Book Review: Fair Trade: A Human Journey

St-Pierre, Éric with Emerson da Silva, Mathieu Lamarre, & Barbara Sandlands.   Fair Trade: A Human Journey. 2009. Les Éditions de l’homme. Montreal, Canada

Review by Theresa Wolfwood with photos from the book

“Today neoliberalism and its Holy Trinity – deregulation, innovation and globalization – are facing a crisis, and we are finding out that the trendy notion of ‘sustainable development’ is… an oxymoron. The time is ripe to rethink our way of doing things and fight the spread of individualism and consumerism… Fair trade proposes an alternative based on the ideas of social justice, product quality and respect for the environment…Its aim is to encourage involvement and solidarity…This book is a sign of hope that another world is possible.” From the preface by D’Francisco Van der Hoff Boersma, an early founder of fair trade.

This beautiful publication is more than a coffee table book; it is all about the coffee we put on that table –  and 11 other major agricultural products available in Canada that are sold as ‘fair trade.’  It also includes handicrafts and soccer balls in its stories. Every product is highlighted by its history and means of product, personal stories of farmers who grow fair trade and statistics giving the conventional and fair trade  production, prices and importers; all illustrated by wonderful and vivid images of workers and their lives. My only regret about this very comprehensive and well presented book is that fair trade Palestinian olive oil and the role of conflict in agriculture were only mentioned in passing. Maybe in the next edition of this impressive work.


For every product there is good news of increasing fair trade and stories of community benefits, schools, clinics, adult literacy programs and improved environment and health. I was pleased to learn that in Switzerland 50% of imported cut flowers is fair trade. Coffee continues to a global success story which is close to home in Victoria. Here the Central America Support Committee bags and markets freshly roasted coffee from Nicaragua. We work with a larger non-profit group that pays producers a premium price, recently raised, and with surplus funds it sponsors community projects in Nicaragua and Guatemala. Several Victoria activists have visited the Ometepe coffee producers and made personal links.

Bananas are, by weight, the largest fair trade product. The major exporter of this fruit is Ecuador – where only 4% of the proceeds from conventional trade stay in the country. The story of the El Guabo association is fascinating. The group does not use herbicides or nematicides – a major health bonus for workers who receive a premium price for fair trade and an extra premium for organic. They have worked through the complexities of production, marketing and transport to become a highly successful association of small farmers.

Fair Trade is a long term commitment and there is much room for growth. One community in Pakistan – Siakolt – produces 70% of the world’s soccer balls. It was not mentioned during the media frenzy about the World Cup that the balls used were made by children in slave-like conditions. Only 3.7% of soccer balls are made in fair trade conditions. Maybe some of those millionaire players could devote some time, money and energy to fair trade and end this exploitation.

Victor Hugo is quoted as saying, “Today’s Utopia is tomorrow’s reality”. In a few decades fair trade has become a reality for many: 6,000 certified products, 125,000 sales outlets and 5$ billion in sales. There are fair trade schools and universities and 650 cities, villages, and regions that endorse fair trade. This success is based on the dreams and hard work of many workers and organizers.

St-Pierre writes, “…fair trade must not be measured only in terms of numbers. You have to be very clever indeed to quantify hope, pride and dignity.” He closes with the hope that we will see in the faces in this book, “the aspirations for happiness and freedom that are common to us all and that identify us as brothers and sisters in the great human family.”

Leave a Reply