EASTERN EUROPE: Fair Trade Takes Off

  • by Claudia Ciobanu (bucharest)
  • Inter Press Service

'Central and Eastern Europe is not used to think of itself as belonging to 'the developed part of the world',' says Justyna Szambelan, coordinator of the Coalition for Fair Trade in Poland. 'Being closed countries for so long (during the Communist period) has also contributed to the limited awareness of problems faced by the global south.

'So it is important to raise awareness that our region does now belong among the rich and ought to take responsibility for other regions of the world,' Szambelan told IPS. 'The young generation is more self-confident and understands better their consumer power. They are willing to make a change and fair trade is an efficient tool to that end.'

The organisation coordinated by Justyna Szambelan brings together various types of local groups promoting fair trade in different towns around Poland: organisations rooted in church groups (the Polish Fair Trade Organisation from Gdansk), groups linked to the alter-globalisation movement (the Alan Turing Foundation from Wroclaw), ecological-green organisations (Polska Zielona Sie_ from Krakow), and student activist groups (eFTe Group from Warsaw).

The groups united in the Polish Coalition for Fair Trade follow two lines of action: they promote the idea of fair trade across the country, and they commercialise fair trade products.

However, as Szambelan explains, for the moment the products are not directly imported from countries in the global south; rather, they are bought from Western European fair trade companies, such as German GEPA and El Puente and British Divine Chocolate.

The situation in Poland is representative for the region: more and more people are interested in fair trade, and various groups are successful in educating the public about the importance of fair trade; but the activity is in its beginnings, and direct contacts with producers in the global south are still very few.

The Society for Fair Trade in the Czech Republic, the most active organisation working on fair trade in the country, currently runs two 'worldshops' and four specialised selling points. A third of the products they sell come from the Italian organisation Commercio Alternativo, with the rest being imported from various Western European fair trade companies, just like in Poland.

However, the activists are working on establishing direct contacts with producers. According to Tomas Bily, chairman of the Society for Fair Trade, the group has recently ordered handicrafts directly from the Indian MESH, an association of small producer groups which is a member of the World Fair Trade Organisation.

In the past, the group has imported bracelets from the Hazomanga cooperative in Madagascar and small dolls from the Brazilian company Etica, and members of the Society for Fair Trade have established direct contacts with African producers' cooperatives.

Bily declares himself satisfied with the activity of the Society for Fair Trade since its beginning in 2003: 'We are experienced in all kinds of issues related to fair trade, we developed very good educational materials and programmes, and we are acknowledged as a training institution in the field of global development education.' Run mostly by volunteers, the group has played an important role in making the Czech Republic increasingly open to supporting fair trade.

And the group is now looking beyond the borders of the Czech Republic. 'These months, we are working on the initiation of a new platform for meeting and cooperation of fair trade organisations from central, eastern and southern Europe,' Tomas Bily told IPS. 'The working name of this future cooperation is CEEFTA, the Central and Eastern European Fair Trade Organisation. The launch is still to come, but many organisations from Europe have expressed an interest in this cooperation.'

Hungarian fair trade promoters are also working on networking with groups all over the region, and connections have been established with activist groups in Eastern Europe, from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, where the fair trade movement is in its inception.

According to Gyorgyi Ujszaszi from the Hungarian NGO Vedegylet (Protect the Future), Hungarian groups working on fair trade promotion have cooperated very tightly with one another from the beginnings of the movement in Hungary in 2000.

In 2006, the Fair World Association was established, which currently brings together 11 Hungarian NGOs working on fair trade promotion. Member groups have organised critical masses and ethical consumption events, and they have run educational programmes about fair trade in five cities around the country: Budapest, Gy_r, Pécs, Nyíregyháza and Székesfehérvár.

The Hungarian Fair Trade movement prides itself in providing the office of the Hungarian President and that of the Green Ombudsman with fair trade coffee.

The man who supplies the president of Hungary with fair trade coffee is Dan Swartz, the owner of Treehugger Dan's Bookstore and Café in Budapest. Swartz, who describes himself as 'an environmental activist first and a businessman second' runs several bookstore-coffeeshops in the Hungarian capital, where he sells second-hand English-language books and fair trade coffees and teas.

Swartz says that he sells two types of mixed coffees, one coming from Guatemala, Columbia, Peru and Mexico, and the other from Peru and Tanzania. Both are imported into Hungary from the Italian company Caffe Agust.

Unlike some of the cafes and worldshops emerging in the region and popular in Western Europe, which are non-profit, volunteer-run establishments, Swartz uses a model which does yield a profit and has full-time employees. The Treehugger's Bookshops-Cafes is an important part of the growing Hungarian and regional networks promoting fair trade products.

The popularity of his establishments contributes to raising awareness about fair trade and about the activities of Hungarian fair trade NGOs. And, crucially, it is contributing to changing patterns of consumption in the country.

Swartz is supplying several bars and cafes in Budapest with fair trade teas and hot chocolate. And he partners with three restaurants in the Hungarian capital which sell exclusively fair trade coffee. This is a particularly strong engagement, Swartz told IPS, as 'the restaurants purposely bought their own coffee machines so they could be independent enough to sell only fair trade.

'Coffee machines are very expensive and cafes often get trapped into 'free' machine deals from coffee companies,' explains Swartz, the trap being that the cafes are then forced to keep buying expensive coffee from the big company that provided the machine in the first place.

The success of Swartz's establishment is a sign that there is much space for fair trade on Central and Eastern European markets. 'There are 1,500 organic farms, 150 environmental NGOs, and 80 organic shops in Hungary,' Swartz says, 'so it is obvious there are enough customers and there is enough awareness to support these organisations and businesses.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service