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Interview: Mags Vaughan, Traidcraft CEO

11 October 2013

'Favourite sound? The rustle of a chocolate wrapper - fair-trade, of course'

Last year, Traidcraft impacted on the lives of almost a million people in the developing world. It's the UK's leading independent Fairtrade retailer and development charity focusing on trade. I can't help but feel inspired.

I've spent the past nine years at Traidcraft, first as operations director, and then business direc- tor with strategic responsibility for the trading activities. In July, I was appointed as Traidcraft's first female chief executive.

Moving to Traidcraft came as something of a calling, a very personal response to my growing concern about ethics in business. I joined in 2004, after an earlier career in the petrochemicals and oil industry in engineering, planning, and management positions.

A vicarage upbringing comes into it somewhere. (Where else do you learn the skills to tidy up a church hall in record speed after an event?) And a desire to achieve; and a mother who was one of Traidcraft's very first fair-traders, selling products to members of the congregation.

Mum explained to us from a very early age how fair-trade coffee, cocoa, and tea connected us to communities that really needed our help. And it worked. Right through university and beyond, I bought, gave, used, and promoted fair-trade food and crafts. The passion for justice that my mother instilled in me eventually led me from life in large corporate industry, to use those skills to live out my beliefs, and that led me back to Traidcraft.

Now I'm in the very fortunate position of seeing first-hand the difference fair trade makes, to farmers and artisans across the world - children going to school, villages having access to clean water for the first time, support for farmers and their families. I find that inspiring every single day.

Working for justice is a strong motivator, knowing that, through our efforts, whole communities can flourish.

Traidcraft started off as pioneers, when fair trade was little understood and a rather niche thing. We're still developing new products that bring increasing numbers of farmers and producers into the fair-trade system.

It's also true to say that fair trade would never have been so successful without churches up and down the country joining the fight to make trade fair. I don't think they get applauded enough.

Teachers have a huge impact on who you become. I was good at most things at school; so later on I thought, "Mmm, which subjects should I study?" I rather respected the maths and physics teachers, who were both women; so I thought: it's OK to do sciences.

I was always encouraged to make things as a child, not just play with dolls. I also knew that, in the vicarage, money was tight; but, as an engineer, I could get sponsored through university. So, I applied to blue-chip companies and was sponsored by ICI. We probably had to work a bit harder to succeed, but having those role-models gave me the confidence to say, "Actually, you can do this."

I was a mechanical engineer in an oil refinery. I liked big, heavy machines and pipes, and understanding how they work and how to stop them leaking. Do I miss it? Well, I still have the pleasure of making something, though I'm not as close to the actual making.

Like many organisations, Traidcraft hasn't been immune from the commercial realities of the UK retail and fund-raising climate. We measure our success in a very different way from most businesses, but that's not to say that profit and loss aren't important - of course they are. So we're working hard to make sure we meet our customers' expectations.

The fair-trade landscape is changing, too. And, though we know that the large brands entering the fair-trade market benefit hundreds of thousands of people, we shouldn't forget that the basic principles of fair trade were to change the way trade works, so that small-scale producers can find markets for their food and crafts.

If a big brand carries the Fairtrade mark, the producers will have been fairly treated. The difference is that we can go much further: we commit to a long-term relationship, and make a positive choice to work with the smaller, more vulnerable producers. Supermarkets can choose to price things at competitive levels, and that's difficult for us. But we can show that buying Traidcraft products is a way of making a real difference to the lives of the poor.

Last year, we noted the growing pressure from some of these larger businesses, who, in a difficult trading environment, were flexing their muscles and lobbying for a potential weakening of fair-trade principles. Large brands getting into fair trade has been a good thing, but they will never replace the role Traidcraft has, working with the most marginalised.

We're monitoring the situation closely, trying to ensure that producers' and growers' interests are to the fore, making sure fundamental fair-trade principles and development focus aren't lost in the process .

As a student, I was influenced by the group of young Christians I socialised with at Imperial College: the late-night discussions on some finer point of scripture. . . We really thought we knew it all back then. It's great to see where we've all ended up in later life.

I've enjoyed the deep friendship of my local church community in Stockton-on-Tees. They're very much my family, and they've been there in the happy and the sad times. I don't think you can be a Christian in isolation from other Christians.

I was always determined to do well, get good grades, work hard. As I've grown older, I've had to learn that this is impossible in my own strength. This hasn't always been an easy thing to learn.

Leaving the oil industry was my most important choice: leaving a successful, well-paid job, knowing that God was calling me to a different purpose.

My grandfather died when I was in my mid-teens, and I've always regretted that I didn't have more time with him. He was one of life's interesting people: a mathematician and a priest. He died very suddenly, but I would have loved to have had the discussions with him in later life that I know we'd both have enjoyed. And I'd love to have studied harder at languages and become fluent in one or two.

I'd like to be remembered as a friend, someone who tried to serve others. I'm happiest catching up and laughing with close friends, enjoying their company and fellowship.

My favourite place would have to be the top of a windswept mountain summit - any summit. I recently completed climbing all the Lake District Wainwrights.

The Sermon on the Mount has to be my favourite part of the Bible. Every time I read it something new hits me. Some of the heavier books of the Old Testament tend to tax me - Leviticus, and so on.

Favourite sound? I'm ashamed to admit that it's probably the rustle of the wrapper and the delicious snap as I open a fresh bar of chocolate - fair-trade, of course. Traidcraft tempts me daily in this regard.

I'd consider myself slow to anger. I get annoyed, frustrated, but real anger is rare for me. Inequality and injustice make me angry, as does the denial that inequality and injustice exist.

Like most people, I suspect, I pray for those I am closest to - my family and friends. I try and give thanks, but sometimes I do rather have a shopping list of requests for the Lord.

I'm a great admirer of Elizabeth Fry; so it would be good to be locked in a church with her to share our mutual interest in chocolate, in the progress of women, in how we treat those less fortunate than ourselves - the prisoners, the asylum-seekers, our neighbours in Christ.

Mags Vaughan was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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