A Journey for Fair Trade – by Mitch Teberg

crystal-prismImagine a crystal prism hung in a window splintering a single ray of light into a multitude of directions to splash a rainbow of color across a room. Despite having the same point of origin, the reflection on the wall is a unique size and shape. Fair Trade is much the same.

When you examine the metaphorical prism from the global North, each surface represents a principle espoused by Fair Trade and depending on what angle you hold the prism, you can focus on a particular issue or set of related issues. A living wage at the local level free from exploitation; promotion of environmental sustainability with a commitment to organic farming; the empowerment of women through capacity building, promotion into leadership positions, and inclusion in decision making processes; a commitment to gender equality through equal pay for equal work; transparency with trade partners and fair dealing when resourcing materials and supplies for the production of crafts to ensure Fair Trade principles are applied throughout the supply chain; to support grassroots, community-driven development projects or social support programs; the enhancement of cultural traditions and crafts in an era of technological gadgetry and rapid urbanization, and so on. All surfaces are equally important.

Like the effect a prism has on a sunbeam, I have found that Fair Trade Organizations which make the handicrafts, grow the coffee and tea, produce the cocoa, weave the shawls, or create the delicate silk scarves, these local groups look much like the beautiful spectrum of colors in various shapes and sizes splashed around the room. No two are alike despite having the same point of reference.

My blog states: “The Journey for Fair Trade is a journey with a purpose; a journey to present the voices of Fair Trade producers, artisans, weavers, farmers, and craftswomen and men. It starts in Vietnam and continues throughout SE Asia.”

Why I am doing this research is simple. The Fair Trade movement in the West has been well documented, as have the theoretical debates surrounding globalization to include the devastating impact of neo-liberal economic models, Structural Adjustment Programs encased in false ideological promises, and Financial Aid packages that place future generations in debt to foreign lenders. Additionally, Fair Trade impact studies have been conducted by development organizations and specialists, and Fair Trade ethnologies have been documented in anthropological studies

Le Paz, Bolivia Demonstration against 'structural adjustment policies'

Le Paz, Bolivia Demonstration against 'structural adjustment policies'

For those Fair Trade consumers and advocates in the West who want to know more specifically what it is about, one pertinent question remains; How do those principles appear when applied in the local context? Review the established principles carefully and you will see that Fair Trade is about the empowerment of the disempowered, the integration of the disenfranchised, and the recognition of all human rights. Again, what do those ideals look like when applied? And ultimately for the consumer, Why buy or advocate for Fair Trade – who are those people? What impact do these principles have in their life?

My purpose is to write a blog and later a publication that centers on the people and the cooperatives / producer groups in which their lives are entwined; to see the principles of Fair Trade from their view point by listening to their story, their narrative; to see how Fair Trade fits into their lives and understand what those principles mean to them.

How will I conduct this journey? Business class on international flights, 5-star hotels and fine dining, an entourage of $200/day translators, rented SUVs… No, like so many people involved in the Fair Trade Movement, I am of modest means. As I had done in 2005, I put my few belongings into storage, emptied my meager savings, loaded a backpack with a few changes of clothes, picked up a couple books for inspiration (read: Javatrekker by Dean Cycon, the founder of Dean’s Beans – highly recommended!), and a packed a durable Compaq laptop. All I need from this point forth are $7 backpacker guest houses, a coffee shop with wifi, and a range of anti-biotics prepared for those times local foods carry an extra punch. This is my life researching Fair Trade.

Father Marion, Mitch, Father Valentin and the user-friendly Bote Central Coffee Roaster

Father Marion, Mitch, Father Valentin and the user-friendly Bote Central Coffee Roaster

Who am I to conduct this research? In 2005, a friend wrote to me her observation of my year-long backpack Journey for Fair Trade; she stated, “There are dreamers, who dream; and there are dreamers, who do; you are of the latter.” More than a dreamer, I see myself as an advocate for the return of a marketplace which is integrated into the society in which it operates. In the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the Agora was a place for social, political and philosophical gatherings, an exhibition of the arts and culture, and a marketplace, all in one. It was the centerpiece of human activity.

I believe that learning comes not only from academia and life itself, but more importantly in this journey, learning comes from listening to the voices that go unheard in the shrouded chambers of international trade negotiation and disregarded in the university halls of macro-economic studies. This selective hearing loss is a result of a concerted effort in which the field of economics has completely isolated itself from the social context upon which its very existence depends. For the vast majority of economists advising governance, trade is trade, nothing more than an exchange of goods and services devoid of context. This mono vision is degrading to humanity and simultaneously destroying the world we inhabit.

Perhaps my observant friend was correct; I may be a dreamer because I call for a post-autistic future for economics. This is my dream for the impact of a global Fair Trade movement: A future in which the marketplace is re-integrated with the humanities, labor and human rights are respected, and the environment is protected; the new Agora.

My journey is an open invitation for your comments, suggestions, and ideas; and if so inspired, I welcome invitations as I travel to listen and facilitate those voices of Fair Trade.

One thought on “A Journey for Fair Trade – by Mitch Teberg

  1. ~ The world needs dreamers & the world needs doers. But above all, the world needs dreamers who do. In doing what is necessary to achieve the dream, doers do it by taking frequent small steps rather than leaps. Taking stock that the essence of the journey is more precious than the goal itself. Sarah Ban Breathnach, Old Chinese Proverb, Anonymously Simple.

    You fit the description to a T, safe travels and all the best to your endeavors.

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