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The Fair Trade Movement in Historical Perspective

Explaining the “In and Against the Market” Predicament




The earliest incarnations of fair trade emerged in the late 1940s and 1950s, as Christian charitable groups began direct-purchase projects in communities where they were conducting relief work.[16] These agencies were driven by their religious commitments to social justice and Christian solidarity, and sought to provide an outlet for the goods of highly marginalized producers as a means to help these communities prosper.[17] This “helping by selling” or goodwill selling created a virtuous circle: impoverished producers isolated from markets could sell their traditional handicrafts to intermediaries driven by mission, not profit, who in turn sold these goods in affluent countries where the returns could sustain relief programs and channel extra income back to the producers.

Tallontire notes that these early “goodwill selling” trade relationships were developed in a relatively ad hoc manner.[18] Tradable goods were sourced where the agencies happened to be working, and sales of the goods were fairly constrained to the reach of a given agency in its homeland. In order to increase the volume of sales and the number of communities benefiting from access to alternative trade channels, the early alternative traders began setting up a network of shops in developed countries to create additional outlets where imported crafts could be sold. To further broaden their market, these groups also created mail-order catalogs to reach consumers out of range of the physical shops.

The first alternative/fair trade organization is generally considered to derive from the U.S.-based Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Founded in the 1920s as an international relief and development agency, the MCC’s work is mission-driven, reflecting the Mennonite belief that “service to others is an integral part of the Christian life and that God intended all people to share in the earth’s resources.”[19] The MCC began its pioneering alternative trade work in 1946, when a volunteer, Edna Ruth Byler, returned from missionary work in Puerto Rico with handcrafted embroideries she had seen at an MCC-run sewing class.[20] Byler proceeded to sell these needleworks through the network of Mennonite churches and women’s sewing circles.[21] Soon, needleworks by Palestinian refugees in Jordan and wood carvings from Haiti were added to the mix.[22] The project, dubbed SELFHELP, began to take on a life of its own by the late 1950s, as a gift shop was opened in Byler’s home and an international marketing campaign was launched. The effort was augmented by SELFHELP’s decision to begin consignment sales through churches in the 1960s, and to open its own shops in 1972.[23]

The Church of the Brethren also played an early role in the creation of the alternative trade movement when it launched the Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation and Vocations, or SERRV, in 1949. This project initially focused on importing crafts such as handmade clocks from refugees in post-war Europe. SERRV undertook its mission to “promote the social and economic progress of people in developing regions of the world by marketing their crafts and other products in a just and direct manner”[24] in part by actively engaging a range of non-conventional distribution networks, beginning with the Church of the Brethren parishes and a gift shop at the SERRV headquarters in Maryland. Littrell and Dickson have noted that one of SERRV’s foundational principles is that it interprets “alternative distribution to be synonymous with alternative trade.”[25] As such, SERRV soon began distributing its direct-purchased crafts through several other ecumenical parish networks, including Catholic churches and several Protestant denominations, as well as the Church World Service branch of the National Council of Churches.[26]

The charity and campaign organization Oxfam UK began in 1942 as a Quaker-led group that raised funds and supplies for famine relief in Nazi-occupied Greece.[27] Shortly after the war, as part of its objective to concentrate on “the relief of suffering in consequence of the war,”[28] Oxfam began importing small craft items such as pincushions from Eastern European countries to help support their economic recovery.[29] Expanding its activities in the late 1950s, Oxfam also began importing crafts made by Chinese refugees in Hong Kong.[30] In the 1960s, Oxfam became increasingly active in advocacy about the root causes of poverty and its messages sought to portray the people of developing countries “as human beings with dignity, not as passive victims,” leading the charity to initiate self-help schemes designed to empower poor communities to become more capable of providing for their own needs.[31] As part of this effort, Oxfam launched its “Bridge programme” in 1964; later renamed Oxfam Trading, this program provided small-scale producers with technical training and funding while also offering them a fair price for their crafts and a new channel through which to sell them.[32] Through a network of volunteer-run charity shops, Oxfam extended its own distribution network to many British high streets in the late 1960s and 1970s.[33]
The Dutch charity Stichting SOS was founded in 1959 by members of a Catholic political party. SOS’s initial mission of supplying milk powder to malnourished children in Sicily[34] soon expanded to offering vocational training programs in several disadvantaged countries, with the aim of increasing these communities’ economic independence.[35] But, as SOS’s Stefan Durwael[36] explained, “It soon became clear, however, that selling the manufactured products was a major problem. The sales potential of the small local market [in producer countries] was insufficient.” This prompted SOS to shift strategies to what it termed “development trade” by beginning to import the handcrafted goods produced by recipients of its foreign training programs. In 1967 SOS brought its first shipment of “development trade” items—wood carvings from Haiti—to market in the Netherlands.[37] In the early 1970s, SOS began branching out by establishing subsidiaries in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.[38]

The first “world shop” opened in Breukelen, Netherlands in 1969.[39] Often staffed by volunteers, world shops (also known as third world shops, fair trade shops, and charity shops) are specifically dedicated to selling crafts and other products created in developing countries and traded through direct-purchase channels like those established by goodwill sellers. The MCC’s SELFHELP project opened its first full-fledged retail shop in 1972, followed by 60 more shops by the decade’s end.[40] Oxfam’s Bridge programme opened its first charity shops in Britain in the mid 1960s, and these soon began stocking alternative trade handicrafts.[41] SERRV, in contrast, continued to focus primarily on distribution through an increasingly complex network of religious affiliations and parishes. As it grew, this network of goodwill sellers, world shops, mail-order catalogs, and artisanal producers formed the first concrete incarnation of an alternative trading system based on direct-purchase pacts and a commitment to return the largest possible margins to primary producers.

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Masters Thesis for:
New School, Graduate Program in International Affairs
May 2007
Advisor: Professor Stephen Collier
Reader: Professor David Gold

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