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Why fair trade? My journey from charity to commerce

March 04, 2015

Australians are starting to demand more access to products and services that are great quality, but also have a social benefit. Lucky for us, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Ethical shopping is not charity, but a mutually beneficial relationship, where customers are linked to producers who need their trade to survive and thrive.

Is this the way to end poverty? 

I think it is.

According to Fair Trade Australia and New Zealand, our countries continue to be among the world’s fastest growing markets for  fair trade certified products, with retail sales in 2012 estimated at AU$238 million. Not bad, considering almost no-one knew what it was before 2000.

I’ve noticed huge changes in the products that are available over the last few years, which for me, signals an international market that is maturing and providing opportunities for more people, in more countries, producing a much wider range of ethical goods. Increasingly, modern fair trade conjures images of high quality, hand-made pieces with exceptional artistic value.

But now a little about my own journey...

I first heard about the Fair Trade movement in around 2000, as a university student volunteering for campaigns with Oxfam. Most people know the campaign from its impact on the coffee and chocolate industries, which was convenient as both of those things are important to me! It was also an effective way to shed light on some pretty terrible practices in those industries such as forced labour and child labour.

Since then, I’ve worked in a variety of non-profit charitable organisations, large and small. As I’ve learnt more about how positive impact is made on the world and on our communities, the story of Fair Trade has moved on as well. It’s become about big industry as much as cottage industry, and is beginning to have influence over big business. Most people know about the recent focus on the clothing industry and the push to improve working conditions for people (mostly women) in developing countries. This is a fantastic campaign that’s brought about a lot of positive changes. However, there are thousands of small producers around the world who are working under fair trade principles, and in so doing, providing themselves and their communities a livelihood that is sustainable, ethical and fair.

Fair trade isn’t always about stamping out immoral practices. It’s also about the creation of opportunity. It’s a helping hand for communities who have no access, or limited access to work or a decent wage, to break into sustainable markets and compete on an equal footing. It’s hard to get ahead when your wage doesn’t even cover food for the family, so small businesses need a little assistance ensuring they can sell enough to meet their basic needs.

I believe that reducing poverty and disadvantage requires more than donations of cash (although that has its place, and I do donate, myself). The best way to lift a community or an individual out of poverty over the long term is to give them an opportunity to compete on an equal footing, to drive their own livelihoods and take control of their lives. A sustainable income is the first step.

I’m committed to doing my part to make the world just a little bit better, and I like to vote with my wallet. I'm confident that together, we can shop our way to a better world.

Catherine

Founder of Change Merchants



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