Saving our planet; one bag at a time

May 24, 2007

Can we afford a Fair Trade Certification?

Filed under: Branding, Environment — Kaajal @ 7:06 pm


A customer wrote to me asking whether we could offer a Fair Trade Certificate. I hadn’t heard of Fair Trade so I searched, read about it and discovered that it was a very powerful marketing medium and I was thrilled, until I wrote and asked how we could become members.

I found to my horror that it was restrictive – asking you to buy materials only from people they certify and expensive, it could cost 800 Euros a day to have someone come and sit in judgment on you.

I am proud that we run an extremely ethical organisation, not because some certification agency asks us to but because we enjoy being “good guys”. We offer way-above-excellent customer service (ask anyone who’s done business with us) again because it gives us joy and pride to do so, and we ensure that every stakeholder in our system is accorded the dignity he or she deserves. This also because we are humane people and want our people to feel part of it and proud to be part of an organisation that does right because it wants to not because it has to.

So, this is what I wrote back to my customer:

“You’re quite justified to ask. Many questions about the ethics and standards applied by Indian manufacturers are justified.

Due to the unfortunate ease of corrupting the government machinery set up to ensure ethical manufacturing practices, Indian industry has more than its share of shady types who employ child-labour and operate in suboptimal manufacturing conditions leading to a lack of credibility of all Indian manufacturers. So outside entities like Fair Trade and others have come up to ostensibly separate the good guys from the bad ones.

This leads to a piquant situation for some manufacturers. Us, for instance.

To become Fair Trade certified we’d have to agree to buy fabric only from companies on their approved list. That’s where the problem arises. None of the companies on their list make the fabrics we require. Also, many of the companies on their list are people I wouldn’t deal with. Reason? Very poor ethics. Clearly their certification isn’t done at very close range.

Then, because we’re in a dynamic and demanding business, we experiment all the time. Just last week, I went down to the river bed here in Ahmedabad where there were some folks working with waste yarn to make cords. These guys are the poorest of the poor, people who get kicked around and exploited because they don’t have the money to buy their own raw material.

Now I’m working on a plan to create a small fund that will remove this constraint and to expose them to the opportunities you, dear customer, make available to us. This will involve more than one small group of people who operate at very basic levels. People who will never have the time or the wherewithal or the knowledge to seek Fair Trade Certification.

So Fair Trade ain’t for us. Piquant isn’t it? We have the same objectives as Fair Trade – to provide opportunity for the poor and the exploited. Funnily getting Fair Trade Certification would prevent us from doing this.

I’m going to write to Fair Trade and ask them whether they can’t be more flexible.

They also need to find ways to allow more people to enter the system. While Fair Trade wishes to encourage smaller entities, their certification processes are barriers in themselves. To pay 800 Euros a day might seem affordable to get a certification may sound viable to Europeans, but out here 800 Euros translates to Rs.40,000 a day, more than a month’s turnover for some small scale enterprises.

So, I’m afraid this certification system isn’t working and I don’t believe we will be able to satisfy that requirement. But I’m going to write to them with my concerns and issues for sure. Maybe I’m making some wrong assumptions somewhere.

Meanwhile, you have seen for yourself that we run a very nice and humane little organisation where every individual is valued as an equal stakeholder (The picnic snaps are at where you’ll see that the relationship isn’t just work, work, work. Norquest is also about fun, fun, fun) and that includes every individual who works with us at any level. Just as we have evolved high standards of humanity and niceness where our working environment is concerned, we also have quality standards of our own which are far, far higher than any asked for by even the most stringent inspection agencies.

We don’t do this to gain any form of certification except the one that matters most, and that is our customer’s trust and respect. Similarly we work with very nice manufacturing practices because we know that mutual trust and respect allow us to produce to much better quality standards and those result in higher profitability and make complete and absolute business sense.

I am sure many buyers will, even after knowing this, insist on still buying from Fair Trade certified manufacturers. I know that they will do this not from any disrespect towards us, but just because they lack the time or the interest to go into the issues concerned and seek a quick answer to their ethical concerns.

That’s the risk we have to take. To be able to continue to service our existing customers with the kind of flexibility that allows us to offer the kinds of products we do, we will have to give up our chances with those customers who don’t know us and thus seek a Fair Trade certification. When it comes to choosing between the customers we have and new customers who may come in only if we get Fair Trade certification, we have no hesitation in making a choice.

You are more important to us. Far more important.


1 Comment »

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    Comment by ccnbogzugj — June 21, 2007 @ 10:36 am

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