Activity Ch. 1: Charting the roots of Fair Trade

Chapter 1 in my book is about the origins of Fair Trade.  The following is an exercise to help immerse people into what it was like for the early pioneers of Fair Trade, what motivated them and who they were.

Pioneers in Fair Trade

The idea of Fair Trade was dreamed up and realized by different people at different times but with similar results. The following are profiles of two of Fair Trade’s early pioneers, Dr. Francisco VanderHoff Boersma and Edna Ruth Byler. Boersma and Byler independently created the basis of the Fair Trade models. At the time when they started in the 1940s and 1970s, there were no institutions, stores or support. Even the term, “Fair Trade,” did not exist. These pioneers were on their own following a vision they had and creating the foundation for today’s multi-billion dollar Fair Trade industry. Byler pioneered Fair Trade for handicraft producers while VanderHoff pioneered certified fair trade for farmers. Both acted independently, based on their own vision, faith and assumptions yet the product they created, a replicable model of Fair Trade, is very similar.

Read the case studies of the Fair Trade pioneers below and then complete the following activity.

  1. Make a chart of the similarities in Byler and VanderHoff’s experiences and models. For example, both shared the similarity of receiving backing from a religious institution. What other similarities were there?
  1. Examine each similarity and determine how it helped them to be successful in their endeavor.  Could they have been successful without any of these?
  1. Do you think these similarities are requirements for all successful Fair Trade endeavors?   Why or why not?
  1. Make a chart of the differences in and differences Byler and VanderHoff’s experiences and models. What shaped these differences?
  2. Was it possible to Fair Trade to have developed differently based on these differences?  Why did this not happen?


Francisco VanderHoff Boersma

Francisco VanderHoff Boersma

Dr. Francisco VanderHoff Boersma – Fair Trade Coffee

Francisco VanderHoff Boersma, was born in Holland in 1939. He attended the Dutch University, Radboud University Nijmegen as an undergraduate. Later VanderHoff traveled to Germany and earned two PhDs, one in political economy and the other in theology. He became ordained as a Roman Catholic priest and in 1970 VanderHoff traveled to Santiago, Chile to work as a parish priest. A 1973 coup created dangerous conditions for foreigners in Chile and the church relocated VanderHoff to Mexico City. Here the priest worked in the slums of Mexico City for seven years before being transferred to Oaxaca (Hooijberg & Van Der Kaaij, 2003).

It was in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, that VanderHoff learned about the challenges and hardships of the region’s coffee growers. The farmers were receiving very low prices for their coffee beans. These prices were set by “coyotes” or local traders who purchased and transported the green coffee beans at very low prices and re-sold them at a profit in larger urban or export markets. The rural farmers had no access to price information or transportation and were dependent on the coyotes as their only source of market access. VanderHoff was already familiar with urban poverty but the plight of the rural farmers, he felt, was a situation that could be changed. “I’m fed up with churches praying for the poor,” he proclaimed. A year later, in 1981, VanderHoff helped launch the region’s first coffee cooperative, the Union of Indigenous Communities of the Region of Isthmus (UCIRI). Here farmers pooled resources and worked together to get their goods to market, bypassing the coyotes. This improved conditions for the farmers a little, though the price and quality of their coffee was still not very good (VanderHoff, 2002).

A few years later in a Dutch train station, VanderHoff, met economist, Nico Roozen, from Solidaridad, a Dutch development agency focused on promoting social justice. Together the two men created the Max Havelaar Fair Trade label, the first labeling of its kind which launched the idea of a certified Fair Trade product. The name, Max Havelaar, was chosen based on a character in a best-selling 19th century book about the exploitation of Javanese coffee plantation workers by Dutch colonial merchants. Max Havaalar certified coffees, rolled out in 1988, guaranteed that producers followed various social and environmental standards and received a fair price for their coffee production. The fair price was significantly higher than the market price. The raw, green beans were exported to the Netherlands where they were roasted and packaged for sale in Dutch world shops and retail outlets. The product sold well and soon the idea was replicated in several other markets (VanderHoff, 2002). By 2002, farmer membership in UNCIRI had grown to 2,076 (Murray, Raynolds, & Taylor, 2003). By 1997, Max Havaalar and other similar labeling projects arranged themselves under the umbrella organization, Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO). In 2006, FLO labeled sales in the Netherlands were $53 million (FLO, 2007). In addition to the label, VanderHoff also set up the Max Havaalar Foundation which works with businesses, civil society organizations, and individuals in the Netherlands to improve the position of producer organizations and support consumer citizen movements (Max Havelaar Foundation, 2012).

A quote from VanderHoff, “To see the world of today from below, from the poor, does not make the world nicer, but at least more hopeful and challenging. To live together in this world of poor small Indian farmers in the mountains of southern Mexico is not only a privilege, but also a divine privilege. To see in the eyes and in the hands of farmers, women and men, is to see the divine of the poor God with different names and stature. And taking this serious in your own life, body and soul, is turning poverty into a divine challenge: to create a world as a good and pleasant place to live in for everyone, always starting on the spot you are” (2005).

Edna Ruth Byler – Fair Trade Handicrafts

Edna Ruth Byler

Edna Ruth Byler

Edna Ruth Byler was born near Hesston, Kansas in 1904. She grew up in a Mennonite community, attending a one-room school with mostly Pennsylvania Dutch classmates. Byler graduated from Hesston College, a Mennonite school, where she met her future husband, Professor J. N. Byler. Byler went on to pursue a PhD at the University of Colorado in Boulder, before moving east to Pennsylvania to work with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) (Preheim, 1986). While her husband was sent to France to oversee relief work, she stayed behind and worked with the MCC and raised her two children.

In 1942, her husband returned, and in 1946 while on a Mennonite mission trip to Puerto Rico with her family, Byler was introduced to local needlework handicrafts (Preheim, 1986). Impressed with the skills of the impoverished women, Byler agreed to market their goods to other Mennonite congregants in the US. Using her ties to the MCC, and selling from her basement and car, she was able to soon develop a network of sales outlets in local churches across the US and Canada (Preheim, 1986).

In 1962 Byler’s sales evolved into SELFHELP Crafts of the World and became a part of the total relief, rehabilitation, and development program of MCC (Yoder, 1989). Mennonite values include compassion, service, mutual aid, and peacemaking. The purpose of the SELFHELP organization was to provide “fair paying employment” for those in less developed countries to help them exert control over their lives and meet their basic physical needs (Grant, 1991). Byler passed away in 1976, but the organization SLEF HELP Crafts continued to grow.

By 1990, SELFHELP worked with 65 producer groups around the world producing products such as hand crafted jewelry and baskets, hand woven mats, lace tablecloths, clothing, items carved from rare woods such as teak and ebony, ceremonial masks, greeting cards, and even some packaged food such as wild rice (Grant & Rinehart, 1991). Canadian store manager Sue Daley was heavily promoting the store through advertising, events, volunteer educational programs. She had a vision to grow her tiny 640 square foot store into a thriving 2,000 square foot outlet. However, with just a 25 percent mark up on retail, SELFHELP Crafts barely covered its operation costs. The business relied heavily on church members to educate congregates and the public about the producers behind the crafts. “Hands that are working don’t have to hold begging bowls,” stated one of Daley’s early promotional pamphlets.

In 1996, SELFHELP became Ten Thousand Villages, a non-profit, retail company that grew to include more than 100 stores in the United States and Canada. The name, Ten Thousand Villages, came from a Mahatma Gandhi quote, “…India is not to be found in its few cities but in the 700,000 villages…we have hardly ever paused to inquire if these folks get sufficient to eat and clothe themselves with” (Ten Thousand Villages, 2012). By 2008, the company’s sales had surpassed $25.5 million with 33 percent of sales being paid back to artisans (Wolfer & de Pina, 2008). The store continues to grow and by 2012, there were 390 retail outlets in the US alone selling product from 38 different countries, 124 artisan groups, $7.1 million of crafts purchased, and gross sales of $27.7 million (Ten Thousand Villages, 2012). Ten Thousand Villages is a founding member of the World Fair Trade Organization and also a member of the Fair Trade Federation. Its vision is that, “one day all artisans in the developing countries will earn a fair wage, be treated with dignity and respect and be able to live a life of quality” (10,000 Villages, 2012). Sixty-six years, and millions of dollars later, this still parallels Byler’s SELFHELP Crafts’ original goal of fair paying employment and self determination.