Fair trade finds feet in Korea

By Korea Herald
  • Published : May 10, 2013 - 21:06
  • Updated : May 13, 2013 - 13:14

Nepal coffee of “A Gift from the Himalayas” and books introducing the fair trade product (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Children toiling at coffee, cacao or tobacco plantations in Africa and South America for a dollar or two for a day’s work: That is the image that comes to the mind of many who hear the phrase “unfair trade.” 

Recently, the collapse of a shoddily built garment factory in Bangladesh that killed hundreds of people drew international attention to the importance of ethical production, a key element of fair trade.

The concept of “fair trade” has been around for over 40 years, but only a fraction of Koreans are familiar with the term or have purchased products made by fair trade organizations.

The World Fair Trade Organization defines fair trade as a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade.

It says it contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers.

Fair trade organizations have a commitment to fair trade as the core of their mission. Backed by consumers, they are engaged actively in supporting producers, raising awareness and campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade, according to the WFTO.

In Korea

The social movement to promote fair trade is still in its infancy in Korea, with a handful of cooperatives, nonprofit organizations and social enterprises committed to the cause.

As part of the fair trade movement, Beautiful Store started importing handicraft from producer cooperatives that were WFTO members in Asian countries in 2003. Dure Cooperative and Korea YMCA followed by importing sugar and coffee from producer cooperatives in the Philippines and East Timor.

Seven fair trade organizations formed the Korea Council of Fair Trade Organizations in 2011 to raise awareness of fair trade in the country.

“The groups first got together about five years ago to jointly host an event on the World Fair Trade Day, which falls on the second Saturday of May each year,” said Lee Kang-baek, standing director of KFTO.

There are many local shops and cafes that sell products such as coffee, chocolate and sugar that are supplied by organizations committed to fair trade. But there are only a few “pure” fair trade organizations, or social enterprises accredited by the Labor Ministry or Seoul City, cooperatives and nonprofit entities involved in development cooperation at production sites in pursuit of ethical business, according to Lee.
Customers walk out of a fair trade shop inside Seoul City Hall. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

Members of the KFTO include consumer cooperatives such as iCoop Cooperative and Dure Cooperative; foundations that import Asian handicrafts, coffee, tea and chocolate such as Beautiful Coffee (affiliated with the famous charity shop network Beautiful Store); social enterprises such as Fair Trade Korea Guru, which sells organic clothing, tea and incense; and nongovernmental organizations including Korea Food for the Hungry International.

The KFTO’s activities gained momentum after civic activist and founding member of Beautiful Store Park Won-soon was elected as Seoul mayor in late 2011.

Together with the metropolitan government, the KFTO carried out a project to proclaim Seoul as a “Fair Trade City” last year, joining the “Fair Trade Towns” campaign which started as a grassroots citizens movement in the U.K. in 2001.
A visitor looks at photos depicting fair trade at an exhibition inside Seoul City Hall. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

The council also hosted exhibits and policy debate sessions to raise awareness of fair trade among legislators, and ran educational sessions for Seoul City and Seongbuk-gu officials.

Fair trade products such as coffee, chocolate, sugar, pepper, tea, olive oil and eye patches are sold year-round at a shop set up within the City Hall building.

This week, the KFTO jointly hosted a series of “Fair Trade Week” events along with the metropolitan government.

In addition to having young “bobusang,” or peddlers, push carts around the city to sell fair trade products and to promote fair trade throughout the week, a group of lawmakers vowed to support fair trade in a signing ceremony on Thursday.
Ruling and opposition party lawmakers participate in a campaign ceremony to support fair trade. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

The council held a fair trade film festival on Wednesday at Seoul City Hall where a related photo exhibition was held through the week.

An international symposium on fair trade, attended by Seoul Mayor Park and Fair Trade Town campaign founder Bruce Crowther, was held on Friday.

On Saturday, all the local fair trade organizations will participate in a feast at Gwanghwamun Plaza and allow visitors to experience their foods and events at their booths.

A multicultural food festival will be held in Seongbuk-gu on Sunday.


Globally, there are two major fair trade organizations ― the WFTO and Fairtrade International.

The WFTO is the global representative body of more than 450 fair trade organizations that aims to enable small producers to improve their livelihoods and communities through sustainable trade by delivering market access through policy, advocacy, campaigning, marketing and monitoring.

The WFTO membership is limited to organizations that demonstrate a 100 percent fair trade commitment and apply the WFTO’s 10 principles of fair trade such as creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers, transparency and accountability, payment of a fair price, ensuring no child labor and forced labor.

While the WFTO membership means global recognition as a fair trade organization, Fairtrade International is a fair trade labeling organization that gives out Fairtrade certification to products.

Members of the WFTO are mostly involved in the handicraft and garment industry in Asia, whereas FLO certifies mostly food products.

“It takes years and a lot of money to get the certification marks, and things can still be fair trade products without the marks,” Lee said.

“But having the certification marks means that they have democratically run production cooperatives and superb organic farming techniques. The process to reach that level is very important for the producers.”

In addition to the WFTO and FLO, the European Union provides wide support for fair trade organizations.

Research by Oxfam showed that fair trade was much more effective than governments’ overseas aid which often resulted in making developing economies more dependent on foreign aid.

“U.S. food aid in the form of offering huge volumes of wheat to underdeveloped nations, for instance, discouraged local wheat farmers and nearly wiped out wheat production in some countries,” Lee said.

“This destroys the foothold for developing economies to stand on their own feet. Fair trade has emerged as an alternative to help create a basis for workers in developing nations to be self-reliant and promote sustainable growth.”

The U.K. government’s aid program, for example, invests significantly in promoting fair and ethical trade.

Global companies like Starbucks also sell fair trade coffee and chocolate that received certification marks from FLO. Starbucks is the world’s largest buyer of certified fair trade coffee beans which accounted for 8 percent, or about 44 million pounds, of its total bean purchases last year.

The American coffee shop chain is holding various events including free tasting events and seminars with regional nongovernmental organizations this month in celebration of Fair Trade Week.

By Kim So-hyun (