Editorial: Many Paths to the Top

Written by Cafe Campesino on Sep 1, 2006 in Editorial, NEWSLETTER |

Last month I traveled to Christchurch, New Zealand, to meet with fellow members of the International Fair Trade Association at a conference hosted by our friends at Trade Aid. Our twelve-hour flight from San Francisco was extended by another 30 minutes due to low clouds covering the airport, so the pilot made the best of the situation by taking us on a quick aerial tour of the extraordinary snow-covered New Zealand mountains. This was my first view of the stark peaks that I would see hovering in the distance outside of Christchurch, and that I would cross several times as I drove around the South Island during four days of post-conference rest and relaxation in a borrowed jeep (thanks Michelia!).

Driving and hiking up, over and around these mountains, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Fair Trade movement and the hurdles that seem to lie ahead. We had just concluded an energizing and thought-provoking meeting in Christchurch where heady, fundamental issues such as the direction of the Fair Trade movement and the relationship between Fair Traders and Fair Trade labeling organizations dominated conversations. So my planned “R and R” actually evolved into more of a “drive and think” meandering tour of the South Island. And I couldn’t avoid the obvious analogy that confronted me every time I broke out the detailed road atlas and compared it to my host Justin’s hand drawn “must see” map…there is always more than one way to get where you want to go.

In July, I wrote about the tensions quite present within the Fair Trade movement concerning the mainstream “product certification” approach versus the “mission-based Fair Trade organization” approach as practiced by Cafe Campesino and many other Fair Traders. I concluded by hoping that a constructive solution could be found to relieve these tensions — but I didn’t really propose one. I have received quite a bit of feedback concerning that article, almost all supportive, but very little that was solution-oriented. So in honor of those mountains of New Zealand — and mountaineer Ed whose home sheltered me for a few day and who certainly knows better than anyone that there is more than one path up any mountain — let’s start a “solutions discussion.”

Envision a Unified Movement

Fair Trade is complicated…this movement spans the globe and directly affects hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life. Each person involved in the movement likely arrived from a different place after following (sometimes, as in my experience, blindly…) a new and unfamiliar path. We have students and grandmothers and farmers and potters and MBAs and corporate dropouts and corporations and coffee roasters and so many others all attempting to use trade to do good work and to make the world a better place for all. Not the most eloquent definition of Fair Trade, but I believe that most would agree that this is our vision. Maybe I am being a bit naïve here, but if we can all agree on this simple premise, I feel that we have a pretty strong basis for unifying the movement if…and this is a big if…we prioritize the duel R’s.

The missing R’s – Roles and Respect

During my “R and R” in New Zealand, my thoughts constantly drifted to this “R and R” — identifying roles and agreeing to respect the paths of others. I feel that the Fair Trade movement is moving from childhood to adolescence and most of the tension and confusion within our ranks is a natural result of this growth. Many of us are so deeply committed to this movement that we sometimes lack perspective and we have a hard time stepping back and viewing the larger picture. Our vision of the forest is not only blocked by our trees — but when someone else’s trees get in our way we sometimes try to chop them down. This isn’t good for the forest, our soul or our trading partners! What is missing, in my opinion, is a clear acknowledgment of the roles that each person and organization plays in the Fair Trade movement and mutual respect and appreciation for these roles.

Years ago I had an opportunity to hike Nepal’s Annapurna circuit. The trail is actually a labyrinth of footpaths that connect villages throughout the Himalayas with the ancient Salt Road that linked China and India. I remember stopping regularly at a given intersection of the paths, looking across the valley to the next mountain that we needed to climb, and seeing that there were many paths up and down the hill. All paths ultimately led to the river at the bottom or the pass at the top. But each traveler could choose a different route. So here comes another obvious analogy: those paths represent the roles that each person and organization plays in the movement and some of those paths are more difficult and treacherous than others. From a given vantage point at a given moment, one path may look like the obvious choice to some but not to others. If a fellow traveler chooses a different path, we need to respect this decision and agree that whoever makes it to the top first will build the fire and boil the tea.

This movement is too critical and the farmers, artisans and workers that we represent are too important to let these tensions continue to build. Some feel that the Fair Trade movement is splintering and that we all need to line up behind a particular organization or initiative in order to eliminate consumer and activist confusion. I strongly disagree. I feel that the beauty of the movement is its diversity and what is missing is an open and sincerely acknowledgment of the roles and accomplishments of others and a healthy respect for each player, regardless of one’s view of their strategy. “Fair Trade” can be an adjective, a subject or a verb…it is an incredibly flexible concept and we can waste much energy on internal movement issues and definitions if we choose to do so. Every membership organization or certification label or trader or company should have its own standards and practices clearly and publicly articulated and should adhere to this stated position, but we shouldn’t consider those who are attempting to climb the same mountain but choose a different path to be the competition or enemy. Instead, we should remember that as one approaches the top of a mountain all paths converge. And the terrain often gets steeper, so having friends to lend a helping hand can be quite helpful.

In the coming months, I will expand on this theme and hope to even get a bit more detailed in terms of specific solutions and steps that the movement can take to move forward and roles that each participant can play. I also hope that we can help spread the word concerning constructive, collaborative developments that are taking place within the Fair Trade movement. Thoughtful, dedicated people are working hard on this in the wake of last year’s ultra-successful Fair Trade Futures Conference and I sense progress and clarity in the near future. ‘Til then, we will keep hiking up that Fair Trade mountain and hope you will do the same!

Bill Harris is a partner at Cafe Campesino and hopes to return to New Zealand and Nepal one day in order to gain new life perspective by consciously choosing to walk along a different path.

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