The fight for Fairtrade

Traidcraft are the original fair trade pioneers in the UK. Founded in 1979, they introduced the first fair trade tea, coffee and sugar to the UK, and in 1992 they co-founded the Fairtrade Foundation. For four decades, the brand went from strength to strength successfully championing just and sustainable international trade, alongside their sister charity, Traidcraft Exchange.

Then last year, everything turned on its head. The post-Brexit climate has increasingly posed challenges to ethical consumption and in the summer, CEO Robin Roth announced that unless a solution could be found imminently , Traidcraft plc, would have to cease trading at the end of the year.

With the company in crisis and the majority of staff facing redundancy, they faced a clear choice. Go pirate, or go under.

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Jude Allen is Traidcraft’s Commercial Sales Coordinator and was only in her first year of employment when things started to unravel. It was her husband who suggested she read Be More Pirate as a route out of Traidcraft’s difficulties. Coincidentally, their CEO Robin had also chanced upon the book and when he gathered staff together to discuss the options, he did so holding up Be More Pirate as a call to arms.

So as the legal consultation process got underway, so did an internal mutiny. A small group came up with a proposal that would allow Traidcraft to continue. The new model will maximise the profitable parts of the business, phase out loss-making lines, create a membership culture and set a new high bar for ethical trading in the UK. 

To get to this they had to figure out what had gone wrong; what was the old way, and what would enable them to rewrite the rules. They realised they needed a code. Something that captured precisely what they are passionate about:

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“Unfortunately it is harder to be passionate about fair trade when even the most frequently boycotted and despised food muliti-nationals have their token range of ethical products in the shelves.  And in any case, what really is fair trade nowadays? What exactly are we fighting for? Ask 10 different people and you will get the proverbial 20 different answers.”

We began challenging ourselves. Where is our passion? What will we fight for in order to achieve any of this?

We found that there were exactly three things we agreed on, which, given that there are 12 of us, came as a bit of a surprise.” 

The difficulty wasn’t that they didn’t know what they cared about, but that getting passionate in a professional setting makes people feel rather uncomfortable.

“Apart from the obvious, (Brexit) we are, by and large, a compromise seeking nation not prone to outbursts of civil disobedience. Getting passionate about something is, quite honestly, a bit juvenile and awkward for friends and family to deal with.”

But part of professional rule breaking. is working out what is holding you back, and asking yourself if those reasons really stand up to scrutiny.

Traidcraft found that theirs didn’t.

So they started to look for new role models: to members of the Communidad de la Paz (Peace community) in Colombia and here in the UK, to climate scientists involved with Extinction Rebellion who are prepared to go to prison because the cause is too urgent.

They realised that like many charities, they had spent a long time nodding in agreement, but refraining from any meaningful action.

“We are openly, noisily passionate about equality: gender, sex, religion, opportunity, regardless of background, heritage, experience or inheritance It’s possible to be in agreement with all of this, of course, but it is quite a different thing to fight for it.” 

Critical to changing the culture is their monthly ‘Battle Line meetings’ where they can return Be More Pirate as a ‘lesson plan’.

The Board has now accepted a plan for a slimmed-down Traidcraft with fair trade, community buying, transparency and ‘market disruption’ at its heart.

“We want our members to be co-conspirators in changing how trade is understood and practiced. We want to tell consumers who gets what from the Traidcraft products they buy. We want to annoy and irritate those who profit unduly through the non-transparency of their trading activities. We will cause good trouble, just as those six fair trade pioneers who started Traidcraft did back in 1979.”