Trade Built On Trust: Renee Bowers, Executive Director Of The Fair Trade Federation

BY A. CADWELL | December 2016

Meet Renee Bowers Of The Fair Trade Federation

Working directly with producer groups in India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka to develop fairly traded producers, Renee Bowers witnessed firsthand the impact of fair trade to preserve artisan traditions and provide longterm income and employment for families. Today she acts as the Fair Trade Federation’s Executive Director, leading the organization's initiatives to partner with small scale artisans and farmers in developing countries and ensure fair wages and sustainable livelihoods. We were eager to hear Renee's perspective on the fair trade movement and how both consumers and producers alike are working towards more equitable supply chains. 

You have diverse experience within the non-profit and crafts sectors, both in the United States and abroad. What brought you to the Fair Trade Federation? 

Strangely enough, I came to the world of fair trade through my work in puppetry. Early in my career I worked at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, GA and became interested in various international forms of puppet making. Eventually I received a research fellowship through the American Institute of Indian Studies to document a particular form of puppet performance that is indigenous to Karnataka. I spent the better part of a year in South India and came to know many families who for generations had been creating gorgeous, intricate wooden sculptures to be used as puppets. Unfortunately, the art form was losing popularity as new technologies emerged; as a result, these artisans had almost no outlet for their talents. The focus of my work very quickly shifted from the challenge of documenting the art form to the challenge of preserving these skills – and doing so in such a way that would provide long term income and employment for families.  That experience brought me to the world of fair trade and created a foundation for all of my future work.

Pictured above: A women entrepreneur in Ghana who works with Fair Trade Federation Member | Global Mamas

What is your perspective of the social and environmental impacts of the traditional supply chain and how do fair trade practices begin to address these issues?

One of the biggest issues we grapple with is that the conventional supply chain is extremely long and often opaque. As a result, the buyers and designers who are making decisions are often completely disconnected from the people who are making the products. This disconnect leads to all sorts of problems and, unfortunately, can have tragic outcomes.  In fair trade we believe that this does not need to be the case.  We maintain face to face relationships with artisans and farmers, and we make a commitment to those producer communities over the long term.  This means that every business decision is made in partnership with producers and with consideration for their best interests. 

When buyers are disconnected from the end producer through a long and opaque supply chain, it is easy to make decisions based only on a single bottom line and without regard to the people behind the products.

I’ll give one example to help illustrate one of the unintentional consequences of the conventional supply chain.  Research has shown that one of the biggest drivers of worker abuse in apparel factories is time pressure.  In other words, when a retailer places an order and demands that product be on the shelf within a short time frame, there is pressure for production to move faster and often beyond safe capacity.  That pressure is passed down through many layers and in the end can lead to forced overtime or other abuses of worker rights.  In this scenario buyers may not even realize the effect of their actions.  When buyers are disconnected from the end producer through a long and opaque supply chain, it is easy to make decisions based only on a single bottom line and without regard to the people behind the products.  In fair trade we have addressed this by completely turning the conventional decision making model on its head and focusing on our relationship with artisans and farmers.

Picture above: Afghan women weavers who work with FTF Member | Arzu Studio Hope 

What does it mean for an organization be a Fair Trade Federation member? And how is this different from a product that is fair trade certified? 

Fair Trade Federation member businesses are completely mission driven.  A commitment to producer relationships is at the very core of their organizational model, and is integral to every action they take.  We call this 360° fair trade to represent the strong, holistic connections throughout the fair trade supply chain.

FTF member businesses are committed to all nine Fair Trade Federation principles and undergo a rigorous screening process that evaluates their full business practice.  Unlike fair trade certification, which audits a single ingredient or worksite, Fair Trade Federation membership verifies that the entire business is fair trade. FTF is also the only U.S. verification organization working in the handmade product sector.

  Pictured above: Renee celebrating our members’ commitment to 360° fair trade this October during Fair Trade Month

Previously you worked directly with producer groups in India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka as a buyer for Ten Thousand Villages – one of our favorite fair trade retailers. What impacted you about working directly with artisans?

Yes, I feel very luck to have had the opportunity to work for Ten Thousand Villages as a fair trade buyer.  Unlike buyers for more conventional companies, my job at Ten Thousand Villages was to maintain relationships with artisan groups by helping them create products for the US market.  Conventional buyers are asked to go out and find great products at the right price; as a fair trade buyer I was asked to think about people first and let the product follow from there.  It’s a transformational model, and I feel lucky to have witnessed its effects firsthand! 

The most inspiring aspect of my work as a buyer was the opportunity to watch artisan cooperatives build their businesses from the ground up.  In many of the communities in which I worked, women had not always been expected or even allowed to take a leadership role in business.  Seeing them grasp that opportunity and run with it helped keep me going in my own career – we learned alongside each other! 

In many of the communities in which I worked, women had not always been expected or even allowed to take a leadership role in business. Seeing them grasp that opportunity and run with it helped keep me going in my own career – we learned alongside each other!

Picture above: Renee in Delhi working Tara Projects, a fair trade artisan organization. 

There are so many considerations for the modern consumer. What do you look for As a consumer when you are trying to purchase products responsibly?

If I can buy a product from a Fair Trade Federation member, I certainly do that.  If I can’t, I ask myself “What do I know about this business?  How can I find out more?”  Remember, businesses that are doing good work are also transparent about that work.  Never be afraid to ask questions!  If you don’t get an answer, that is an answer in itself.

Picture above: The office of FTF Member Mata Traders showcasing the fair trade principles

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