Fair and LOVELY: Fair Trade movement gathers steam in India

February 20, 2011

That an Indian would inquire if Fair Trade was a kind of fairness cream points to two ringing truths: we’re been thoroughly whitewashed by the ‘skin improvement’ business; and the international principles of ethical trade, collectively called Fair Trade, have still miles to go in educating the Indian populace. In all fairness, though, their people are already on the job.

Beginning June 2010, a campaign has been touring offices, campuses and public intersections, familiarising folk with a term that has grown to vast social and economic proportions worldwide. The campaign, called Pro Sustain, is the effort of four organizations—Fair Trade Forum India, International Resources for Fairer Trade, Shop for Change and the Dutch organisation Hivos to navigate consumers and producers through the broad waters of Fair Trade.

Fair Trade refers to a social movement with a free market spirit—a global canon on equitable trade practices that seeks to secure fair wages, humane work conditions and social development for producers of handicraft and agriculture. It was ’60s Europe, with its slogan of ‘Trade Not Aid’, which shaped the movement that has proved to be a competent business model and not just commercial philanthropy: in 2008, products certified ‘Fairtrade’ reportedly billed US$4.08 billion worldwide—a 22 per cent year-to-year jump.

“This is what we wanted to do with the Pro Sustain campaign—show business houses the profitability of buying Fair Trade both for their internal use as well as to retail in their stores. They shouldn’t engage with NGO merchandise in an ad-hoc, CSR way but through a committed and sustained relationship,” reasons Gaynor Pais, CEO of IRFT. “IRFT helps minor producers upscale their skills, advises them on an inventory makeover and teaches them costing, pricing, branding and marketing.” It’s a three-year mentorship in which the organisation works with a farmer cooperative or artisan group, helps them build capacity and procure funding for the upgrade, and at the same time reinforces the Fair Trade tenets of transparency, non-discrimination, decent work conditions and no child or forced labour.

The Fair Trade wagon is now pulling through India because the weather is apparently propitious for such trade here. Until now, Fair Trade handicraft and produce were largely exported; but last mid-year India got its own Fair Trade label called Shop For Change. The first Shop For Change product was cotton and clothes made from it, and these included a pret line by designer Anita Dongre. The label guaranteed that those cotton farmers were dealt a fair deal. Then in November, cotton had company in mango, cashew and amla items. “Presently Shop for Change retails in over 60 outlets, and we’re aggressively pursuing others—both retailers and producers,” says Seth Petchers, CEO of Shop For Change.

It cannot, however, be said that producers are stampeding to sign up. Because it isn’t as simple as taping a token sticker on a bunch of bananas. The producer has to pass a social audit by an organization like Fair Trade Forum of India to ensure that its practices meet recommended standards. Moreover, producers have to be prescient to anticipate profit in aligning with the movement. Beyond just the cachet of the label (which, presently, curries more influence abroad than in India), small-scale producers, and even non-profits that represent them, have to be convinced that this certification will eventually point to newer markets and improved sales.

The blind weavers of the Grameen Shramik Pratishthan in Latur are convinced that Fair Trade will deliver. For over a year they’ve been mentored by IRFT and have recast their handicraft line; altered production habits to minimise time and maximise output; and discovered new paying markets outside Latur. “IRFT brought us to Kala Ghoda, where we made Rs 103,000 in five days this year,” says Prashanth Sude, deputy director of the NGO. “It would have taken us two months to make that money in our traditional markets.”

At a time when NGOs have been retailing like never before in India, do cottage industries really need the Fair Trade label? Yes, they say. “An international label like Fair Trade semantically conveys our social agenda to customers,” says Shibani Jain, proprietor of Baaya Design Studio that contemporises folk art for urban buyers. “It explains our pricing, but it is also conveys goodwill and trust; it is a good brand statement.”

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