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Interview: Joe Osman, former director, Traidcraft

30 October 2020

‘Ethics and the welfare and development of the producer have become important’

I joined Traidcraft in 1981. Initially, I joined Tearcraft in 1976 as a seasonal worker. Richard Adams, the founder of both Tearcraft and Traidcraft, was a close friend of my vicar, Ray Skinner, who would go on to be Traidcraft’s first board chair. Richard’s vision for Traidcraft was ultimately incompatible with Tearcraft’s parent body, Tearfund, and the parting of ways was inevitable.

I didn’t have a university education,
but I had a logical brain. Traidcraft was such a different organisation: there was nothing conventional about it. Maybe people who joined were people who had a heart for what it was trying to do. I was just packing orders, but what I discovered was a kind of joy. Richard Adams involved everybody in what it was trying to do, and engendered a sense of community and a holistic view of the work. Everyone got involved in decision-making.

How does justice work when you’re buying and selling products from people?
I learned justice on the job, and my heart was formed from working in an organisation based on friendships. Early on, I was sent on my first overseas trip, visiting some of our suppliers in India and Bangladesh in an early stage, and that clinched it.

I found myself veering toward purchasing or logistics.
In a so-called “fair-trade organisation” these roles take on a different meaning. I travelled extensively to visit our producers. Traidcraft was a trailblazer, and created “firsts” in many product sectors of fair trade, all of which I was involved with, and there was always something new happening. I had no reason to move on, but colleagues who did so look back affectionately at their time there. Many have been influenced and continued to be involved in ethical business or work in the charitable sector.

In recent years, Traidcraft struggled, and its size declined.
In 2018, it very nearly went out of business, and needed to change in order to survive. I had neither a role nor an interest in the new Traidcraft, which changed its business model substantially. I was always going to retire earlier than official age, which made it a lot easier to leave, and that allowed me to write its history. I’d lived and breathed Traidcraft for most of my life.

Traidcraft needs to find what makes it unique in 2020.
I wish it well in its smaller format, and they are distributing my book. For all of those Traidcraft customers, reps selling through their church network, supporters, activists, campaigners, fund-raisers, and shareholders over the past 40 years, it may be an essential read.

Traidcraft used to refer to itself as a Christian organisation,
but I don’t think it does now, and I never felt very comfortable with that, anyway. It was founded and run by people who were trying to put into practice their Christian faith, and virtually everyone who worked there was Christian, and it was logical and natural to enact their faith in a business activity. But employment law says you can’t discriminate in your employment practices unless the job has an explicit reason, and there are very few jobs like that in a business which is about buying and selling products. As time went on, the only explicit Christian requirement was for the board of directors, because they maintain the ethos, although a lot of people joined with a sense of calling to the work.

Traidcraft still has a very big presence in the church community,
and we could advertise explicitly for Christians as speakers. At AGMs and external events, there would be acts of worship, and we were very comfortable to be open about our origins.

As with any business, there were successes and failures,
and it almost went out of business. In many ways, it was set up to be a catalyst for change, and to promote fair trade into the mainstream. It played a pivotal role in the development of the Fairtrade mark in the UK. One measure of success was said to be that we should no longer exist because everyone practised fair trade.

I’m still involved in fair trade
through a non-executive directorship at Just Trading Scotland (JTS) (www.jts.co.uk), similar to Traidcraft.

Certainly, the pandemic has impacted things.
Overseas producers, like many of us, struggle to deliver on time. Travel isn’t an easy option. Sales through churches and schools declined, given that those institutions were closed. But online shopping for basic essentials has meant more orders for things like the JTS award-winning Kilombero rice, from Malawi. JTS is ahead of its sales targets, despite losing some of its core business.

I like the Traidcraft tea and coffee most.
They’re among the best on the market, and I’m currently a particular fan of the Traidcraft Burundi coffee beans. Traidcraft was hugely influential in the development of fair trade in these product sectors, and the journey from the slightly dubious-quality but worthy products of the 1980s to the excellent products of today is recounted in the book.

I called it Traidcraft: Inspiring a fair trade revolution
, because I believe there’s been a radical change in the retail landscape of the UK, where ethics and the welfare and development of the invisible, ignored, or forgotten producer at the end of supply chains became important. That’s truly revolutionary, but there’s still room to grow. The constant drive to lower prices, though, is something that is common in UK retail.

An important part of Traidcraft’s work was in education:
communicating stories about producers and the impact of buying fair-trade. Those low-price wins are someone else’s losses. It’s also why it was heavily involved in influencing beyond just fair trade; for example, its work in developing the Grocery Code Adjudicator to ensure that supermarkets treat their suppliers lawfully and fairly, and its campaigning work, and holding to account the larger brands and retailers in the way they conduct their business.

It was always a frustration that Traidcraft did not grow
as large and impactful as it hoped to, and maybe that was inevitable. Organisations did the pioneering work and wider role in the growth of fair trade, and many other businesses harvested the fruit of its hard work. Certainly, as fair trade became mainstream in the 2000s, it signalled the end of Traidcraft’s growth, and a slow decline to what it is today.

I’m a product of a small north-eastern community.
My parents were originally from the mining community in County Durham, though my father left mining and went into social work.

My journey of faith began in a family who were Christians.
We were Methodists originally, but eventually went to an Anglican church, and my two brothers became vicars. They’re both retired, now. My journey took on greater enlightenment, experience, and meaning during my teenage years. Working in an organisation with people who were trying to put into practice some of the implications of their own Christian faith, and trying to demonstrate love and justice, undoubtedly influenced that journey.

I like the sound of no sound.
I really enjoy a walk along the Northumberland coast, and especially Holy Island, where the stillness makes it a place of reassurance. I say that as a bass guitarist, and someone who leads worship at a church, and plays the guitar and leads the singing in services. I can do both, sound and silence.

Yes, I pray, although, like many, probably not enough.
I don’t shirk from prayer about big things, although I find that most of the time I’m drawn to pray for my personal circumstances, and the needs of those I know.

The thought of being locked in a place of worship
for a few hours fills me with some trepidation, and naming a single person might be difficult. But I’ll say Mother Teresa — mostly because, on one of my many travelling experiences representing Traidcraft, I shared a journey with her, in the 1980s, and passed up the opportunity to sit and talk with her. This would make up for that missed opportunity.

Joe Osman was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Traidcraft: Inspiring a fair trade revolution is published by Lion Hudson at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69).

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