[This is the final post in a 3 part series by guest contributor Natalie Armstrong, from Bachhara. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2]
Fair trade organizations are not perfect, nor do they claim to be. There is still much work to be done and there always will be. It requires continual development and ongoing reassessment. The key however is that fair trade organizations show commitment to the preservation of these principles.
Without a doubt, there is a clear energy shift when one walks into a fair trade community, especially when compared to factories of another kind or the surrounding slums they occupy. It is like breathing in fresh air, or lying in long grass on a lazy afternoon, enjoying the satisfaction of a wonderful day. This was my experience when I first visited the fair trade organization, Swallows Development Society.
Swallows is located on the shores of the River Ganges in the North West of Bangladesh. The first and obvious differences were immediately noticeable; its clean air, good living and working environments, real smiles, and a sense of community with a true respect for culture. There was also a sense of transparency and honesty, something not experienced in other business relationships in either Bangladesh or in India.
The village itself is primarily supported by the Swallows Development Society and they also provided my accommodation during my stay. As we made ourselves comfortable, I found myself alone for a moment on the balcony overlooking the village of Thanapara and the grounds of Swallows. As I sat watching quietly from my perch beneath the 4th floor, the laughter, smiles and chatter of village life filled me with peace. I took a moment to breathe in the goodness of that experience, and to give thanks for it.
Swallows Development Society, like many fair trade communities, provides a sustainable community life, free education and employment for the poorest untrained people in the area. It offers training, and development as well as financial and relationship support. Employees, in particular those at Swallows, are paid a base wage three times that of the current standard factory worker rates. It also empowers producers to enter into a dialogue of negotiation to include an agreement on their own rates per garment or handicraft on top of their base rate.
Swallows has set up a free daycare facility for the children of the women who work there, giving women access to their children throughout the day. These women, all of whom work in groups throughout the large, comfortable facilities are seen chattering, laughing and sharing on breaks while playing with their children. Free from ridiculous deadlines, they start at nine, finish at five and have an hour for lunch.
On one occasion when I was sitting with the women in one of the embroidery rooms discussing a design, a woman entered distraught and wailing. She was greeted by the group of women with support and love. Not understanding the reason for her pain, I also instinctively moved to her with love.
I later found out she was from the village and did not work at Swallow. She had approached Swallows for their domestic violence support, counseling and the free lawyers. She had been beaten and tragically burnt by both her husband and his brother. She was in severe physical and mental pain. It was while she was waiting to see a counselor that she had found friends in the room I was in. These women allowed her to sit and release her grief. This, even in a lovely community like Thanapara, was unfortunately not an uncommon incident.
This type of support, allowance and appreciation of individuals even sets fair trade organizations apart from what is considered ethical business. There is a commitment to support the culture and the dynamics of the community. It doesn’t disturb the natural flow of life, rather it embraces it.
This is almost completely devoid and lost in western organization. Wouldn’t it be a powerful transition to have this in our own work experiences? We can all learn from each other, and it is in the process of fair trade that we are able to share these valuable and powerful experiences.
Many of you might question that, were such allowances given, then how would this impact on production, business, and quality of the end products? Without a doubt, it is a concern that must be addressed; as a business partner with such organizations we have had to ask this of ourselves as well.
The west has extremely high standards, and for us to provide the best for the communities we work with, we need to ensure our products sell. To do that we need to ensure they arrive on time, within a budget (albeit a slightly larger one) and that they are of excellent quality.
It is mostly resolved in the planning. A fair trade business/partners’ time lines are much longer than competitive businesses working outside of the fair trade principles. This brings planning and development work ahead for us in the fashion industry by at least 6 months, and critical risk evaluation is a crucial step. It is not an option to interrupt the natural rhythm of village life for the pursuit of business; it is however a constant work in progress to align the natural rhythm of village life with that of the demanding expectations of the west.
Without forgetting the great and obvious shift, the majority of beginning businesses aren’t ethical, and they are certainly not transparent; rather they are unfortunately controlling and disempowering with focus on financial gains. I believe there can be transparent business, ethical behavior and conscious choice in all areas of business, and fair trade is helping businesses like mine use a platform to enact this.
My intention, which I share with many who now occupy this field of work, is to put people first in all of our decisions. We intend to bring you a product free of abuse, a transparent line of distribution, and find sustainable eco solutions at every opportunity. We are also committed to bring awareness on fair trade, and work with communities who are dedicated to the same cause. Our intention is always to be part of the solution, rather than the problem.
I propose this to those who have taken this journey with me, that the next time you are ready to buy, ask about the product you are buying, who made it, and if there is a fair trade choice. The more you ask your department store or corner shop and your favorite boutique about your fair trade options, the more you will be helping the world grow in a positive new and sustainable way. As more consumers demand this, more and more businesses will need to make the shift, and as the numbers grow so too will your choices as well as your awareness.
There will come a day when we won’t need to make choices between an ethical, socially responsible product or service and a destructive one, because we will all have come to a place of consciousness. When that happens, all of our products and services will be offered within that framework of positive thought and benefit to all.