Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Fair Trade Forum India : membership and challenges

I got the chance to catch up with our friends at Fair Trade Forum - India (FTFI) in India this year during World Fair Trade Day Celebrations in Delhi in May and talk with some of the staff about what’s happening with Fair Trade in India.
FTF-I is a registered non profit organization in India whose mission is to enhance visibility and accountability of the Fair Trade Movement in India through policy advocacy, lobbying, market networking, alliance building, training, monitoring and evaluation. They are an active member of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), the international trade association for Fair Trade organizations and businesses, and are a representative for the WFTO Asia Network.

FTF-I is the certifying organization for Fair Trade producer groups in India and I’ve been working closely with them to get artisan groups who I work with registered as a Fair Trade member organization. There are many benefits of membership aside from greater market access that include access to trainings and capacity development for producer groups.

There are a growing number of Indians who are taking development into their own hands by setting up craft and income generating projects around the country to help women and marginalized groups get out of poverty and earn a living wage. Many craft groups are usually part of an NGO project or are a village based group and aren’t aware of the international Fair Trade movement, so a lot of our work has been helping to share about the Fair Trade model to organizations within India. And thanks to the ground work we’ve done, two of the groups that we’ve been working with, Himalayan Weavers and Stree Shakti, have now been accepted as new FTF-I members.

From only a few staff and less than 35 member organizations when I last visited in 2008, FTF-I was now boasting seven paid staff, an intern, many young volunteers and over 75 member producer organizations. With more members and support from local universities and organizations, they now have a better capacity to do more and strengthen the Fair Trade movement in India.

When I talked with Rajeev Pillai, FTF-I’s Admin and Accounts Manager, he told me that thanks to the growing Fair Trade movement, there has been more support from their international partners in funding new activities. They have been working closely with European Fair Trade businesses, organizations and government bodies, to partner on projects that explore sustainable supply chains and market linkages, organic Fair Trade cotton and trainings for artisan groups. The last few years have seen a huge rise in support for a ‘Green Market’ as consumers are shopping more ethically and seeking out environmentally and socially friendly made products. As a result, there are a growing number of buyers and well known companies who are now seeking out Fair Trade suppliers in India and support for Fair Trade is on the climb.

But with the growing interest in Fair Trade, Rajeev mentioned, now there are many producers who are not practicing according to Fair Trade principles who are trying to gain membership into FTF-I. Before no one knew about Fair Trade, but now producers are seeing that this is what buyers want and they’re feeding on the image.

Nonetheless, it is a rigid process to become a member that includes a three-day field visit, three years of financial statements, a thorough audit of books and operations and referrals from existing Fair Trade members. The information that is collected then is presented to FTF-I’s Board of Directors for another review before the final decision is made. Regular meetings and annual follow ups are also made to ensure the groups are adhering to standards.

While more artisan groups are learning about Fair Trade in India, the next challenge is helping the consumers be more aware. In the last few years, India has seen average annual growth rates of 6-9% that has resulted in a growing middle class and loads of people in the IT and medical industry and service sectors becoming wealthier.

Today, India is in the new phase of development and everyone has more disposable income to spend carelessly on eating out, technology, fashion and entertainment. On an average day in cities across India, you find movie theatres, coffee shops and open air markets packed with young people spending money on cheap imports from China and polluting the streets with chip and soda packaging. And while India is rich in craft and cottage industries, craftwork is undervalued and few people are willing to pay fair prices for the work. India is mirroring Western consumerism and progress and there are few people thinking about sustainable consumption.

Child labor is another major issue in India that makes getting producers to support Fair Trade a greater challenge. According to UNICEF statistics, over 12% of the children in India, aged 5-14 are involved in child labor. Child Rights and You (CRY), a large human rights organization fighting against child labor in India, talks about the real numbers of 20-50 million children affected, in a thorough outline of the issue here. Child labor is embedded within the culture and business where children are expected to work to help support their families or pay off a debt. They come to cities to work and end up slaving in shops and restaurants, where they are often mistreated by the storekeeper and not paid. The worst is when you read in the newspaper about a raid on an embroidery sweatshop where dozens of young boys had been kept as bonded workers. It’s almost a daily occurrence.

India is a fast growing economy with many new industries flourishing and new challenges on the rise. Tradition and culture are clashing with new development, as ideas like Fair Trade and sustainable living are coming into play. But there has been progress and we can see that in the numbers.

FTF-I is gaining more membership, more buyers are looking for Fair Trade suppliers and the sales are rising for our artisan partners within India. Yes, more than 50% of Sadhna’s annual sales are to Indian retail outlets and similarly for Himalayan Weavers and Stree Shakti, who have a large local customer base. There is a large craft network outside of Fair Trade, led by great organizations like AIACA and Dastkar, who have been working for years to organize, market and strengthen India’s traditional craft sector. Now, thanks to Fair Trade, their work and small artisan groups are finally getting noticed.

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