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 Independents
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, Britains 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 EUs 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
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 Banks 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 cant 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 isnt 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. Its not inconceivable
is as far as he will go. As the worlds 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.
Ive 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 Ive had, he reflects.
Maybe they wont be able to afford the luxury of
a good conscience. Maybe, he says, this
is the golden period of ethical shopping right now.
Its 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 theres a
boat. And he, for one, isnt going to give up at
the oar. You recognise that by and large things
are pretty depressing, but youve got to try to
focus on little areas where you can yourself make a
difference. Thats 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
doesnt. 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 doesnt
have the energy to make them all happen. Ive
been kicking one idea around for years about how older
people could live together in a semi-cooperative way,
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
The activists who influenced Adams as a young man had
the motto Live simply so that others may simply
live. Isnt 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 Tescos, he admits.
Its very difficult, isnt it?
and is all for ethical consumerism as long as
its more than just a statement. For me,
he says cheerfully, the very idea of being cool
is an absolute anathema. Youve 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 Devils 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
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 businesss
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 dont think it affected [Body Shops]
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 someones even going to have a go at Body Shop
Its 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 (lets face it)
often expensive ethical products. He doesnt 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 dont. 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 hes 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 theyve 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 its demoralising but there
is a directive coming out that will prohibit standby
We discuss the move into the ethical market of companies
such as Cadbury Schweppes, which has just bought Green
& Blacks. No doubt the directors of Cadburys
have not been infected with the idealism that inspired
the creators of Maya Gold, but how much healthy scepticism
is appropriate here? Well have to wait and
see, says Adams. Now that the Cadburys
marketing machine is behind G&B, we ought to see
prices fall. Then again, maybe Cadburys
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, Were using the system
to change the system, but what was unsaid was:
And were going to have a different system
at the end of it. What with the collapse of communism
and the triumph of capitalism, that hasnt proved
very popular. But now things are starting to swing the
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
dont know what it is.
© Sublime 2006
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