The fight for Fairtrade

The hallmark of a pirate is an ability to challenge the mainstream, and eventually, change it for the better.

In that respect, Traidcraft are original pirates. Founded in 1979, they introduced the first fair trade tea, coffee and sugar to the UK, and in 1992, co-founded the Fairtrade Foundation. The mission was simple but radical: make capitalism fair.

For four decades, they have successfully championed the need for just and sustainable international trade, alongside their sister charity, Traidcraft Exchange, watching as the mainstream caught on. The Fairtrade mark is now on thousands of products in hundreds of supermarkets and Traidcraft has continued to work with its own network of suppliers and customers.

Then, last year, everything turned on its head. The economic climate and increasing competition from large online retailers pushed Traidcraft to breaking point. CEO Robin Roth brought the team together and announced that unless a solution could be found imminently, Traidcraft plc, would have to cease trading at the end of 2018.

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

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Jude Allen is Traidcraft’s Commercial Sales Executive and was only in her first year with them when things began to unravel. After discussing the problems with her husband, he suggested she read Be More Pirate for inspiration. Coincidentally, Robin had also chanced upon the book so when he gathered everyone together to discuss their options, he did so holding the book as a call to arms.

As a result, while 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 trading, but in drawing a clear line between, Traidcraft1 and Traidcraft2, would still mean several redundancies.

The new streamlined model would aim to maximise the profitable parts of the business and phase out loss-making lines and old practices, create a new membership culture and set a new high bar for ethical trading in the UK. 

Lots of rules to rewrite, and quickly. To do this they needed to start from an entirely different place.

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To figure out what had gone wrong, they needed to work out what they were really trying to achieve and why. They needed to understand precisely what they stood for.

“Unfortunately, it is harder to be passionate about fair trade when even the most frequently boycotted and despised food multi-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 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.”

To begin the process of reorganising Traidcraft they had to shift the internal culture from one that was going through the motions, allowing things to tick over, to one that fostered excitement and passion about the scale of the challenge.

For inspiration, they sought out new role models: to members of the Communidad de la Paz (Peace community) in Colombia, and the climate scientists involved with Extinction Rebellion who are prepared to go to prison because the cause is too urgent.

Time to get shit done

They realised that like many social enterprises 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.” 

When Be More Pirate asks the questions, what prevents success - what gets in your way - there are usually two answers.

First, there are all the things that we know don’t work – the tangible things in our day that stall progress. For Traidcraft this was the time wasted talking to customers who talked forever but never bought anything. It was the amount of spreadsheet management their CEO was doing on behalf of the board.

But the real thing holding them back, the same things that hold us all back, is the fear that creeps in when you try and switch to something that is unfamiliar. There is great comfort to be found in staying on a boring but familiar treadmill.

Traidcraft committed to holding quarterly ‘Battle Line meetings’ to hold each other accountable to their goals and return Be More Pirate as a ‘lesson plan’, but even with a plan in place, they were fighting the tension between keeping the wheels churning and moving on these bigger ambitions.  

Be honest, are you going far enough?

In May, to pushed them to the next level, Traidcraft went through a next level Be More Pirate workshop. Having identified their values, worked out what rules to break and what gets in the way, something was missing.

The first thing we did was to figure out whether everyone was one the same page about what the strategy was. Strategies are usually too long and can be summed up in on sentence:

We are going to GET (someone or something) TO (do something) by (your proposed action)

Simple. And by and large, after doing this exercise the team were aligned about the mission. The next stage was to ask them what they personally were going to about it. We asked every individual: if they were only going to do one thing for the next 6 months – something that really stands a chance at moving the company into a better place, what would it be?

The result of this exercise is that the answers are braver, clearer and you really get to the core of what people believe is worthwhile. As every member of the team went around and voiced their ideas, tangible actions that were within their personal capacity emerged. This part was missing from the original plan; it was not clear who was going to play a role and how in the overall goals. Now everyone had a personal mission.

A new rallying cry

When the turn came to Robin, Traidcraft’s CEO, his one goal was to advocate. We pushed him to define this into practical steps – who would he be speaking to, where, and through what mediums?

We then asked, what exactly is the message, as you see it?

The answer prompted something completely unexpected from Robin: a new mission statement that wasn’t just about pushing for trade justice but about ensuring the survival of everyone.

“70% of our food comes from poor smallholders in Africa, Asia and Latin America, but their soil is marginal being rapidly destroyed by climate change. We must rethink and democratise all our supply chain systems now, else in the next 30 years, the supermarkets will be empty. Traidcraft should lead the way.”

This new mission, articulated by Robin unlocked something crucial.

Throughout the day the team had spoken about the desire to have more challenging conversations and start being braver advocates. But, the values weren’t enough; they’d been heard too many times before, said by too many people and lacked urgency.

The new vision provided that.

It was a way for Traidcraft to reclaim its place as pirates at the edges of the map, and would provide the momentum they needed and allowed them to see that Traidcraft was not only worth saving, it was going to do something historic again.