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Archive for October, 2013

While studying the MSc Africa and International Development program, I applied for a work-based placement (WBP) with the Scottish Fair Trade Forum. My interests within development studies have always been largely sustainability-oriented, and, for me, this provided the perfect platform to further this interest within a research capacity, especially in light of Scotland’s recent achievement of ‘Fair Trade Nation’ status in early 2013. It was a six to eight week ‘internship’, where I was to conduct qualitative interviews in two Scottish towns of my choice: one with Fair Trade Town status, the other without. Using both towns, I explored the way ‘spatiality relations’ and ‘spaces’ impact Scottish Fair Trade within the context of social justice and an ‘ethic of care’, and how the politics of space can be both enabling and exclusionary for certain audiences in Scotland, as well as for Fair Trade producers in the ‘global South’.

The topic of the research itself evolved significantly throughout the beginning stages of the project, and actually only became a concrete focus after I shadowed a Fair Trade Steering Group committee meeting in Balerno, a small town on the outskirts of Edinburgh, that highlighted the importance of the church as a platform for Fair Trade advocacy, specifically within their locale. With the guidance of my contact at the Forum, I shadowed a number of these Fair Trade meetings in local municipalities before my placement began, in order to get a sense of the kinds of issues I would be dealing with during my research, and to observe the aspirations and limitations that both Fair Trade, and non-Fair Trade Towns were experiencing.

After hearing the issues raised by committee members and townsfolk alike, I realised just how critical a role ‘space’ played within the Fair Trade movement, whether it was through the influence of the church and Christian-sponsored ethical consumerism, or how the presence of the Fair Trade logo and Fair Trade goods on supermarket shelves impacted consumerist behaviour. These were physical elements of Fair Trade’s socio-spatialities, and I extended this research further to include its semiotic engagement with producers as ‘the others’, and the binding relationship it created within its ‘environment of responsibility’.

The interviews themselves were conducted in Musselburgh, and Dalgety Bay; both towns I chose for their relative proximity to Edinburgh, and their comparative population size, and I was fortunate to speak to a few committee members on the Fair Trade Steering Groups of both towns for my research. It was an immensely rewarding experience! We usually met for coffee, and I voice-recorded each interview, (about an hour long), individually and separately, and transcribed them at home. After that, it was a matter of highlighting the key elements and discourse that typified the inclusionary and limiting aspects of the ‘spaces’ of Fair Trade, and pinpointing the issues raised within a physical, social and ethical context. The result, as to be expected, was nothing like I had imagined it to be in the project’s early conception, yet was more interrogative of the many facets of Fair Trade as a form of alternative development. It opened my eyes to the sheer complexities of sustainability, ethical consumerism and its global consciousness.

In the journal entries we were to keep throughout the project, I fully acknowledged my ignorance about the Fair Trade movement in the early stages of the research, which quite simply boiled down to a naïve one-track conception of a linear process between producer and consumer, and the mutual benefits reaped along the way. However, thanks to the absolute wealth of debates surrounding the efficacy of Fair Trade in the economic market on the Internet, in literature, and even within the discourse of my interviewees, my perspective allowed for a more informed analysis that even touched on the psychology of ‘well-being’ within a moral economy, and the difference between ‘Fair Trade’ and ‘trading fairly’. It was a complex topic that seemed to change course continually, but the overall scope was an incredibly interesting field to research. I loved having the opportunity to debate with my interviewees about the various approaches to Fair Trade and its achievements and challenges, and how each interviewee was intensely passionate about the movement. This was conveyed to me in the way Fair Trade had already impacted their town, or how they hoped it would in the near future.

When I ‘shadowed’ the Fair Trade Steering Groups in different towns, including ones outside my research groups, it was always interesting to note where the meetings were held, who from the community was present, and the issues they focused on in order to integrate Fair Trade within everyday life as much as possible. In terms of my research and the significance of ‘space’, the fact that almost every meeting I attended was held inside a church, reflected the initial discussion of how ‘socio-spatialities’ affect Fair Trade. It was fairly commonplace that the power and spread of religion was used as a major platform for promoting Fair Trade, as its outreach in small communities is relatively widespread. I noted, however, that this was as much exclusionary as it was inclusive, and it was also interesting that the church played a much more insignificant role within large cities such as Edinburgh, where more ‘neutral’ territories were used, such as city halls. This was just one aspect of many in the incredibly nuanced moral geography of Fair Trade. My overall observations informed three segments: the geographies of distance and locality, geographical socio-spatialities, and the ethical connection and the quotidian. While I made each area its own category for the sake of organisation, each is inextricably linked to the other, where they contribute to ethical debates on what it means to play a role in a moral economy. It goes into defining awareness, as well as interrogating the limitations that ethical advocacies present for the movement itself to exist within the realm of ‘social justice’. Within my conclusions, I noted how significant these discussions are for Fair Trade organisations, and the implications for other NGO’s as they co-exist in alternative development with mainstream global economics.

Overall, it was an intellectually rewarding and informative experience, providing me with an insight into the inner workings of Fair Trade communities and those still aspiring to achieve that status. The final report for the Scottish Fair Trade Forum was designed to shed light on this niche area within Fair Trade as Scotland continues to forefront the international Fair Trade movement, and I hope that it proves useful for them in the future!

 Grace O’Donovan, former CAS MSc student

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