What is Fair Trade?

The question that tripped me up during my interview for this position.

A simple question, in theory, but in that moment all I could remember from my interview prep was their clean website formatting and something about good environmental practices and no child labor.

The international fair trade system, led by the World Fair Trade Organization (“WFTO”), generally seeks to address extreme poverty, climate change, and global economic challenges. A WFTO member, Fair Trade Forum – India (“FTF-I”), seeks to “ensure a dignified income and overall development of artisans, farmers and workers in the unorganized sector.” 

Fair Trade - SHILPA
Ten Principles of Fair Trade at SHILPA Trust, Fair Trade Forum – India member in Bangalore, Karnataka. Picture credit: Kara Morgan, February 2018.

At the time, I fortunately offered an answer that convinced my future mentors I at least had the ability to understand fair trade in the future.

I did understand that this was an opportunity to tell people’s stories, to connect to people and find out what is important to them. But I did not yet understand what would make these stories uniquely “fair trade”. When I arrived at my host organization, my mentor asked me again, “Do you know how to describe fair trade?”

Still I struggled to put it to words. At this point I understood fair trade in India was connected to handicrafts and artisans, less so to the fair trade product with which I was most familiar: chocolate.

Upon arrival, I was handed multiple booklets and materials to read to expand my understanding. I interrogated my coworkers, researched academic analysis of this field’s effectiveness for poverty eradication. My limited understanding connected fair trade to fair business and labor practices; I could not decide if fair trade organizations are inherently conservative or radical.

As I scoured the Fair Trade Forum – India website and booklets, I scribbled down notes as I read – what is fair trade? A previous annual report offered these definitions:

“Sustainable consumption and production”

“Organized social movement & market-based approach to empowering developing country producers & promoting sustainability”

“Fair Trade Provides marginalized producers a chance to succeed at the marketplace that generally excludes them & offers fair trade consumers the means to make their purchasing power a force for real social and economic change needed for inclusive growth”

Fair Trade Forum India also strives to be the “unified voice of grassroots producers all over India.”

But not every description was academic or technical term-heavy. I started to understand that handicrafts are more than just a business, for fair trade, for India. In that same annual report, Fair Trade Forum – India drew inspiration from a quote from the 1982 film Gandhi, spoken by the actor, Rohini Hattangad, depicting Kasturba Gandhi
“There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.”
I had no idea that fair trade could be Gandhian.


Fair trade follows a set of principles, a code to operate under every day:

Fair Trade Principles
The 10 Principles of Fair Trade. Source: https://wfto.com/fair-trade/10-principles-fair-trade.

Fair trade, like any human endeavor, is an imperfect system. The efforts for “fair” wages must still compete with the demands of a market that often rewards low production costs, including low costs for the work of the producers themselves.

I finally understood both the intentions of the Fair Trade Movement and the challenges to a system attempting to guarantee fair labor practice, but I did not understand what this impact looked like for employees and members of fair trade organizations (FTOs) themselves.

As I began to visit, stay, and interview at FTOs, I asked each of my interviewees: what does fair trade mean to you?

Some answers were standard, encompassing a basic definition of fair trade. But many others described a work environment that felt like a family, a source of employment where they felt their supervisors and coworkers looked out for them.

SHILPA Trust – Bangalore, Karnataka. Picture credit: Kara Morgan, February 2018.

Now that my field visits are completed, the Self Help Initiative Linking Progressive Artisans, or SHILPA Trust, in Bangalore, comes to mind as an FTO that exemplifies several sides of fair trade.

SHILPA was started as a producer group, led by producers themselves, to eliminate the middle man, to act as a resource organization to assist and connect artisans in the traditional crafts in the area: woodcarving, lacquerware, screenprinting, batik, silk, and more.

Speaking with several members, I heard how SHILPA supported role artisans to continue practicing their families’ traditional crafts in a way that is financially sustainable. I also found out how SHILPA sought to break tradition by eliminating potentially exploitative middle management systems between their artisans and buyers, and to support their artisans with scholarships for their children and health insurance. Even further, SHILPA began training women in crafts historically male-dominated, woodcarving and lacquerware. It became more clear to me that SHILPA was seeking to make these handicrafts more accessible and inclusive for those who may not be considered “traditional craftspersons.”

I am still uncovering what “fair trade” is and its positives and negatives, but with each visit I have gotten closer and closer to understanding the efforts and impacts of the Fair Trade Movement in India.

“Fair Trade having system and principles, we have to follow those principles for the betterment of the people engaged in this craft… by including technology, by including designs, by knowing the demand of the market, by knowing the certification process, quality process, and everything. If we follow all of these things, we can develop the life standards of the artisans, as well as, we can sell the products to the consumers.” – Mr. M. Bhupathy, Secretary of SHILPA Trust, the Self Help Initiative Linking Progressive Artisans in Bangalore, Karnataka. Interview from February 2018.

Mr. Bhupathy and Kara Morgan
Mr. Bhupathy, Secretary of SHILPA Trust, and Kara Morgan. February 2018.


Kara, a recent political science and international affairs graduate of Northeastern University, fell in love with India during a month-long academic trip focused on the impacts of climate change and resilience efforts around the subcontinent in 2014. She returned the following year to lead the next group of students. Armed with her appreciation for storytelling and journalism experience at an anti-corruption media organization in Bosnia and Herzegovina and for an environmental organization in the U.S., Kara will work with Fair Trade Forum - India and Fair Trade Connection as an AIF Clinton Fellow to amplify the voices of fair trade organizations and their impacts on the artisan and farmer communities around the country.

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