Is Fairtrade really fair?

The clothes I wear, the coffee I drink, the food I eat – even that little bit of cheeky chocolate – are all labelled 'fairtrade'. When I buy fairtrade, I walk away feeling good that I just did my bit for the world. But what am I really buying? It seems as though fairtrade has become a commodity – just a way to increase the price and sell to the growing eco-friendly market.

I can't help but ask the question: is fairtrade really good enough?

When I decided to create a socially minded business I took a long, hard look at the fairtrade industry. I saw images of smiling, clean people happily working away in factories – all possible because of the nice man or woman who made it a point to pay them just that little bit more than their competitor.

But how do we define fair? Here we are sitting in our comfy homes, living our comfy lives and that person, half a world away, is working and living in conditions that no one in the developed world could stomach, for a wage that a penniless student wouldn't even get out of bed for. The conditions in marketing material tell me that things are probably better than other local factories in the same industry, but the situation isn't even close to fair.
Shouldn't the factory workers be given the same opportunities and salaries as I am? Shouldn't they have the right to travel, start a business, live in a city, or to earn a wage that can afford the kind of home, consumer electronics, or education that I can? 

We know that the world is not fair, but can fairness really exist in a first-world business that employs a third-world workforce? For some businesses, it might be enough to pay their international suppliers a slightly more competitive wage than the status quo. Consumers may also be content to pay just that little bit more for a slice of humanity. For me, as the founder and CEO of Tengri, it wasn't good enough. During my visits to factories in Mongolia, I was flabbergasted by the fact that much of the animal fibre industry (cashmere, camel, sheep and yak wool) is fairtrade and is in fact sold to high-end designer labels. Much of it is shipped to European countries and America, where it is processed and sold in the luxury goods market. If these labels claim to be fairtrade, then why is the whole of Mongolia's animal fibre industry still reliant on government handouts to subsist in the face of a thriving export industry? Why are NGOs still needed? I began to wonder if this is true of many developing countries and the whole of the textile market and fashion industry. Did I uncover a dirty hidden truth? 

While in Mongolia, I had a chance to hear from the herders. They said that they never really had a chance to see what the fruits of their labour were. The very people who were supplying the raw materials never saw the end goods, nor would they ever be able to afford any of the products in their lifetime – or several lifetimes. 

A woman herder told me "In the countryside, you don't need money to live... you just need the land and animals". The irony was, that she was working for money to save for their young daughter's future education. I had a pit in my stomach when she told me this, because I know what I paid for my education in the west. I had a deep sinking feeling that what she saved would never be enough to buy a decent education, nor would she be offered the same opportunities, just because she was born in Mongolia. 

Nancy and the little Mongolian girl.

To me, this was the nail in the coffin for fairtrade. Yes, it's a start, but the fact of the matter is, this situation is not 'fair'.

I asked myself: How can I make things fair? How can I be fairtrade and be equitable in business? These questions plagued me and with that came another set of questions: Is it not fair to share the business profits equally, irrespective of currencies or country? Is being fair sharing my skills and knowledge rather than using them for commercial gain? life can't just be about give and take, sometimes it is about creating and giving back--so that is what I set out to do.

Tengri was created to go further than fairtrade, eco-friendly fashion. We won't just donate a percentage of our profits to help Mongolia. We won't just pay our suppliers a little bit more or organise humanitarian aid. We won't set up factories in Mongolia to make our clothes. Instead, we will partner with existing small and medium enterprises to help shape the market and grow. We will design our collection, based on all things Mongolian, inspired by the spirit of Mongolia and its people. We will work with them to help create and export the best of what Mongolia has to offer. We will share our profits, fairly and squarely with the cooperatives, herder families and manufacturing companies in Mongolia. We will allow them to use their profits as they see fit. We are not here to tell Mongolia what to do or treat our partners like a charity case. We are here to work as a collective partnership in the spirit of fairshare and show a little slice of Mongolia to the world.

Tengri is a culmination of my lifetime's passion and commitment to make a better world. I believe there is a place where design, fashion, business, individual consumers and collective action can truly make a difference to the environment, the animals and the livelihoods of nomadic people who live in it.