Fair trade should be simple. We as consumers buy things knowing that the people who have produced them have been paid fairly. But as with many supposedly straightforward ideas, it gets more complicated when you drill down into the details.
Our friend and neighbour Oliver Balch linked to this excellent piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review which looks at a subtle yet fundamental point of difference between some of the big players. It should be said right from the beginning that both sides of the debate have their hearts in the right place. Nevertheless, it seems to have turned into something of minor schism between those who believe fair trade should be producer led or consumer led. While this may seem like a fairly esoteric distinction, these wrangles can end up distracting us from the main issue.
In the first camp, perhaps best personified by the Fairtrade Foundation in the UK, we have those who are focussed on the producers. Prices will be set to work around their margins and their needs, replenishment times will fit to their schedules, and so forth. In the other camp we have groups such as Fair Trade USA who see the fair trade revolution as being a consumer led campaign. The more consumers can be persuaded to purchase fair trade products, the better life will be for the producers, but the focus has to be on the customer - get the packaging right, make it attractive to them, get the price points right, and the products start to become mainstream.
Do we have to pick a side? No, of course not. But it may interest our customers to know where we come down on the balance sheet. For us, the focus has, and always will be, on the people who make our products. That doesn't mean we don't want more customers, or aren't interested in growing the market for fair trade products. For us, however, the imperative behind our brand is to make the world a better place. We do that (in our own small way) by choosing producers whose work we love, and who we think will inspire our customers. If we start to get sidetracked by market forces and a "race to the bottom" in pricing we'll have failed our suppliers as well as the people who buy from us.
Ultimately, it comes down to a choice between cooperation and system change vs globalisation and market forces. For us, our fair trade mission will be best served by "new laws and new governments and new policies... to change the structures of power," as Harriet Lamb of Fairtrade puts it. If we as a business can become "change agents" - influencing the debate, putting pressure on those in power for change, and informing our customers about how they can help - then perhaps we can really make a difference.