History of the Fair Trade Movement

June 11, 2015 Caleb Benadum Story 
Empowerment, Forced Labor, Slave Free Lifestyle

A Moral Imperative: Quakers and “Fair Trade” During Historic Slavery


The Fair Trade movement has modest beginnings but is founded in certain concepts. Drawing from a variety of sources—such as religion, organized labor, early human rights, and economic theory—the movement has appealed to a board audience only in the past 60 years. The very first “fair trade” movement can be found in the Quaker Free Produce movement. Offering a non-violent way to combat slavery, an institution that the Quakers considered immoral, the movement boycotted goods that were made with slave labor. At various points in the movement, people tried to source alternative goods that were made with free labor. The movement was formalized in Pennsylvania with the founding of the “Free Produce Society” in 1826. While the movement had some support through the 1830s, it was on the downslide when Levi Coffin got involved.


Levi Coffin, often called the president of the Underground Railroad, moved from the country of Indiana into the City of Cincinnati at the urging of some of his Quaker contemporaries. His express purpose was to manage a storefront that would sell goods made by free labor. For ten years he labored, trying to turn the venture into a profitable business. Eventually, he was forced to give up the store, concluding that he would not be able to make it into a sustainable business. However, his store had made a significant contribution to the idea that consumer behavior can make a difference. He bought cotton from a farm in Mississippi where a slave owner had freed, and then hired as free laborers, all of his once-slaves. He bought other commodities from places where the materials were made or sourced from free labor.


The latter part of the 19th century saw the end of chattel slavery in the U.S. With the end of slavery as it was known, all goods began to be produced by free labor. But as exploitation would expand, so would the movement that advocated for better consumer behavior.


The Re-emergence of Fair Trade: World-shops, Anti-Colonialism, and Labor Rights


The fair trade movement popped back up in the 1940s as a way to combat poverty. The Church of the Brethren founded SERRV, an organization originally dedicated to providing economic opportunities for refugees in Europe after World War II, in 1949. Several years before that, the Mennonite Central Committee founded Ten Thousand Villages, an organization which is still active in the Fair Trade movement today. Ten Thousand Villages was an attempt to support artisans in impoverished countries by selling their wares in developed countries.



However, Fair Trade didn’t start to catch on in the United States until after it had caught on in Europe. As colonialism waned, the dominant economic theories, which mostly supported unregulated global capitalism, began to come under critique from trade unions, international organizations, and student groups. The liberalization of trade, which removed state-supported regulations on trade meant to protect local industries, had unintended consequences in allowing private entities to exploit and utilize cheap labor. This was seen as neo-imperialism. In response, organizations began to provide private and voluntary forms of fairly trading with impoverished peoples. OXFAM began to sell handicrafts out of catalogues and out of its UK-based offices. Other groups and organizations sold goods informally throughout the 1960s as alternative trade solutions. A worldshop, the world’s first Fair Trade storefront, opened in 1969 in The Netherlands. The movement continued through the 1970s and 1980s, and new types of goods began to be sourced as Fair Trade. These new goods included agricultural products, like coffee, instead of the traditional handicrafts that had been the staple of the Fair Trade movement.


Fair Trade during this time was connected to various social movements. It was advocated as a way to boycott the policies of the Apartheid state in South Africa, as a way to support pro-labor efforts and to protest the perceived capitalist agenda of the WTO, as a way to support workers’ solidarity in the 1990s, and as a way to protect against labor abuses including the use of so-called sweatshops. No matter who advocated the use of Fair Trade products, the focus was on fairly trading with impoverished peoples in order to provide economic empowerment.


The Rise of the Certification, and Anti-Slavery


In 1988, a Dutch organization that took its name from a fictional anti-colonial novel, Max Havelaar, began certifying products as fairly trading. This was the forerunner to the modern-day certification which now defines the fair trade movement. The International Fair Trade Association was established in 1989. The Fair Trade Federation was formed in 1994. Fairtrade International was founded in 1997, and brought together a variety of already-existing Fair Trade certifications in order to provide a standardized norm. However, a variety of organizations still exist that certify products as Fair Trade: Fair Trade USA, Catholic Relief Services Fair Trade, Fair Trade Towns USA, Equal Exchange, and others.



And that is how Fair Trade, as we know it, was born. Fair Trade certified products can be found in any major grocery chain or store, and in small ‘worldshops.’ Ten Thousand Villages still sells artisan products, and other retailers sell Fair Trade products online and in-stores. How did Fair Trade become identified with Anti-Slavery? Simple. The modern Anti-Slavery movement began in the mid-1990s. But the focus was undeniably on sex trafficking, despite some of the impetus for the Anti-Slavery movement coming from the work the CIW was doing with farmworkers in Florida. In the early 2000s, people began to recognize that there were a significant amount of people that were being used in forced labor situations to provide products. People started to realize that those products were ending up in our grocery stores.


Take, for example, Thailand. Unfortunately, the Southeast Asian country has been criticized heavily in the past several months, although not without cause. The shrimp that is caught in the gulf, often with sailors who are enslaved, is sold to companies that ship it all over the world. The shrimp that comes on your shrimp cocktail in a fancy restaurant could have been, and very well may have been, caught by slaves. Another “Fair Trade”-like concept is ethically-sourced goods, or direct sourcing. The latter is what is being done by the CIW with their Fair Food Campaign, which asks companies to commit to paying a penny more per tomato in order to ensure that tomato pickers in Florida receive fair compensation for their work. In our globalized world, how do we ensure that the goods we buy are made with free (as in non-slave) labor? The answer is simple: We become better consumers. Buying Fair Trade products is one way to do that. Another is to press companies to publish their supply chains, or commit to better vetting policies. Another is to source directly from ethical suppliers.


We live in a world that is increasingly without borders. Our products are no exception. If we are committed to modern abolition, to the fight against the modern slave trade, then we must be careful what our money supports. Don’t support slave labor, and the crooked economy that allows it. Support people who are paid a fair and just wage for their work. Why? Because you expect to be. Why shouldn’t they?

Topics: Empowerment, Forced Labor, Slave Free Lifestyle

About the Author

Caleb Benadum

Caleb Benadum was previously the Program Manager for the Trafficking in Persons Report Global Heroes Network. He graduated from Capital University with a degree in Philosophy, and the University of Cincinnati Law School with a Juris Doctor degree. Having spent much of his life overseas, he is committed to modern-day abolitionism and the promotion of human rights around the world.