it like that. As a producer I have to look out for the well being of my buyer and their customers and my suppliers. I have to extend my Fair Trade principles in all directions – and if everyone in the chain does this, it will be near invincible. This is not going to be easy because we’re going to have to do this in spite of the commercial machine racing towards the 4th Industrial Revolution. If even half the predictions for the near future come true, we will need a compassionate and conscience economy for everyone.
And then we have our roles as consumers. Whether they are fashion labels or Fair Trade labels, cosmetic labels, toys or financial services, as overwhelmed consumers, we have abdicated much of our responsibility to the labels. We trust they are doing the right thing because it sounds like they might be doing things right.
It is time we all reclaimed our voices. When we ask the price, we should also ask about the cost. The cost to people and planet, and if we don’t get the answers we like, we’ll need courage to turn away and not buy that item or that service. Getting the cheapest price may be too expensive after all.
WFTO has an incredibly powerful core value, which is the commitment to continuous improvement that stands on the pillars of compassion and integrity of purpose. This is our ‘precious heritage’ – we have to guard it. And in years to come, it is going to take mega-watts of women’s courage and energy to make sure no one erodes it (or worse, that we forget to take care of it!).
In the broader world beyond WFTO and the Fair Trade community, we have to make ourselves heard in conversations about sustainability, organizational resilience and fair profits. The old aphorism that all it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing, is more valid than ever. On the up-side, we’ve also never before, in the entire history of the world, had more communication power in our hands – we just have to choose to use it wisely.
Lately, our CE Erinch has asked several questions of us and the community of alternative economic thinkers:
Conventional business is broken – How does Fair Trade engage formal business to help fix it?
Do we have the right DNA for the things we desire to achieve?
How does Fair Trade go from inspiring examples to transforming capitalism?
If we accept, to quote Einstein, that “We cannot solve problems with the same mindset we used when we created them”, it is going to take women’s courage to reassess and start out on a new road – even if it means we have to build the road as we go along (and have the courage to ditch some of the papers). If Fair Trade (and not only WFTO Fair Trade) is to be a significant part of the ‘conscience economy’ in the future, we need to start growing the garden of our alternative world economy now!
And talking of gardens, we have to build our model on the reality that everything will not always grow at the same pace. Some things will thrive, and other things will die – and we will not always know why. It takes sunlight, water and a little manure to make things grow, and a lot of mindful attention to prune, weed and cultivate. Even then, the vegetables almost never look like the picture on the seed packet, and that is ok too.’
‘Someone’ is not going to do it. WE have to do it! It is the courage of women in WFTO that will drive the changes to future-fit Fair Trade for 2022 and beyond. And you know what? As long as we offer dignity to others, guard their privilege to be seen and heard and to make a contribution, I do believe we can do it.