February 2024

The contemporary Fair Trade concept dates back to British Quakers networking with some social activists and Oxford University academics to found the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief in 1942. The next year this group incorporated as Oxfam with a driving passion to eradicate poverty everywhere. After the war, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Church of the Brethren found ways to help internally displaced refugees in Europe after WWII by collecting and selling their handicrafts. All three initiatives have endured until today: Oxfam, Ten Thousand Villages and SERRV.

One of the main Fair Trade certifying agencies is Fairtrade International. They define “Fairtrade” as “a global system that connects farmers and workers from developing countries with consumers and businesses across the world to change trade for the better.” Watch their very short video explaining what Fair Trade is. Economic justice and equity are its hallmark, as it aims to break the oppressive power differential between North and South inherited from the colonial era.

How does it work? Small farmers or artisans are encouraged to organize themselves into cooperatives. The buyer guarantees a minimum price regardless of market fluctuations (especially important for coffee and cocoa) and adds a social premium, up to 10 percent, for them to reinvest either in the business or their collective well-being (digging wells, building schools, clinics, cotton or rice mills, etc.). Often, the buyer will offer advance credit before harvest time and in all cases seeks to develop a long-term relationship built on trust, respect, and transparency. This is clearly an “alternative trading organization,” as it used to be called. It’s definitely NOT how multinational corporations deal with small coffee or cocoa growers!

I will come back to the Divine Chocolate company later, but here’s a story on their website about one cocoa farmer, Moriba Sama, from an isolated Sierra Leone province with only one town of 1,000 people. The rest of the population is spread out in small villages without clean water or toilets. He describes a democratic process in which the farmers came together and decided how they wanted to spend their Fair Trade premium. They agreed that the priority had to be the water and plumbing infrastructure; then, “working with development partners to provide scholarships” so that their children can at least get through primary school; building a communal rice mill; and finally, establishing a central market in town.

But Fair Trade for me isn’t just an academic or a worthy cause I read about. I’m actually involved in it. Read about my experience at the first “Fair Trade Towns and Universities National Conference” in Philadelphia (2011); my assessment of the Fair Trade movement in 2014; and a local seminar I did on “Why as a Christian I Support Fair Trade.” I could have also, just as easily, taught on why people of faith in general all support Fair Trade.


Bruce Crowther’s Not in My Lifetime: A Fairtrade Campaigner’s Journal

Reading this book was a deeply personal experience for me. I met Bruce in his 2015 visit to our quaint little town of Media, PA (the Delaware County seat on the outskirts of Philadelphia), and I’ve heard so much about him ever since I joined Media’s Fair Trade committee in 2008 (see our latest newsletter here). That was two years after Media declared itself “America’s First Fair Trade Town.” This was only possible because Bruce himself established the first Fair Trade Town ever in 2000 (Garstang, in Lancashire, UK) and went on to found the Fair Trade Towns movement. Our local connection to Bruce Crowther (b. 1959) was through the late Hal Taussig who generously used the proceeds from his alternative touring company in Media (Untours) to establish relations with coffee growers in Mexico. Then he heard about Bruce.

As a result, a Fair Trade committee was established in Media: a good number of shops in town agreed to sell some Fair Trade products; some restaurants agreed to use those products and community organizations (like schools) began to serve coffee, sugar, bananas and more – all products with a Fair Trade label. And finally, the borough council voted to promote Fair Trade in the community and declared Media a Fair Trade town.

To be honest, though, let me say from experience that our job of educating the community about Fair Trade and encouraging businesses, restaurants and shops to buy and use Fair Trade products is never done. It’s all about patient, creative, and determined advocacy, and especially about regular visits to local businesses (it works best in twos). It requires building relationships and finding ways to enhance their bottom line. It’s also about motivating consumers to do use their buying power to lift the less fortunate out of poverty.

Bruce Crowther’s experience over a decade in Garstang was like taking two steps forward and then a step back, several times. It’s definitely a story of perseverance. His book, in fact, while documenting the astounding accomplishments of this campaign (there are now over 2,000 Fair Trade Towns in 34 countries in all six continents today!), also points out several sources of discouragement along the way. Crowther recounts all this in candid detail.

Bruce is also very open about his own struggle with depression and how after nearly dying he benefited so much from one excellent therapist. What also stands out in all the stories leading up to his actual involvement with Fair Trade, is his outgoing personality. Bruce is a leader who easily makes friends, and partly for that reason, he always loved to travel. Like many youths in the 1970s, he traveled on the cheap in Latin America and South Asia. That cultural curiosity and sensitivity would serve him well years later.

And by the way, Bruce has a title to his name in British society. It’s Bruce Crowther MBE, meaning that in 2009 Queen Elizabeth gave him the medal of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his services with Oxfam and the FairTrade Foundation, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown named him one of the “Everyday Heroes” in his book of that name. Yet those honors, clearly, never went to his head.

Among the many fascinating aspects of Bruce Crowther’s story, I will focus here on his vision to tie economic injustice today to the slave trade, and his creation of a bridge between Garstang, New Koforidua (Ghana), and Media, USA, aiming to bring some redemption and healing to the nefarious Atlantic slave trade triangle from the 16th to the 19th century in those same areas.


The Healing Triangle

Bruce qualified as a veterinarian in 1985 and worked for six months in Northern Ireland the next year. This is where he rolled up his sleeves and founded a new chapter of Oxfam – the Dungannon Oxfam Group. He soon moved back to the mainland and successively worked with a veterinary clinic near Lancaster and then one near Liverpool. In 1991, he left his home there to move in with Jane, his fiancée, in Garstang (about 40 miles from Liverpool). They were married the next year. Soon after his arrival in Garstang, he got to know the Methodist preacher, Peter Haywood, who was passionate about eliminating poverty in the developing world and had set up a fair trade shop called the Mustard Seed. Crowther asked him if he would join with him in starting a chapter of Oxfam in Garstang. Haywood was enthusiastic, and soon the Garstang Oxfam Group (GOG) was born.

The year 1994 proved crucial. Apartheid was dismantled in South Africa and the very first Fair Trade certification label, Fairtrade International, started in the Netherlands in 1987, came to the UK. The first products with that new label they could sell in Garstang were Clipper tea, Cafedirect instant coffee, and Maya Gold chocolate. One of the first GOG projects was “to donate a large catering pack of Cafedirect instant coffee to each of the five churches in Garstang” (p. 62). With Jane’s insistence, they added one more Christian congregation, the Quaker meeting house. That was a great idea, as it turned out. At the special meeting to inaugurate the Fair Trade coffee and tea, after Bruce made his short speech explaining what this meant, the clerk of the Meeting, Rachel Rogers, responded, “You’re knocking on an open door.” Rachel was to become one of Bruce’s most influential and ardent supporters and “a major player in Garstang’s declaration as a Fairtrade Town four years later.”

That anecdote is also worth recounting because Bruce, who up to this time had not been “religious” (in the sense that, if there was a God out there, he would sit back and wait for him or her to step into his life and show him the way), it was in Garstang that he gradually found his “spiritual home” in the Quaker meetinghouse at 36 (pp. 62-78). He felt God’s presence during worship, sometimes very strongly, and he loved that these people were very tolerant: one should look for the light of God in every human being. Finally, their values aligned with his: “Becoming a Quaker confirmed my beliefs and strengthened my resolve to see an end to poverty as we know it, once for all” (p. 77).

Quakers were the initiators and for several generations the main drivers of the abolitionist movement in Britain. Bryn Mawr College, one of the three Quaker-founded colleges on the west side of Philadelphia, houses a collection of documents on the Quakers’ role in that movement. Bruce Crowther in 1999 was looking for a hero of the abolitionist movement that had some ties to Lancashire (the most famous one, the parliamentarian William Wilberforce hailed from south Yorkshire). He was on this quest for two reasons. The first was that Oxfam that year was highlighting the Fair Trade Divine chocolate company that was part-owned by the cocoa farmers in New Koforidua, Ghana and a shop in Garstang was now selling it. The second reason was that though Liverpool, Bristol and London had been the biggest slave-trading ports, nearby Lancaster had also gained most of its wealth from that sordid trade.

After some digging, Bruce discovered that the Anglican Thomas Clarkson, “considered by many to be the architect and founding father of the anti-slavery movement” (p. 103), though from Cambridgeshire, built a cottage in Lancashire’s lovely Lake District and spent a good deal of time there. Ah, that counted, said Bruce! He also discovered other commonalities between Fair Trade and past slave-trade abolition campaigns. The latter were unique as a mass political movement opposing a specific social ill. He found an Oxfam article that compared the abolitionist badge “Am I not a man but a brother to you?” with the white band thousands of campaigners wore in Nelson Mandela’s international “Make Poverty History” campaign in 2005.

Thomas Clarkson’s grassroots campaign took him all over the British Isles at the time. One year he even covered 7,000 miles on horseback to gather signatures for his petition. His campaign also included a trade element, albeit a boycott. At the time, “Britain consumed more sugar than the rest of Europe put together.” And yet, West-Indian sugar was grown by slaves. And therefore, people had the power to confront this morally evil trade by refusing to buy sugar. This turned out to be a potent instrument to pressure Parliament to outlaw slavery (p. 104). The Fair Trade campaign is also about the ethics of trade, but with a different emphasis: choose to buy fairly traded products. Of course, in so doing people also choose not to buy products that don’t have the ethical label they can trust. [To see how far the UK has gone in this direction, read this 2016 BBC article explaining the pros and cons of Britain’s best-known chocolate brand, Cadbury, abandoning the Fairtrade label for its own in-house ethical label. As it turns out, Cadbury ended up doing even more to benefit the cocoa farmers and their communities in a sustainable way].

These connections between the slave trade and the 21st-century trade justice campaign are what finally sent Bruce to Ghana in 2001. Representing the GOG, he partnered with the Youth and Community Centre and in the end, twelve people traveled together for three weeks, including five high-school students, part of a youth theatre group. A grant enabled them to perform their play (“Hidden Brutality,” touching on Fair Trade, the Atlantic slave trade, and child labor) in front of several thousand Ghanaian students in several locations. They also visited a Ghanaian charity for children in need in the capital city, Accra, and then the two slave forts on the coast. They visited the cocoa farming cooperative in New Koforidua (Kuapa Kokoo) and had the chance to see for themselves what cocoa farming entails and how it relates to Fair Trade. Finally, they visited the Volta River Estates Limited (VREL) cooperative farm, which at the time, was the only Fair Trade banana plantation in Africa.

This first experience in Ghana opened up a very fruitful partnership with the leaders of Kuapa Kokoo over the years, and this in at least three important ways. The first fruit of Bruce’s personal connection with the chocolate farmers in New Koforidua, Ghana, is the Fair Trade and Slave Trade exhibition. It started small after returning from that first trip in 2001 and was exhibited for several years in the Garstang library and gradually expanded. Then in 2009, Christina Longden of the Lorna Young Foundation (another Fair Trade-minded organization) approached Bruce with the idea of opening the first Fair Trade Center, which would also be a coffee shop selling Fair Trade coffee, tea and chocolate, and house that exhibition about Fair Trade and the transatlantic slave trade. They named it The Fig Tree. The township gave them a suitable location with a four-year lease. It moved to Lancaster in 2015 housed by the historic church of St. John’s. That location allowed them to put together a play that highlighted some of the dynamics between the Quaker abolitionists and the few wealthy Quakers like Dodshon Foster who owned slaves. Much of the Fig Tree’s educational program, already in the Garstang area, consisted in “heritage workshops” on this theme in local schools, so the new location helped them to widen their appeal to the youth and adults of that city.

The second fruit of that partnership with New Koforidua was to expand it to the Americas where by far most of the slaves were shipped like cargo. Hence, the slave trade triangle. In October 2005, after speaking about Fair Trade Towns at a Fair Trade conference in Chicago sponsored by the American FT labeling agency, Transfair USA, Bruce soon got a phone call from Elizabeth Killough who worked for Hal Taussig at Untours and asking him how Media could become a Fair Trade Town. Those discussions led to Media’s self-declaration as the first Fair Trade Town in the Americas (p. 137). Other towns would follow suit, including cities like Chicago, San Francisco and Boston. So now, the healing triangle, that three-fold connection for the purpose of bringing at least some measure of healing to the injustices and indignities of the past, had seen the light of day.

The third fruit of that connection between Garstang/Lancaster and New Koforidua in Ghana was that Bruce learned from them on one of his early visits there (the book mentions seven!) to make his own chocolate from the Kuapa Kokoo chocolate beans. [See the pictures and video which are part of Sabeena Ahmed’s blog post about her visit to the Fig Tree, including making chocolate with Bruce]. First, they have to be roasted, then they have to be ground into a chocolate liquor and then smoothed out into a nice, thick liquid. Then comes the addition of sugar and cocoa butter. Over time, Bruce and his friends developed many different flavors and versions of their “Bean to Bar Chocolate” (click on that tab at the top of the Fig Tree website). Bruce is still making this chocolate, though only selling smaller quantities (he works full-time for the Office of National Statistics) and sending the proceeds to the Fig Tree, of which he is now only one of several volunteers.


Where we go from here

Bruce Crowther ends his book in 2020, when, because of the Covid pandemic, the Fair Trade Towns’ Annual General Meeting was convened online. But it enabled more people to attend: “A total of 37 people from 16 countries joined the link at one time or another.” Then he adds, “a very fitting celebration for a movement made up of over 2,000 Fair Trade Towns across 34 countries.” True, the 14th International Fair Trade Towns meeting in Quito, Ecuador was canceled due to the pandemic, but the movement continues. In fact, with the international protests that year after the killing of George Floyd and the rising visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, Bruce writes that their “work linking Fair Trade to the abolition of the slave trade and its legacy of racism was more appropriate than ever” (p. 228).

I’ll sign off with the last paragraph in the book—well, almost: a 2-page epilogue follows. Here Bruce connects the end of Apartheid in South Africa with the global anti-poverty campaign by the United Nations via the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Its first goal is “to end poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030. The Fair Trade movement in all its diversity is only one very small player in this global campaign. But we all must do our part. Notice that the book’s title are its last four words:


I remain optimistic, however. In my earliest campaigning days when Oxfam was accused by the Charity Commission of taking a political stance by calling for a boycott of South African products, I was certain that we would see an end to Apartheid in South Africa. But I did not believe I would happen in my lifetime. Even if we do not reach the UN target of ending world poverty by 2030, I am just as certain today that, like Apartheid, it will eventually come to an end, albeit perhaps not in my lifetime” (p. 231).