A footnote in the history of Fair trade

Written by Richard Adams, (photographed below)

John’s in those days was in transition. The 1960s were hammering on the door of an institution which, though less than 60 years old, had positioned itself where the Victorian met the medieval. For some of those coming from public school the all-male, semi-spartan atmosphere would have been familiar but to this grammar school boy it had almost surreal echoes of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Fortunately, the bullying was absent but larger than life student characters indulged in extreme and violent practical jokes, indoor revolver and fire extinguisher practice and life-threatening challenges such as walking a circuit of the five bridges en route.

Well, boys will be boys but although I learnt to trot comfortably across the concrete balustrade of Kingsgate bridge I couldn’t emulate my friend Geoff, who did it blindfolded.

Geoff, like myself and more than half of the 40 young men in the 1965 John’s intake, were in the process of submitting ourselves for ordination. Intellectual prowess, quite rightly, came a distant second to evidence of a calling. Provided one didn’t apply for an honours degree – as most didn’t – obtaining two ‘E’s at A level would guarantee a place. This was inevitably reflected in degree results in 1968 when the college’s single First was greeted with amazement and acclamation.

The food was execrable, the facilities non-existent, the restrictions oppressive, the accommodation was antediluvian, but it was absolutely fabulous. The rules stimulated practical and moral creativity – no alcohol could be brought onto the premises but there was no mention of home brew and the warm sub-cellar under Haughton proved to be ideal. Every day was an adventure, not only because of the challenges of inventing new extremes of student behaviour but because change was in the air. New politics, new theology, new fashion, new music and a sense that for our generation anything was possible. Friendships – and partnerships – were made – most of which have lasted for life. We also had security and little in the way of external pressure. Those not on track for the Anglican ministry gave little thought to earning a living as graduates were in still in short supply, even though the universities were expanding. There were no tuition fees and my student grant fully covered accommodation and three partially edible meals a day. This, I discovered, was what was meant by ‘battels’, the quaint heading on our termly invoice, handwritten by the Bursar, a retired bank manager and presumably remembered from his time at Oxford in the 1920s. In fact the grant was sufficient to also cover a modest book allowance but for other entertainments I relied on income from my first business venture, hiring out dress suits from my room in Linton at a price which undercut the monopolistic stranglehold of W. Gray and Son, ‘’Robemakers to the University”, in Saddler Street. (Photo below showcasing a poster adveritising ‘Dormie Dress Hire’ at John’s, 1966).

On arrival in Durham I was lucky enough to get an upgrade to a new honours degree course that hadn’t been in the UCCA (now UCAS) handbook. The University had just appointed the radical sociologist, John Rex, to develop the Department of Social Theory and Institutions and his work on conflict theory, the concept that struggles between values and interests are the norm in society, greatly influenced me. I later realised that Rex had carefully selected his eight students for the new Social Theory degree, and he also had plans. Alongside the children of a future cabinet secretary, a senior military figure and a bishop I listened to his introductory seminar with us –

“If any of you become social workers,” he said, “I will have failed. Your job is to change the world.”

As far as I was concerned he was preaching to the converted but my route to doing so was still via the ordained ministry. At that time it was possible to reduce by a year the time in training if one had a recognised theological qualification. I wanted to get on with real life and worked out that I could take a London University Diploma in Theology, by correspondence and external exam, in my second year at Durham, providing I kept it quiet. So in early 1968, I went to the final Anglican selection conference with my newly gained Dip. Theol. , though the sociology finals were still some months away. But I also went with an idea that I wanted to put to the selectors.

A few months earlier, not having much else to do, I’d entered an essay competition organised by the UK’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Together with a college friend, Mike Schluter (later the founder of the Keep Sunday Special campaign and the Relationships Foundation) we’d proposed, in 10,000 words, the way to solve world hunger. We didn’t win the competition but it started us thinking about the terms of trade between rich and poor countries and out of this grew an idea that could make trade fairer. More direct links between producers and consumers, cut out the middle man, use the market to change the market, and surely the church would be sympathetic and, in the Gospel spirit of engaging with real life, be a channel to get all this started.

Richard Adams (left) and Mike Schluter – (right) at Linton St Johns, 1968.

The Anglican selectors were treated to this idea, perhaps not what they had expected in the weekend of interviews they were conducting. An interesting proposal, they thought, but perhaps the church wasn’t quite ready to back it. However, a place at theological college was mine if I wanted it, or I could follow the fair trade idea through business channels – the choice was mine. Back at John’s Mike and I discussed the options – he would do a PhD in developing country agricultural economics and I would get business experience – then we’d get this alternative approach on the road.

It took four years but by 1973 our company, Agrofax, was established and importing 10-15 tonnes of fresh vegetables a week into our cold store at the back of our large greengrocer’s shop in north London. There were many bumps in the road and a significant change of course to less perishable products because the following year another college friend who was working for Tear Fund put us in touch with a large handicrafts co-operative in Bangladesh. To cut a long story short, in 1975 Agrofax set up Tearcraft, which later morphed in Traidcraft in 1979. Several other John’s contemporaries were involved along the way, either working for the business, helping raise funds, or finding storage space for shipments in church premises. The establishment of Traidcraft and its widespread adoption was helped tremendously by contemporary Cranmer Hall inmate, John Gladwin, by then Secretary to the C of E’s Board for Social Responsibility and later bishop of Chelmsford, who chaired the founding group. Traidcraft became recognised and supported across the entire mainstream Christian community, with early enthusiastic support from, as we knew him then, Vin Nichols, who later transmogrified into the Cardinal, Archbishop of Westminster. In the end the Church had discovered that fair trade was part of its mission.

Traidcraft played a formative part in ethical business thinking and the growing international fair trade movement, though that term didn’t come into general use until the 1990s. By that time I’d moved on to other things, having failed to convince my board at Traidcraft plc that we should interpret trade justice as widely as possible and that sustainable and environmentally conscious products needed to be an expanding part of our offering. But 50 years on from those early ideas in John’s I re-engaged as chair of the Fair Trade Advocacy Office in Brussels and can see how much the movement has influenced mainstream retailers and producers and increasingly the legislators in many countries. That pioneering work on empowering small producers, establishing transparent audit trails and having reliable impact analysis showed that social and environmental factors could be measured and form part of consumer choice. ( Photo on right showing Richard Adams in the Traidcraft warehouse, 1984.)

Richard Adams in the Traidcraft warehouse, 1984.

The first principle of fair trade is that the producers of products in the global South need a voice and a better deal. There is an international body which sets the standards – it guarantees the producer a minimum price ‘fair’ price for their products – things like coffee, sugar, tea or perhaps more perishable things like bananas and flowers. A fair trade premium is also paid to enable the development of social and community facilities such as schools and healthcare. The rights of workers are important as is environmental protection and sustainability. All these things can be expensive so the consumer usually pays more for the product – and millions of people are willing to do so because they believe in this way of doing business. Ethical business in general has become big business, globally. It won’t save the planet on its own but it can play a significant part and St. John’s College, Durham, can claim a modest footnote to the process.

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