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Let's Talk Human Rights

How Innovation is Shaping the Fair Trade Movement

By Jill DeWitt '20, Jenn Hoody '20, Hannah Nicholas '20, & Emily Shanahan '20

Although we were very much looking forward to the in-person conference in California, the plans quickly shifted to an online platform in light of COVID-19. Nonetheless, the virtual National Fair Trade Conference was an incredible opportunity to learn from movement leaders and industry experts that are currently driving social innovation and sustainable development. It was also a good time to connect with other campus organizers and brainstorm ideas to further promote fair trade advocacy. While in-person events and conferences can be an excellent way to distribute content, shifting to a virtual platform allowed us to watch every breakout session that was presented throughout the week. Also, by transforming the conference into a virtual event, we as representatives of the University of Dayton were able to expand our reach and promote brand awareness to a broader audience than ever before.

This year, our team presented on the implementation and promotion of fair trade practices on our campus. As a fair trade designated university, faculty and student advocates are consistently working to further our impact and spread awareness of what fair trade designation means and why it is important. In spring 2019, the fair trade coalition organized a Clothing Swap on campus in which students were invited to drop-off unwanted clothes at locations across campus. On the night of the event, the students who had donated clothes could pick out any clothes they wanted based upon how much they donated to the event. From the success of the first Clothing Swap, we decided to make it a regular occurrence each semester. 

The goal of the Clothing Swap event is not only to promote ethical and sustainable shopping habits but also to educate attendees about fair trade. We presented the initiative at the conference to share our process, takeaways, and recommendations for maximizing the reach and impact. Presenting at the conference allowed us to reflect on and evaluate our operations and provided us the opportunity to collaborate with and gain insight from individuals working on similar initiatives at universities across the country. From ‘Fix It Fridays’ at Illinois State University to ‘Wear Justice’ at Point Loma Nazarene University, we acquired valuable knowledge on how to effectively implement fair trade initiatives on a college campus. We are excited to bring back this wisdom as we continue to advocate for fair trade.

This year’s Fair Trade Conference recognized some of the fantastic innovations and trends throughout the Fair Trade World. Sarah DeLang from The World Fair Trade Organization shared some remarkable statistics demonstrating the trends happening within Fair Trade. To begin, 52% of Fair Trade organizations are led by a female CEO, which is monumental when compared to the 8% found throughout all businesses. This is partly because Fair Trade organizations place a high value on diversity and inclusion and are trying to be an example for businesses all across the world. Another interesting statistic is that 92% of Fair Trade businesses reinvest their profits into their social missions, which is a practice that is not standard in most businesses. Fair Trade organizations are also typically working with marginalized populations in undesirable environments; however, despite these odds, they are four times less likely to go bankrupt. The work of Fair Trade is tough, but the leaders are creative, passionate, and mission-driven, which has led them to find success despite the challenges they face. Fair Trade organizations are leaders in their industries and are reinventing business practices. They place a high value on their workers and sustainability, while also continuing to make a profit and innovate. This is why Paul Rice from Fair Trade USA has called this type of business a “win, win, win.” 

However, the work of Fair Trade is only beginning. Stephanie Lopez, The University of California’s Special Programs Manager for Procurement Services, discussed some of the innovations UC is working on, such as creating databases to find ethical and sustainable products, requiring ethical purchasing training for all procurement positions, and creating a scorecard to measure all outside suppliers. Vik Giri, founder, and CEO of Gallant, talked about the increase of organic cotton he has seen over the years and how he is making strides by creating affordable and organic/natural cotton-based products. These are just a few examples of the innovative minds working in the Fair Trade world. Over the years, With the use of technological advocacy, Fair Trade leaders are hoping to spread this movement, encourage innovation, and remain leaders in the commercial world. 

Elizabeth Segran began the opening breakouts by explaining how activism is a lifelong skill that can lead us not only to social change but to a fulfilling job. This idea is embodied by Alexandra Villasenor, who shared her experience as a student activist and how she is using the unprecedented time to be present with herself and innovative with her work. Funmiola Fagbamilia focused her keynote on the intersection of activism and self-care, invoking Audre Lorde’s idea that self-care in of itself is an act of political warfare. Funmiola performed her own spoken word, which inspired the audience to be introspective about their activism and acceptance of others' own forms of activism so we can build a unified force with which to fight inequality. This flowed into Paul Rice’s closing, “We are as vulnerable as the most vulnerable among us.” Fighting for just systems, whether through Fair Trade initiatives or other forms of activism, not only empowers the most vulnerable, but is also an act of self-care.

From the initial breakouts to the closing discussion, the importance of personal growth and well-being were highlighted throughout the conference. Perhaps this was due to the personal struggles we are all facing as we deal with the societal impacts of COVID-19, or perhaps as an illustration of a broader zeitgeist. Activism, growth, and wellbeing are intersectional and interdependent. Dedicating meaningful time to each can help us achieve more equitable systems as well as develop as individuals.


Jillian DeWitt is a senior Operations and Supply Chain student and is also pursuing a Nonprofit and Community Leadership Graduate Certificate

Jenn Hoody is a senior Mechanical Engineering student with a minor in Sustainability, Energy, & the Environment

Hannah Nicholas is a senior Finance and Operations and Supply Chain Management student at the University of Dayton. 

Emily Shanahan is a senior International Business Management student with minors in Sustainability, Energy, and the Environment, and Human Rights Studies

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