Learning from Leaders in Fair Trade
Awareness of Fair Trade in the U.S. has been steadily growing in the past decade. A significant driving force in this growth has been the active organizing by Fair Trade advocates throughout the country. In keeping with this rising tide, it is important to learn from longstanding campaigners about their experiences to ensure an impactful Fair Trade movement moving forward.
I spoke with three leaders in the movement – Elizabeth Killough of Media, PA – America’s First Fair Trade Town, Joan Harper of Fair Trade LA, and Katherine Bissell Cordova of Chicago Fair Trade – and they shared with me how their campaigns have grown and evolved over the years. From common challenges, to success stories and growth strategies, there is much we can learn from one another.
What strategies worked best to generate support in your community?
Elizabeth Killough: Probably education and presence. For example, every year we educate the public school 4th graders on Fair Trade. Now lots of those students are in high school and they get Fair Trade. We have created some great youth leaders. Meanwhile, we try to maintain a Fair Trade presence in Media through signage, people in Fair Trade banana costumes at Media’s many community events, handouts, etc.
Joan Harper: Reaching out to millennials with a specific request. For example, a millennial now heads our newly re-formed communications committee, does all the communication for her Fair Trade business – and she has access to like-minded people who say yes to her. Her engagement with ethical businesses, especially in the world of fashion, has been extremely helpful to us getting community support.
Outreach to congregations is also key. We offer them the opportunity to have our Fair Trade business members come sell their products (like a pop up shop) at a special event or after weekend services. This helps our business members and also gets Fair Trade products in front of people who can then hear artisan stories and about the work of Fair Trade LA. This encourages them to become a Fair Trade Congregation.
We just launched FAIR Package, a monthly subscription of one Fair Trade item. Again, this helps our business members who are providing those items and gets a Fair Trade product delivered to someone’s door. This is a very popular program and it’s another way to get community support and consistent funding into Fair Trade LA. This program also helps us find people out in the city where we have campaigns who support Fair Trade. We can then outreach to them for help in our LA town campaign.
“That’s the great thing about Fair Trade – while it addresses serious problems, it offers such concrete solutions and really is a feel good movement. It really is easy to bring people into the Fair Trade fold.”
Katherine Bissell Cordova: When we have had the good fortune of having Fair Trade producers come through town, which has worked incredibly well. There is nothing better than hearing first-hand about the positive impact Fair Trade has on people’s lives and their communities. But we also find it powerful when our business members share their stories of visiting their Fair Trade partner artisans and farmers. The more personal their stories, the better. We also work hard to make our events fun. That’s the great thing about Fair Trade – while it addresses serious problems, it offers such concrete solutions and really is a feel good movement. It really is easy to bring people into the Fair Trade fold.
What have been the biggest challenges in your work?
EK: Maintaining a strong and growing committee has been our biggest challenge. We’ve had a changeover in leadership, and are working to rebuild our committee.
“…networking with like-minded organizations/causes so we can build a stronger movement more quickly and with joint resources.”
JH: Three major challenges – Firstly, communication: finding ways to get the message about Fair Trade clearly and quickly in our media driven age. Secondly, networking with like-minded organizations/causes so we can build a stronger movement more quickly and with joint resources. These groups are underfunded and overworked so finding ways to work together takes time and relationship building. Thirdly, funding i.e. finding ways to have people support the work of Fair Trade consistently and reliably.
KBC: Raising funds. I’ve been a fundraiser for non-profits in the past and had success obtaining grants. Fair Trade movement building is much harder to fundraise for than I had anticipated, and harder than it should be. That being said, we have been creative and have been able to increase our funding over the past year and are on solid ground.
Was there a specific moment when you realized that Fair Trade was gaining steam?
EK: When our “Media Business Authority” fast-tracked the resolution to become a Fair Trade Town to our town council. We knew then that we were cooking with gas!
“Fair Trade has to be broad and current and available, and Fair Trade fashion is going to accomplish all three of these goals.”
JH: I wouldn’t say a moment, but for us here in Los Angeles, it was realizing how much the fashion industry is connected to and caring about Fair Trade. This has come to our attention because some incredible millennials involved in the fashion world have sought Fair Trade LA out, become involved in our work (even as board members) and are linking us to others in the fashion industry. This is very exciting because Fair Trade has to be broad and current and available, and Fair Trade fashion is going to accomplish all three of these goals.
KBC: This is a great question. I don’t think there was a light bulb moment, but it’s been gradual. I started working in Fair Trade as my day job ten years ago. Awareness is far greater today than it was ten years ago. It really made me happy to see Fair Trade sugar and coffee available at Aldi a couple of years ago – that struck me as how much more accessible and in demand it now is.
What did your work look like ten years ago? What do you hope your work will look like in ten years?
“I hope ten years from now we still have a fun and spunky Fair Trade committee, but that it doesn’t have to work very hard, because Fair Trade products will be sold and used in every business establishment … We will sit around eating Fair Trade chocolate and talking about the days we had to beg restaurateurs to use Fair Trade sugar!”
EK: Ten years ago, we had a fun and spunky Fair Trade committee that loved meeting and working together. Although we gained Fair Trade Town status quickly, lots of Media residents and visitors at that time still didn’t know what it was, and many still don’t. Fair Trade is a simple yet complicated message to get across. We’ve had far more success in educating our residents than in getting stores and restaurants to sell and use Fair Trade products. So, I hope ten years from now we still have a fun and spunky Fair Trade committee, but that it doesn’t have to work very hard, because Fair Trade products will be sold and used in every business establishment and they will be well labeled. Business owners will know so much about Fair Trade that they will do most of the educating for us! We will sit around eating Fair Trade chocolate and talking about the days we had to beg restaurateurs to use Fair Trade sugar!
JH: Fair Trade LA is just 12 years old. In the beginning, five people ventured out to see who else cared about Fair Trade. We saw the movement slowly grow as we reached out to anyone and everyone who would listen to us. When we’d ask people if they knew about Fair Trade the predominant answer was no. Now, 12 years later, we have Fair Trade cities, congregations, and colleges/universities in LA. And more are on their way. What would I hope our work looked like in ten years? Many, many declared Fair Trade cities buzzing with Fair Trade awareness and commitment – with their congregations, schools, and universities declared Fair Trade as well. More businesses selling Fair Trade items and more exclusively Fair Trade businesses. I’d hope Fair Trade LA would have many paid staff helping make all this work happen. More is the key word – more Fair Trade fans, more products to buy and more awareness that Fair Trade is the way to live.
KBC: Ten years ago, I helped open up a Fair Trade store, the Greenheart Shop. At that time, the choices of products was much more limited than it is now. Today there are so many wonderful Fair Trade companies selling a wide variety of high-quality products. In 2007, Chicago Fair Trade (CFT) was one year old and I became involved as a business member. Back then, CFT would table at events and bring bags of Fair Trade coffee to show people the Fair Trade label. We had three business members at that time. We now have over 50 locally owned Fair Trade business members and our own Chicago Fair Trade coffee label as part of a fundraising project in partnership with our member, Metropolis Coffee. In 2027, I think the sky’s the limit. Fair Trade is growing exponentially. And the more people who know about Fair Trade, the faster it will continue to grow. Chicago Fair Trade envisions a metropolitan area of conscious consumers living in a place with easy access to purchasing ethically sourced products. I think by 2027, this vision can be a reality.
The experiences, histories, and visions of Elizabeth, Joan, Katherine, and all our organizers around the country, have an immense role to play in growing and sustaining the Fair Trade movement. Thanks to all of you, the Fair Trade movement is better informed and better organized than ever before.
Looking for more resources and ideas to keep your Fair Trade campaign going strong? Check out our resource library for tips and case studies, toolkits, educational materials, and more!