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The Father of Fair Trade

A version of this interview was published in the first issue of Sublime, which took as its theme ‘reversing the order’.


Richard Adams’ achievement is extraordinary. When New Statesman last year named him ‘social entrepreneur of the year’ in its Upstarts Awards, it recognised that ‘perhaps more than anyone else, he is responsible for the idea that we can change the world around us by changing the way we consume.’ This year he was included in the Independent’s ‘Good List’ of the 50 people in Britain who had done most to make the world a better place.

He is best known as the founder of Traidcraft and the pioneer and champion of fair trade. He also launched the original New Consumer magazine, founded Out of this World, Britain’s first chain of grocery stores selling ‘ethically sourced’ goods, started the consultancy Contraflow (which finds innovative solutions in social business, ethical retailing and sustainable consumerism) and helped to set up the fairtrade finance company Shared Interest. His OBE in 2001 seems modest recognition for all this. Perhaps he was too self-effacing to accept a knighthood.

I meet him not in the capital of ethical commerce, Newcastle upon Tyne, but in Brussels, where he is attending a session of the EU’s Economic and Social Committee, on which he sits. I feel out of place in the European Parliament building in jeans and trainers. He feels uncomfortable in a grey suit and tie. He is a very genial man – it occurs to me that in years to come he would make a fine Father Christmas – and much given to laughing.

Certainly things have come a long way since the days of vile-tasting Nicaraguan Solidarity Campaign coffee – not to mention the planeload of Bangladeshi handicrafts that a very young Adams imported 32 years ago for his first venture, Tearcraft, which inadvertently introduced termites into hundreds of middle-class homes across Britain. [The Co-operative Bank’s 2006 Ethical Consumerism Report] revealed that last year ethical food products – from organic chocolate to free-range eggs – accounted for £5.4 billion of spending in Britain, 18 per cent up on the year before and 37 per cent up on the year before that. ‘I suspect’, says Adams, ‘you can’t be a good marketing manager in any major food retailer without being very aware of what is happening on the fairtrade front.’

He recalls the pleasant shock he received in Marks & Spencer, where he goes to buy meals for his mum. ‘Their entire range of tea and coffee is now fairtrade-marked. I was absolutely amazed.’ In the early Nineties, he says, supermarkets were reluctant to stock fairtrade products at all in case their customers started asking if the rest of their stock was unfairly traded. Likewise, importers were reluctant to pay more for such commodities because they were afraid of the precedent it would set – surely every Third World supplier would suddenly be wanting to hike their prices. Somehow, however, such objections have melted away, and this gives Adams reason to hope that the idea of fair trade will continue to catch on.

He is not, however, a relentless optimist. In fact, he isn’t under any illusion that the future is bright. When I ask him whether he can see fair trade becoming the norm rather than something of a counterculture, there is a long pause. ‘It’s not inconceivable’ is as far as he will go. As the world’s resources get squeezed ever tighter between the jaws of global consumerism, population growth and climate change, the next few generations will come under immense pressure. ‘I’ve got one grandchild and two more on the way and they are going to have a very, very different sort of life from the one I’ve had,’ he reflects. Maybe they won’t be able to afford the luxury of a good conscience. ‘Maybe’, he says, ‘this is the golden period of ethical shopping right now. It’s hard to tell at the moment.’

I suggest that the fairtrade movement is still very much rowing against the stream, while the current of ruthless free-market capitalism has only got stronger over the last 25 years. Adams agrees – but says the important thing is that at least there’s a boat. And he, for one, isn’t going to give up at the oar. ‘You recognise that by and large things are pretty depressing, but you’ve got to try to focus on little areas where you can yourself make a difference. That’s what stops me becoming depressed.’ He laughs as he says this, but then adds more soberly, ‘It really does.’

What on earth sustains his enthusiasm for the struggle? I expect him to refer to his religious faith, but he doesn’t. Instead, he explains that whenever his wife confides in him that a friend has a problem, his immediate reaction is: How can we solve it? When he first went to China a few years ago, he found himself thinking, Wow! How can we deal with all this! Interesting ideas ‘keep bubbling up’ in his head, though nowadays he acknowledges he doesn’t have the energy to make them all happen. ‘I’ve been kicking one idea around for years about how older people could live together in a semi-cooperative way, but… Now I know how much effort it takes to put these things into effect.’

His faith does play a part in his motivation, however. When he became a Christian at the age of 16, he remembers, his mentors put a lot of emphasis on him giving up swearing. It seemed a tall order at the time, but ‘other people noticed a significant change in me, and I suppose I drew the lesson that it was my commitment to my faith that enabled that to happen. It seems to me that God is about change, within individuals and structures and the world. And part of that is about dealing with problems.’ When Traidcraft moved into bigger premises in 1983, they had a plaque set in the wall that quoted the Book of Revelation: ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’

The activists who influenced Adams as a young man had the motto ‘Live simply so that others may simply live.’ Isn’t there a paradox in the idea that we can make the world better by buying as long as we buy the right things? Adams turns out not to be an eco-puritan – ‘I do shop at Tesco’s,’ he admits. ‘It’s very difficult, isn’t it?’ – and is all for ethical consumerism as long as it’s more than just a statement. ‘For me,’ he says cheerfully, ‘the very idea of being cool is an absolute anathema. You’ve always got to keep asking, “What is the purpose of this [purchase]? Am I more concerned about what it says about me than about what it does for me?”’ Real ethical choices, he believes, will change people and lead them away from the ‘superficialities’ of consumerism and its obsession with trends and brands.

I was anxious that my Devil’s advocacy might be annoying him, but Adams proves to be keen on asking awkward questions himself. The unexamined life, he reminds me, is not worth living – is it? Beside his computer, he says, he has a printout of a list of fundamental things he wants to keep asking: Why are we here? Where do we come from and where are we going? What ought we to do? What deserves love? What really matters? What will give us courage for life? What will give us courage for death?

In the early Nineties he caused consternation when he asked some difficult questions of the Body Shop. In public, everyone was hailing Anita Roddick as an inspiration, but Adams was aware that much of her business’s reputation for revolutionary good practice was ill founded. ‘A lot of people were really quite upset that I pursued this to the bitter end – there was a risk that the public would become disillusioned, not only about Body Shop but about the whole idea of ethical business. But I felt we had to establish certain standards.’ In the end, he says, he was ‘absolutely vindicated’. ‘I don’t think it affected [Body Shop’s] sales very much, but it certainly affected how they did business. They got somebody in who had been running a big fairtrade operation in Canada and they made very significant changes. And other businesses thought, “Well, if someone’s even going to have a go at Body Shop…”’

It’s said that some people use business to promote their ethics and others use ethics to promote their business. I ask Adams how we avoid becoming cynical about the claims people make for (let’s face it) often expensive ethical products. He doesn’t have an easy answer. ‘We have to maintain a healthy scepticism but somehow stop short of cynicism. People do take advantage of the ethical market, but there are a lot of companies that don’t. The trick is to work out how to tell the difference.’ Fair trade, he insists, has been ‘exceptionally good’ at helping consumers to distinguish the genuine from the fraudulent because of its emphasis on openness and accountability and a clear audit trail. The growing importance of corporate social responsibility should also give us confidence, as high-profile companies are well aware of the dangers of being caught out.

One reason why he’s active in Brussels is that the European Commission is addressing just such issues. He has touted his ideas on ‘a strategic policy framework’ on ethical trading around various of its directorates and they’ve ‘got a fairly good hearing’. (We find we agree that the EU is a force for good. When I happen to express my despair that most people in Britain still leave their TVs on standby, wasting electricity night and day, he counters: ‘Of course it’s demoralising – but there is a directive coming out that will prohibit standby switches.’)

We discuss the move into the ethical market of companies such as Cadbury Schweppes, which has just bought Green & Black’s. No doubt the directors of Cadbury’s have not been infected with the idealism that inspired the creators of Maya Gold, but how much healthy scepticism is appropriate here? ‘We’ll have to wait and see,’ says Adams. ‘Now that the Cadbury’s marketing machine is behind G&B, we ought to see prices fall.’ Then again, maybe Cadbury’s just wants to help itself to the substantial premium ethical consumers have proved willing to pay for chocolate with a clear conscience.

At this point, Adams surprises me, yet again, by questioning whether the path he has pioneered really is the best way to achieve what he wants. ‘Should we be encouraging people to buy fairtrade, organic and environmentally-friendly when in fact there may be a better way of achieving our desired objectives than by paying over the odds? I think those questions have to be asked.’ In the end, he returns to the theme of all things new. ‘I always used to say, “We’re using the system to change the system,” but what was unsaid was: “And we’re going to have a different system at the end of it.” What with the collapse of communism and the triumph of capitalism, that hasn’t proved very popular. But now things are starting to swing the other way.

‘At least,’ he laughs, ‘I hope it is. It seems to me that all the thinking on sustainability is pointing towards something very different. I just don’t know what it is.’

© Sublime 2006


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