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Does the Fair Trade Movement Still Need the Churches?

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Our guest blogger Mark Dawson is carrying out PhD research with the University of Leeds, looking at church action for Fair Trade as a form of Public Theology.  He is the Coordinator of Fairtrade Yorkshire.

Fairtrade Fortnight runs from 29th February to 13th March this year and, for its theme of ‘breakfast’, the Fairtrade Foundation is reminding us of the words of Martin Luther King; ‘before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.’ The Fair Trade movement has always highlighted this dependency, informing us of the daily lives of the people who provide us with the goods we enjoy, in an increasingly interconnected, but depersonalised, global trade system. The churches were key players from the outset of the Fair Trade movement. The Mennonite Church founded the first Fair Trade business, Ten Thousand Villages, and Traidcraft, one of the most influential Fair Trade organisations in the UK, was established as a ‘Christian response to poverty.’ The first ever Fair Trade certification, awarded by Max Havelaar, was influenced by a desire for producer empowerment, motivated by Liberation Theology.

Now, Fair Trade is big business. The Fairtrade certification mark enjoys high levels of public recognition and it is possible to walk into Tesco or Sainsbury’s and choose from a wide range of Fairtrade products. Big transnational names such as Nestlé, Starbucks, Mars and Walmart can claim an involvement with the Fair Trade movement by virtue of their supply, or retail, of Fairtrade mark goods. All of this feels a long way from the church stall selling a range of fairly traded handicrafts, or Traidcraft products, to the congregation after the Sunday service. Which begs the question; are the churches still needed in the Fair Trade movement?

Many non-churchgoers, and a few churchgoers, may be surprised to hear that the Church is still a key player in the movement and it is at the grassroots that church action for Fair Trade makes the most significant impact. Church-based Fair Trade activists galvanise the congregations of which they are a part into action to support Fair Trade. They then go on to link this action with their local communities, and churchgoers are often the stalwarts behind Fair Trade Town and City groups, utilising both church and secular networks to promote Fair Trade. Church-based support for Fair Trade activity in the community is, in a sense, hidden, with churchgoing activists choosing not to publicly express their affiliations, so as to reach out and include those of other faiths or of none. This is not to say that the churchgoing Fair Trade activists don’t relate the work that they are carrying out to their faith. For my research, I interviewed a group of churchgoing activists and all articulated a strong connection between their faith and their support for Fair Trade, understanding Fair Trade as an act of biblical justice and a demonstration of core Christian principles, such as the love of neighbour and the right stewardship of Creation. With churchgoers going public to share with wider society insights drawn from scripture, but which are translated into a secular tongue in order to reach the widest possible public, church action for Fair Trade begins to look and feel like Public Theology in action.

So how does this Public Theology of Fair Trade relate to the mainstreaming activities of Nestlé and Starbucks? The churchgoers in my research project all identify a key purpose of Fair Trade in influencing mainstream business. Fair Trade should come to assist millions of producers in poor communities, rather than just the chosen few, and it has to engage with transnational corporations in order to combat exploitation at scale. Having said this, the churchgoers have real concerns about some of the business practices of the large corporations and wouldn’t like to see the Fairtrade mark on one or two of a corporation’s portfolio of products lend a stamp of approval to all that corporation’s business practices. Many churchgoers have loyalty to the pioneers of the movement, such as Traidcraft and Café Direct, who strive to go further than Fairtrade standards and who are willing to work with the poorest communities and take risks in introducing new Fair Trade products to market.

The churchgoers in my study talk of fellow churchgoers who think that church support for Fair Trade is not necessary because ‘the job is done.’ Fair Trade products are in supermarkets and, having moved on to the next level, it is best left to the marketing managers of the large corporations. The activists in my study are not swayed by this argument as they envisage that, if Fair Trade were to be handed over to the large corporations, then ethical standards would surely be watered down. In effect, the movement is needed to hold the large businesses to account and, by supporting the pioneering businesses (such as Traidcraft), whose aim it is to innovate, broaden and deepen ethical standards, then this will serve as an example of just practice in action, to keep the mainstream on its toes.

There is a paradoxical element to this. Fair Trade needs to be engaged with big business, to ensure that millions of producers are assisted, and that the aim of Fair Trade, to fight injustice and exploitation, can be realised by influencing the global economy, rather than retreating to an ethical niche. Yet, to effectively change big business, the practice of Fair Trade should be sufficiently different from it, to serve as a counter cultural example; to root out injustice, it must itself be just. Fair Trade needs to work as a movement for change in order to hold together these paradoxical elements. Amongst the profusion of ethical certificates, this is what separates Fair Trade from Corporate Social Responsibility devices, the fact it has mass support in the form of a body of informed activists (many of them churchgoers) who can hold corporations to account for their business practice. In the time of mainstreaming, church action for Fair Trade is needed now more than ever.

Church action for Fair Trade offers an opportunity for the Church to add its voice in the economic realm. Christian values of justice and the love of neighbour can inform, inspire and sustain Fair Trade practice and, in turn, influence society. It is a means by which theology can be publicly engaged and yet offer a message distinctive from the mainstream. For the future of church action for Fair Trade, this will require change and renegotiation in order to hold in tension both the engaged and distinctive elements. Such a holding in tension is surely the sign of all effective Public Theology.

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