Three weeks ago Martin, Anna and I (Heather) attended the Fairfield Conference: a conference trying to encourage social justice through ethical trade. We had a table there for Just Kai and I also gave a talk.

Heather, Martin and Anna behind the Just Kai table.  There are groceries on the table and a poster behind.

It was a more focused crowd than the Justice Conference back in November, with most participants either actively involved in some kind of ethical trading activity or were dreaming of starting something. We quickly learned, when people approached our table, not only to tell them about what we were up to but to ask them what they were doing as well, and heard many interesting stories :-)

The conference was over two days. The first day was more aimed at helping businesses become more ethical in their practises; the second was more aimed at things ordinary people can do - ethical buying and advocacy. In practise there was a fair bit of overlap across the two days and most people attended both.

My talk (available here) was on the first day. I pitched myself as a consumer who doesn’t want to buy products produced by slaves, and asked them to help me in this. Firstly, I urged them to add ‘slave-free’ to their list of ethical concerns, should they not already be doing so (I find it’s very common for companies to have deep and sincere commitments to environmental sustainability whilst being very unaware of worker welfare issues). And then, to those who are already doing that, I asked them to do three things:

  1. tell me what you’re doing (every so often I come across a company with stirling commitment in this area - even to the point of unannounced third-party audits all through their supply chain - which doesn’t bother to mention this anywhere on their website);
  2. get your claims certified if possible (so I don’t need to spend time working out if you know what you’re talking about - and I talked a bit about what I look for in a ‘good’ certification and drew their attention to a couple of useful ones with low profiles in NZ);
  3. dream big (because 20 million people are enslaved in the world today doing ‘normal’ jobs - agriculture, fishing, factory work etc. - and a big problem needs a big solution).

I finished up with a quick overview of my Just Kai buying advice.

Heather in front of a podium.  Behind is a screen with Countdown, Sealord and Nestle logos.

It seemed well-received. One of the small business owners there even told me that she was a bit shocked by what I had to say and will definitely be asking more penetrating questions of her suppliers in the future :-)

We had a lot of interest at our table: we probably spoke to most people who were there and about 40 took away either a business card or some of our buying guides. One couple both made a point of coming up to me and saying they’d been really encouraged to realise what ordinary people can do in terms of asking questions of companies. And one lady who’d been pretty antsy on the first day when she saw all the Nestle products on our stand (she’d been a lactation consultant in the 80s, back when Nestle truly were being appalling in their infant formula marketing), came up to me late on the second day and told me I’d given her lots to think about :-)

Martin talking to two young men at our table.  Anna is listening.

Of the other speakers, I particularly appreciated:

  • Michaelia Miles, the main buyer for Trade Aid, talk about their partnership model. They work with co-ops in majority world countries and try to find a way to get the co-op’s goals (most commonly preserving a traditional craft, but sometimes other things like retaining more of the value of an agricultural product in their own community) match with Trade Aid’s (selling products the New Zealand market is actually interested in buying). She talked a lot about trying to even up the power-imbalances so that that is a genuine conversation. One thing that aids in that is membership of WFTO. I already knew that, to use the WFTO mark (the fair trade certification you see on Trade Aid chocolate or Freeset T-shirts, for example), your organisation needs to be a member of WFTO, and that that involves the whole organisation meeting certain criteria. That’s really different from Fairtrade, where products are certified on an individual basis (so Whittakers can get their 250g dark and milk chocolate blocks certified but leave the whole rest of their range uncertified - that wouldn’t be possible with WFTO). What I hadn’t understood was that the membership criteria are determined by the members, and that they are 3:1 producer organisations:selling organisations. That means that the balance of power in working out what’s important is firmly in the hands of little co-ops making Peruvian handcrafts etc., which helps to counteract the resource imbalance that goes the other way. I came away from that one both excited and frustrated:

    • on the one hand, I felt like Trade Aid is so much more deeply good than regular Fairtrade. They are providing good jobs through-and-through (including in New Zealand, where they are transitioning to a Living Wage for all their paid staff - something they’re obligated to do as WFTO members).
    • on the other hand, they’ll never solve world poverty (and Michaelia was very up-front that their solution isn’t the solution to all the world’s problems!). WFTO members are required to be small-scale producers making hand-made goods. I just kept looking around the lecture room. Hardly anything I could see (people’s phones, people’s clothes, their glasses, the floor covering, the projection equipment, the chairs etc.) was hand-made by small-scale producers, yet heaps of it was produced by people in very poor parts of the world. If we want to make most people’s lives better, we need to crack into factories, not just wee co-ops in rural communities. But I do take heart from the fact that WFTO criteria are mostly determined by producers. If their kids keep going off to the city and getting atrocious jobs there, maybe the mums and dads will agitate for the WFTO criteria to be adapted to include factory jobs?
  • Pete Williams, a PhD candidate from Victoria University, talking about his PhD research where he interviewed wine producers in Chile. They lived in areas where some fair trade wine was produced (something I don’t think is available in New Zealand) and he wanted to know what did and didn’t work for them about fair trade certification. I found him very encouraging. He did find there were significant financial barriers to getting fair trade certification (basically it costs money - because it involves third parties checking stuff - and if you’re really small or really poor that’s a problem), which is apparently something both Fairtrade and some NGOs are already working on. However, he didn’t find people saying that fair trade itself was oppressive or a sham or anything like that, which was nice :-)

  • Robbie Francis, who started my new favourite business - The Lucy Foundation. Robbie was born with a condition that means one of her legs needed to be amputated when she was really small, meaning she’s basically always had one prosthetic leg. A few years back she was living in Mexico and ended up visiting a number of institutions housing people with physical disabilities who had been ‘cleaned up’ from living on the streets. They are kept in crowded conditions, drugged to keep them passive, they don’t get any rehab and they are never expected to leave. She was horrified. That could have been her, if she’d happened to be born in Mexico. She hasn’t come up with any ways to improve things for the people already in the institutions, but she has started a business providing employment to people with disabilities still living in the community - so they won’t be homeless and vulnerable to such institutionalisation. Her organisation, the Lucy Foundation, provides mixed-ability and disability-specific training in coffee growing and processing (so people with and without disabilities can work alongside one another) in Mexico. They also work with another organisation in New Zealand, Able Coffee, to provide barista training to vulnerable groups here. Super awesome!

Robbie with a Latin American man, both showing off their prosthetic legs

Robbie (on the left, in a photo I cadged off Facebook) also has a really fun prosthetic leg :-)

I’m really pleased I went: both for the engagement there was with Just Kai and for the interesting things I learned :-)