The Common Good
May 2007

A Case Study in the Possible

by Richard Vernon | May 2007

How Britain's Traidcraft went from church hall to the London Stock Exchange, without losing the faith.

Back in late 1970s Britain, fair trade was a church hall affair, with evangelicals nobly drinking unpalatable instant coffee and giving each other jute hanging baskets for Christmas. Thirty years later it's all about large, high-profit companies trying to establish ethical trading credentials and major supermarket chains selling gourmet fair trade goods. Local municipalities are clambering over each other to declare themselves "Fairtrade Zones" and Scotland and Wales are seeking to declare themselves "fair trade nations." What caused this cultural shift?

Possibly the most surprising thing about fair trade's rise as a hot issue in Britain is that evangelicals are at the forefront of consumer change and legislative pressure. One group in particular stands out as the fair trade organization nonpareil—Traidcraft.

As Traidcraft founder Richard Adams says, "One of the things Traidcraft managed to do was hold together a group of different traditions and have people in those traditions be comfortable with their association with an evangelical movement." He attributes that comfort to the quality work done by Traidcraft at both ends of its operation: retail in the U.K. and purchasing in the developing world.

Traidcraft grew out of a project of Tearfund, a pioneering Christian nonprofit relief agency. Since 1968, Tearfund has worked on sustainable development, on-the-ground partnerships between relief agencies and local bodies, and myriad other concepts that have become staples of relief and development work.

In the 1970s, Adams had the simple idea that with fewer intermediaries between a Third World producer and a First World consumer, the producer would get more of the money the consumer had paid. He started importing exotic fruit and vegetables directly from growers, and the idea began to blossom. "I was living above a greengrocers in Harrow, London, at the time and had good friends working in Tearfund. In 1977, I came up with the name Tearcraft and set it up as a business with Tearfund's approval." Tearfund had relief planes flying out to refugees and areas affected by famine and earthquake, so filling those same planes with goods and flying them back to Britain was relatively simple. Since Tearcraft was entirely responsible for procurement and retailing, almost all of the proceeds went right back to the producers.

Adams soon realized that he couldn't realistically run Tearcraft as a separate entity from Tearfund, so he persuaded them to buy him out while he continued to manage it. Tearcraft gained an impressive reputation, attracting other relief agencies keen to partner with it in what was known then as "sustainable trade." Tearfund, however, only worked with evangelical organizations. Adams says, "It was quite a big idea, too big to be contained within conventional evangelical tradition." A clear need existed for a less restricted sustainable trade organization, and that's when Adams founded Traidcraft. Whether Traidcraft represents a birth, a divorce, or a development from Tearcraft depends who you ask on any given day.

TRAIDCRAFT'S FIRST catalog came out in time for Christmas 1979. It was a hand-drawn, all-jute-all-the-time affair, featuring the aforementioned hanging baskets. The following year instant coffee was added.

Long-term Traidcraft supporter Gillian Henry remembers, "The coffee was vile. You bought it more just to buy it and be supportive than to drink it. You bought everyone you knew a plant holder." Three decades on, Henry volunteers as a certified Fairtrader and Traidcraft Key Contact in Scotland, supplying goods for her own congregation at Newton Mearns Baptist Church and a half dozen other churches around Glasgow. "During Fairtrade Fortnight [an annual public awareness campaign in the U.K.] last year, I supplied 13 stalls for schools and churches. Sometimes I talk at school assemblies for the kids' citizenship classes."

Initially just buying from Traidcraft for her own needs, Henry had her "ping" moment during a talk by Tearfund director Elaine Storkey. "She was speaking on 'Issues Facing Women Today,' but instead of talking about things we were facing in Newton Mearns, she focused on issues facing women in the developing world." Realizing that her Bible study group had more purchasing power than she did alone, Henry soon went from buying in bulk with a few friends to setting up a fair trade stall at Oasis, the café her church runs four mornings a week. Her motivation, she explains, was simple: "I just felt it was what God was asking us to do. Besides, it's fun playing shop, unpacking boxes, placing orders, that sort of thing. It's a practical way to make a direct difference and have a tangible impact on people's lives. We need to do something practical as well as preaching the gospel."

Henry and a friend have visited sustainable relief projects in Africa and have organized a host of events for Fairtrade Fortnight highlighting trade justice issues. "People don't realize just how unfair it is," Henry states. "With a bit of spare money from a predictable income because a buyer has committed to buying from you for three years instead of harvest-by-harvest, you can educate your children." She paraphrases the British government's Department for International Development's Rough Guide to Poverty: "The best way out of poverty is to educate the girls."

Newton Mearns Baptist Church is affluent, suburban, and, by British standards, large. It's also in East Renfrewshire, historically a staunchly Conservative Party constituency which is now proud of pursuing Fairtrade Zone certification (see "Entering the Fair Trade Zone," Page 17). Church members have been vital to that change in culture.

Fair trade standards exist in Europe for several major cash crops primarily sourced from the developing world, with tea, coffee, cocoa, sugar, honey, and cotton chief among them. Organizations such as Traidcraft impose their own strictures on items they sell that are not covered by fair trade certification agreements.

In order to earn an official "fair trade" label, manufacturers and retailers must have a transparent and particular audit trail—an established route of checks and markers to which producers, suppliers, and retailers can adhere. These standards are established worldwide by Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International. Certification and licensing in the U.K. are administered by the Fairtrade Foundation, a secular NGO founded in 1992 by CAFOD, Christian Aid, New Consumer, Oxfam, Traidcraft, and the World Development Movement. The Foundation is another brainchild of Richard Adams. "In simple, one-item foodstuffs like tea or coffee," he says, "it's fairly easy to establish a brand's fair trade worthiness. It's far more complicated when it comes to composite items like chocolate or cereal bars in which ingredients come from a variety of sources." For these goods, target percentages must be met in order to be authenticated as "fair trade."

Audited fair trade standards now exist for some nuts and dried fruits, and Traidcraft's very successful Geobars cereal bars are available in most major supermarket chains in Britain—even the Wal-Mart subsidiary ASDA. Adams, an inveterate initiator who seems unable to sit still for long, has since moved on to other issues, such as advising the European Parliament on climate change.

FAIR TRADE MAY seem slightly Marxist in flavor—to the laborer the fruits of their labor, and so forth—but it's merely the result of applying Christian principles of justice and mercy to the realities of the marketplace. Unlike Adam's initial vision, fair trade has not become an alternative to capitalism. Instead, it's playing market capitalism by different rules—seeing the market through a different analytical grid.

As current Traidcraft CEO Paul Chandler says, "The concept of people before profits doesn't make profits unimportant, nor does it discourage entrepreneurial skill." Instead, the initial premise of business is given a tweak and, like a fraction of a degree's difference in navigation, the trajectory of fair trade and profit-at-any-cost business diverge ever more the further back from market they get. The quality and end price of the pound of gourmet fair traded coffee on the grocer's shelf is comparable to its unfairly traded competitor brands, but the lion's share of the money goes to the people who do the work, rather than lining big coffee's coffers. That's a huge difference.

According to Adams, "The people who got Tearcraft and Traidcraft off the ground were motivated, values-based people. Now people think the mechanism is the value. It's moved from a moral commitment to being a lifestyle choice." But consumers attaching themselves to values by buying brands with fair trade certification is exactly what needs to happen. It puts fair trade on the same footing as organic, halal, kosher, vegan, and vegetarian standards. Adams acknowledges that it "allows consumers to do some good through their normal purchasing habits."

U.K. retailer Sainsbury just announced that all its supermarkets' bananas are now fair trade. Marks & Spencer, that quintessentially British chain store, has aggressively repositioned itself as an ethical business, including working with more than 600 cotton farmers for a line of fair trade clothing. Their tea, coffee, and sugar are now all fair trade, and the company has a stated aim of becoming carbon neutral.

Tesco, another major U.K. supermarket chain, polled 400,000 loyalty card holders and found that 7 to 8 percent buy fair trade products regularly and want the store to sell more. The survey also revealed that people who don't buy fair trade goods still want to shop in a supermarket that sells them; there's value added in buying from a more ethical store.

Traidcraft has shown business that the fair trade consumer base is one to be protected and grown. "The key was to mobilize churches," Chandler says. "Fair trade has opened things up to the secular world; once they know about it, consumers want ethically sourced goods, not just the cheapest available option. People care about people."

Christians represent a significant enough fraction of shareholders, thinks Chandler, to have forced issues such as social accounting and carbon neutrality. That, he says, is why it's important for Traidcraft to "prophetically model Christian principles in business practice."

Fair trade affects more than just posh shopping carts. In 1993 Traidcraft took its financial transparency to a new level, introducing what it calls "social accounting" for Traidcraft PLC (the for-profit business in which shares can be bought), Traidcraft Exchange (its nonprofit arm), and the Traidcraft Foundation. As Chandler explains, "It's sometimes called 'triple bottom line accounting' because we report the financial, environmental, and social justice effects of our trading. The truly incredible thing is that by 2006, 80 of the FTSE 100 [the largest companies on the London Stock Exchange] had social accounting."

The dynamic shift has happened on several fronts. Fair trade appeals to middle-class hipsters, so stores have to stock goods with the Fairtrade Mark because it's not cool not to. The secular Left likes that it's justice based and favors the people who actually produce the goods. The secular Right likes that it's pro-business and rewards entrepreneurial effort. Fair trade appeals to evangelicals because it's directly obedient to biblically mandated justice principles, expressed unequivocally in the prophets (Amos, for instance) and the teachings of Jesus.

Can this mass success be exported? America is ripe for a fundamental turnaround in dominant attitudes to trade justice. Advocacy groups and organizations such as Equal Exchange, the oldest for-profit fair trade business in the United States, are working on it. With more efforts along these lines, and more active church support for them, maybe the U.S. could have a model of business that is prophetic to the rest of the commercial sector. However, Traidcraft PLC is a publicly traded company listed on the London Stock Exchange. Currently no equivalent American for-profit fair trade business has a presence on Wall Street. As many of America's 30 million-plus evangelicals become increasingly energized about the biblical mandate to help the poor on a global scale, they have the potential to follow the British fair trade example and start to turn the tables over in the courtyard of Mammon's temple. After all, Britain's 1.2 million evangelicals represent a far smaller fraction of the total population than do evangelicals in the U.S.

Right now two things are vital: "a prophetic model for business" and ordinary Christians heeding the gospel. (The vision and initiating energy of a Richard Adams and the international trade experience of a Paul Chandler would also be helpful.)

But what the U.S. really needs to make fair trade happen are people like Gillian Henry, who patiently and faithfully plug away in their congregations, prayerfully doing what they can, hoping for more than they can see—people in it for what Adams called "the sheer hard slog." Many U.K. activists have a passion for justice, a heart for Jesus, and a desire for change. In American churches, those things aren't in short supply.

Richard Vernon is a Brooklyn-based Scot almost as proud of his homeland as he is relieved by the improved taste of fair trade coffee.

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