Roots of Fair Trade: From Max Havelaar to Nairobi City

Roots of Fair Trade: From Max Havelaar to Nairobi City

[Author: Alice Martin, Community Engagement Intern]

Did you know that fair trade products are sold in other countries besides the United States? To my surprise, researching the origin of fair trade was not as easy as I thought, because fair trade is happening all around us.

Fair trade practices date back over seventy years ago. Since that time, economic growth in the United States and Europe has opened the door for new innovations in the production, packing, trading, and selling of foods and other goods. When we think of fair trade today, we might overlook how it started, where, or why. Honestly, it wasn’t an idea that came from just one source, but many.

The ideological roots of fair trade food sales date back to the 1800s, as exemplified in a novel (pictured above) by Dutch satirist Multatuli about the coffee auctions and practices of the Dutch Trading Company. The novel’s protagonist, Max Havelaar, battles the colonial government and highlights the unjust coffee trade in Dutch Indonesia that kept local farmers impoverished.

After World War II, economic leaders across the U.S. and Europe built on early ideas, like those in the Max Havelaar novel (and also expressed by others), to create the first structured alternative trading organizations (ATOs). In simplified terms, these are mission-driven economic structures which encompass much of what we know as the fair trade model today. Organizations like The Salvation Army, Mennonite Central Committee, and SERRV International were among those credited with establishing fair trade supply chains.

During the 1980s, the modern fair trade model was further developed. Up to this point, farmers continued to suffer from malnutrition and starvation in post-war stricken areas in many countries across the world. Coffee and tea were two of the initial agricultural products to be traded fairly through ATOs. Following this were: dried fruits, cocoa, sugar, fruit juices, rice, spices and nuts.

The original goal with fair trade was to establish trading partnerships based on dialogue and transparency, then to use those partnerships to establish economies that are sustainable and self-sufficient. The income that the farmers and producers gain from trading goods within a fair trade structure helps support a number of different things. While these benefits vary, they generally include improved access to: education for farmers/producers and their families, better housing, quality healthcare, and overall safety.

Before the label of fair trade certification was prevalent in our supermarkets and local food stores, the idea of fair trade was simply, trading fair. What began as good timing, at least with the United States, was about people reaching out to help people in other countries build improved lives while, in the process, gaining the foodstuffs that were desired.

Here is just one example: In 1973, a recreation center that opened in Nairobi City, Kenya with the intent to help street children become employed evolved into Africa’s most successful rehabilitation agency providing children with the means to gain shelter and support. Today, that same organization, now known as Undugu Fair Trade, works with over 800 families and groups throughout the country to establish a sustainable income. Above, we see some of the artisans that are part of Undugu Fair Trade today.

Throughout the history of agriculture, farmers have been treated fairly and unfairly in different ways. Some agricultural operations are now being certified through fair trade third party organizations to ensure that they're able to build and sustain a better life for themselves, their families, and their community and to do so with dignity.

Here at Global Gifts, we carry out the fair trade standard every day by selling products grown, produced, and created by artisans and farmers who are ensured fair compensation and safe working conditions. Although fair trade did not originate from our store, we have quite the history of our own. Global Gifts was founded in the early 1980s by several members of the Indianapolis First Mennonite Church. Although it began as a small initiative selling crafts, we soon opened a storefront on Michigan Road. Since then, Global Gifts has continued to grow and this year marks an accomplished 29 years of business! Here at Global Gifts, we are appreciative of the hard work and talents of the farmers, producers, and artisans from whom we purchase fair trade-certified goods and we thank all of our volunteers and customers for supporting our organization by buying fair trade.



Diane Simon McCrea Wright, The Handbook of Organic and Fair Trade Food Marketing John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2008.

Keith Brown and Nicki L. Cole, The Problem With Fair Trade Coffee Sage Publications, Inc., 2014.

Kelsey Timmerman, Where am I Eating: an Adventure Through the Global Food Economy John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2014.

Sally Blundell, No-Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade New Internationalist 2012.

Terrence H. Witkowski, Fair Trade Marketing: An Alternative System for Globalization and Development, 2005

Photo Credits:

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