Commemorating five years' endeavour – was it worth it?
Updated: Jun 8, 2018
In early 2009, five members of the Holme Valley Fairtrade Support Group met to discuss how they could do more to promote fair trade. They shared a common vision, namely to make a difference by:
Providing sustainable small suppliers, particularly co-operatives, with a supportive partner, and thereby help disadvantaged communities.
Giving customers a diverse and contemporary range of fairly traded products which have been individually assessed in terms of their sustainability.
Supporting the enterprise and initiatives of other fair trade organisations.
On a freezing Monday night in November 2009, in the depths of a depression, at an inn high on the moors above Holmfirth in West Yorkshire, more than 150 people assembled and collectively put up more than £10,000, giving The Fair Traders Co-operative a good start towards the £100,000 needed to stock and convert the historic Toll House into a shop and events venue. Those who doubted their determination were reminded that in 1813 in nearby Marsden, a mill owner was assassinated by the locally-founded Luddites, and at one time there were more troops engaged in fighting the Luddites than Napoleon. Nearly 200 years on, we still hope this marked the start of another Luddite uprising on the Yorkshire moors– this time against modern consumer culture and the companies who profit from it at the expense of the environment and the world’s poorest people.
The store opened on 6th June 2010 and the webshop was operational by the end of that year. It has been extended and improved by a further share issue and now offers a unique and attractive shopping experience for clothing, fashion accessories, jewellery, homewares, stationery, toys, food and drink. We have kept an historic local building in active use and still have plans to convert the disused attic into an incubator for ethical co-operative start-ups that share our aims.
Five years on, as well as local people we have over 600 members from as far afield as Australia, Canada, Kenya, Thailand and the USA. They include co-operatives, schools, universities, St Vincent banana farmers, and many others all sharing the same vision. Collectively they have invested nearly £120,000, not received a penny of interest, and remain unable to withdraw their funds unless they die! So what has been achieved?
The co-operative generates annual sales of over £130,000 and earnings before depreciation are just positive. Since starting up we have spent over £330,000 with small ethical suppliers from around the world.
Suppliers include impoverished rice farmers in Malawi, leprosy sufferers making jewellery in Nepal, Dalit communities in India, and Haitians trying to rebuild their lives after the hurricane and cholera epidemic. All suppliers were assessed by our members as having a positive impact in economic, social or environmental terms and the results are made available to customers. Our orders for many of these small suppliers provided them with a dignified way of supporting themselves at a time when many faced severe economic hardship. We have also helped suppliers grow sales by advising them on improvements to design, quality, and branding.
We have successfully sold a wide range of recycled products, be they glass from bottles collected by street children, oil drum ends converted into wall hangings or soft drinks cans transformed into beautiful painted figures.
None of this would be possible without the efforts of our amazing supplier network to whom we are indebted. These individuals work tirelessly for little reward, sometimes in uncomfortable or downright dangerous environments, to help small ethical producer groups get established in places like Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Palestine. We are getting better at helping them build sales by communicating their stories to our friends in the co-operative movement, schools and the media, but it remains a massive challenge.
It makes no sense to import products that are available locally from small ethical suppliers and UK companies can make an important contribution to reducing the global warming that is having such a devastating effect on the rural poor in many parts of the world. Cider is a good example. It requires no heating during production; the local, organically grown fruit is just pressed, allowed to ferment naturally, and filtered. Unlike the mass market brands, Pure North cider contains no artificial yeasts, finings or preservatives– just fruit juice – making it perfect for vegans. What is more they have their own windmill and a heat pump extracting energy from a pond, meaning this product is a close to zero carbon as you can get. Even the residues from pressings are fed to the local pigs, so there is no waste either.
Fair Trader remains a volunteer-run organisation with some 35 volunteers supported by, currently, two young employees. Our volunteers, aged from 16 to 70+, come from a wide range of backgrounds bringing a great mix of energy and experience to the co-operative. They include students, accountants, lawyers, retailers, branding experts, HR professionals, teachers, ministers, IT and sustainability consultants. They all give their help freely whether to work on the till, sweep the pavement outside the shop, run events, build the website or create our new corporate branding.
As well as helping the business, they help each other, and we have now seen at least a dozen young local people find the sort of jobs they wanted, assisted by the confidence and training they gained whilst working with our team in roles such as buying, marketing, merchandising, customer service, administration and management. Our trainee manager has even started her own business, mentored by a director.
We have also raised £1000’s for charity partners with whom we have developed contacts through our trading activities. These include the St Vincent banana farmers recovering from hurricane damage, Sandlanders (supporting co-operative African football clubs), Hands of Hope (providing training and healthcare for the poor in Haiti), Root to Fruit (assisting community groups in northern Malawi plant trees to reverse erosion and provide income) and this year, three of our suppliers set up charities to help their producer communities deal with the aftermath of the earthquakes.
We think these achievements have been worth it. They are a credit to those involved, and could not have been achieved without co-operation across our community. They represent a tremendous social return on investment for those who recognise that luck, rather than personal merit, has meant we were born in a rich country enjoying food, shelter, healthcare and a good education, and we therefore have a responsibility to use these advantages to make the world a better place for those who are less fortunate.
Looking forward, our vision remains unchanged but we must hugely expand our influence if we are to have any meaningful impact on fighting poverty through fair trade. We believe that the key lies in engaging the support of the wider Co-operative movement to promote the expanding range of gifts that are becoming available to their fifteen million UK members through our on line shop. For many years, Co-operative members have played a key role both in the development of Fairtrade and supporting their local communities, and we think they will welcome the opportunity to support fair trade and co-operative values with their gift purchases outside the food and drink sector as well.
We also hope that co-operative Fairtrade supporters throughout the UK will help us grow sales, join as members, and work with their local suppliers to develop a powerful buying group and more fairly traded products. To this end we are developing an exclusive fair trader branded range of products and are trying to persuade the executives of the larger co-operatives to get involved in fairly traded giftware and on-line selling. This will require the continued energetic support of our volunteers, patience of our investors, and the hard work and talents of our producers.
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