Fairtrade in India


June 21, 2010

By Saumya Roy, Shloka Nath

Jul 21, 2010

Indian farmers have been selling their fair trade produce to developed markets for years by getting certified by the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). Now the FLO wants to invert that model. It will introduce a fair trade label for the Indian market next year. The Spice Board of India is looking to follow suit with a fair trade label for the domestic spice market.

First, let’s understand what fair trade is. Fair trade is an organised movement that helps producers in developing countries get a premium for their products if they follow better social, labour and environmental standards.

More than $4 billion worth of fair trade products were sold internationally in 2008, up 22 percent since the previous year. While sales of products like fair trade tea, coffee, flowers, wine and beer have grown in double digits for the last several years, cultivation has outpaced demand, according to reports.

If the fair trade movement is implemented in India, it could open up a huge new market for fair trade farmers, giving them stability against foreign exchange fluctuation.

For the movement to be successful, however, it requires the customers to be sensitive about this. “The size of the market is very small because Indians are not really concerned about this,” says Arvind Singhal, chief executive of retail consulting company KSA Technopak. “Companies are trying to create fair trade brands for their own reasons but if the customer is not sensitive then this will have only a limited impact.”

The Indian market and other domestic markets in producing countries are increasingly important for the fair trade movement because they could each be larger than the European market, which is the largest market for fair trade products. For instance, take Chetna Organic Farmers Association, which works with 9,000 cotton farmers in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, Telangana in Andhra Pradesh, and Koraput, Bolangir and Kalahandi region of Orissa. It sells most of its cotton in Europe at a premium of Rs. 320 a quintal. But even now it is able to sell only half the produce; the rest gets sold in India without any premium.

It is no wonder then that Seth Petchers, chief executive of Shop for Change, a marketing and labelling organisation for domestic fair trade products, is trying to launch this movement in India. Shop for Change launched a range of fair trade clothes along with designer Anita Dongre’s prêt label AND. The collection featured an ad campaign that starred fair trade cotton farmers along with former Miss India, Gul Panag.

This collection was made with fair trade cotton from Chetna’s farmers in Orissa, who were paid Rs. 35 per kilo of cotton rather than the market price of Rs. 30 per kilo. The FLO also fixes a fair trade price, which includes a minimum price for the product and a fair trade premium. Says Reykia Fick, external relations co-ordinator, FLO, “On top of stable prices (usually the fair trade minimum price), producer organisations are paid a fair trade premium — additional funds to invest in social or economic development projects.”

Farmer members of Chetna, in Andhra Pradesh’s Karimnagar district, have used this premium along with an international grant to build a storage warehouse for their cotton. During the off-season, they rent out the warehouse as a marriage hall and distribute earnings for the co-operative. Another farmer group in Maharashtra’s Akola district has used the premium to build a school. In Kerala’s Kannur district, the premium is used to create a fund for distressed farmers. It has also allowed the community to set up solar sensing technology as a benign blockade warding wild elephants off the cashew nut trees. Their cashew produce is labelled Jumbo Cashews in the European market.

All of this may or may not result in a price premium for a consumer depending on whether a retailer chooses to crunch its margins. Increasingly, retailers have started selling fair trade products without a price premium for consumers. Dongre’s fair trade collection sold at the same price as her other clothes. Cadbury’s launched a fair trade version of its Dairy Milk chocolate internationally at the same price as the rest of its Dairy Milk chocolates.

In case of fair trade products “it is the imagery which is different rather than a product differentiation,” says Shital Mehta, COO of premium menswear brand, Van Heusen. Right now fair trade numbers are small. Companies want to portray themselves as fair employers but are just experimenting with a small percentage of their products. Will they ever get all their products under the fair trade umbrella?

That change will come when it becomes a civil society movement as it has in the West, says Tomy Mathews, founder of Fair Trade Alliance of Kerala. Mathews’ alliance has been supplying through the FLO for years and he says, “Attempts to create independent labels diverting from the uniform global message on global trade justice is doing disservice to the philosophy of fair trade. I don’t look fairly on [the] Spice Board initiative or the Shop for Change initiative. The moment you confuse market with different logos you’re already losing the game before it begins.”

Retailers that have included more equitable conditions for artisans and weavers, such as Fabindia and Anokhi, have done well here already and this movement can get extended to farmers as well, says Roopa Mehta, president of the Fair Trade Forum of India.

But there may still be some distance between promise and scale in the market. Devangshu Dutta, CEO of retail consulting company, Third Eyesight, says he sees a market developing for fair trade products, albeit slowly. “Things will change. But that change will have to come from the customer side. Currently, it is a very limited market but it could be a business proposition for a few companies.”

Find this article in Forbes India Magazine of 30 July, 2010

Carrying and Being Carried

Devangshu Dutta

May 31, 2010

Are you being carried, or are you carrying others?

To know the answer to that question, bear with me while I take you on a short mental journey through the emerging landscape of “ethical business” and to the stories at the end of this piece. (Okay, you can cheat and skip ahead, but I would really prefer you to read through the whole thing.)

For the most part sustainability and responsibility – or “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) to use the proper jargon – is seen as more relevant to the western economies, rather than the emerging economies like China, India and Brazil.

The pressure to do the ‘right thing’ is like a carpenter’s vice, whose one jaw is public opinion and the other is regulation, together squeezing ever tighter on corporate business. Clearly, there is a significant portion of customers in western markets who are vocal in expressing their opinions on business practices that are seen as wrong or unethical. On the other side, judicial implementation of regulations is also extremely stringent.

In fact, in the last 10-15 years CSR and sustainability have become far more important to top management in western economies since the real penalties in terms of negative impact on the brand and financial penalties through regulation and litigation are extremely high. Multi-billion dollar businesses certainly have much at risk, as demonstrated by well-documented PR disasters of large brands and retailers in the last decade or so. The variety of issues they have faced has covered sweatshop factories, child-labour, product safety, food adulteration and many others.

Since the mid-1990s there has been a steady increase in CSR initiatives, or at least an increase in initiatives that are labelled under the CSR umbrella. There is no doubt that there is good intent behind many CSR initiatives.

Some of these are focussed on improving the core business processes and practices of the company, and have measurable improvement goals that also have a positive impact beyond the company itself. These can truly be called socially-responsible corporate initiatives.

However, one can’t help but question many others which are fuzzy in their impact on both within the business and outside. The motivation of this type of initiative seems to be a two-pronged PR effort: firstly to get positive PR for “good work” mostly unrelated to the business and secondly, more importantly, to avoid negative PR for poor or questionable business practices in the company’s mainstream products or services.

Lest I sound too cynical about the corporate efforts, let me say this: there is also lack of clarity and agreement in non-corporate circles about what constitutes “corporate social responsibility” or “responsible business”. The label is relatively new to mainstream management thinking and very mutable. Social responsibility, ethical business, sustainability are all terms that are broad-based, used interchangeably, and are open to interpretation which can change with the context. (I wrote about this in an earlier column “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel” about 18 months ago.)

And that brings me to four separate incidents that happened recently, which are (in hindsight) neatly threaded together with a common thought process. (Thank you for your patience so far!)

The first was a discussion recently initiated by an international organisation about what could motivate Indian brands and retailers to make moves in the area of corporate responsibility, whether regulations needed to be tighter or whether it would be consumer pressure that would bring about a change. The underlying assumption – right or wrong – was that, as corporate entities, Indian retailers and brands were not sufficiently motivated to take significant and visible steps towards making their businesses more sustainable and socially responsible than their current state. The discussion was inconclusive, with many different, all potentially valid, points of view on the subject.

Very soon thereafter, I had the opportunity to participate in a dialogue with Gurcharan Das, the philosopher-author who, in his last corporate role, was Managing Director – Strategic Planning for Procter & Gamble worldwide. The dialogue primarily centred on his latest book: “The Difficulty of Being Good”. There was much debate and discussion on the wider consequence of individual actions and especially of those in positions of authority, highlighting the importance of individual choices.

A few days later, in a totally different context and with an entirely different person, the third incident occurred, when I was told an updated version of an old story to demonstrate the power of “a few good men” (and women). The story was as follows:

“50 people were travelling in a bus. Part-way through the journey, the weather suddenly turned stormy, with massive thunder and lightning bolts cracking all over the place. At times it seemed as if lightning would strike the bus and kill everyone on board. Then, someone proclaimed that there was someone on the bus whose end had come, who the lightning was seeking, and that it would be better for everyone else to get that person off the bus. The driver stopped the bus, and each person was sent off by turn, to go and touch a tree at a distance. 49 people got off the bus and returned unharmed after touching the tree. Then, as the last person got off and walked away from the bus, the bus was struck by a massive bolt of lightning.”

I thought this was a gruesome but effective moral science tale! During the next few hours I went about my activities, but kept mulling over the lesson(s) in that little story.

Then, that very afternoon, I got an email containing the following thought: “…when it looks like the whole place is going to implode – with pollution, disease, and war; famine, fatigue, and fright – there are still those who see the beauty. Who act with kindness. And who live with hope and gratitude. Actually, they carry the entire planet. (Mike Dooley)”

In looking back to the article 18-months ago, I closed the loop: it is the individual manager, who is also a citizen in a community, a consumer, and as a parent a stakeholder in future generations, who has to make the choices. His or her choices – both right and wrong – do have an impact beyond his or her own life and business. The so-called triple bottom line – profit, people (community) and planet (environment) – are irrelevant unless the first question is answered: “what does this mean for me?”

So as we go about our day, launching and growing brands, opening new stores, creating new products, I offer you this thought to reflect upon: are we carrying, or being carried? Is the bus safe because of us, or are we the ones the lightning is seeking?

[Go to the earlier post: “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel“, December 2008]

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