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Ethical buying: 'It's about dignity'

New Zealand boasts the world’s highest per-capita sales of fair-trade craft, and behind it all is a Kiwi woman who’s become part of a worldwide movement.

Trade Aid's Vi Cottrell
Vi Cottrell in Christchurch, photo Martin Hunter

The heat was oppressive, the plumbing erratic, the children wouldn’t eat the food, and toads and rummaging pigs populated the streets. “It is,” wrote Vi Cottrell nine days after arriving in Delhi in 1969, “all sort of hopelessly funny.”

“I remember two things about those first few days,” says Cottrell now. “An old man with about two teeth singing Christian hymns till two or three in the morning. And a huge rat, skidding over the verandah.” We’re in the summery garden surrounding a historic mill house in North Canterbury, home to Trade Aid co-founders Vi and Richard Cottrell. Propping open the front door is a small dark figurine, a woman pounding maize, carved from african blackwood from Tanzania. It is one of the surprisingly few reminders of the 40 years that Vi Cottrell, now acclimatising herself to the idea of retirement, spent working with an organisation built on the singular premise of providing market access to poor craftspeople and artisans in the developing world.

“And I was really homesick,” she adds. “Which was not what I expected at all.” Nothing could have prepared the Cottrells for the dramatic change of lifestyle as they left friends and family in Christchurch for a two-year work contract in India. Vi was a former English teacher, educated at the sort of boarding school that “fitted you out to be a good wife”, with little knowledge of India beyond romantic tales of the Raj and images of grinding poverty. Richard was a partner in his family’s law firm. “We had the house, the car, the children, but we were keen to go away, to do something.”

That opportunity came by way of a small advertisement in the Press for an adviser for a resettlement scheme for Tibetan refugees in northern India. While Richard travelled between the various settlements, Vi was responsible for developing markets for the hand-woven carpets made by the refugees in the face of dwindling funds, serious in-fighting, and European aid initiatives that often ignored the needs and experiences of those they were meant to help.


On their return to Christchurch in 1972, they managed to negotiate New Zealand’s strict import licensing system to bring in enough carpets for an exhibition at the Canterbury Society of Arts gallery (now CoCA). The show sold out in 15 minutes and the vague idea of establishing an importing company took a further step towards reality. Later that year Richard invited eight people, four from the business sector and four from local development agencies, to set up an independent company to “trade with underdeveloped countries and so support the work of self-help organisations through long-term trading relationships”.

“We didn’t use the term fair trade – I guess it was implied we would pay a fair price – but we did talk about people being properly rewarded for their skills. ‘Trade is the best form of aid’ – that is what we used to say. And we talked about dignity. Dignity being the difference between being given a grant and earning something – to me that is quite clear. But there is also dignity in having control over what you are doing, and any kind of intervention that doesn’t give people that control is not worth doing.”

Initially supported by those on the radical edge of Corso and various church-based organisations, the pioneering fair-trade organisation grew from a scattering of Corso-related shops and Third World stores into a nationwide chain of 29 shops selling craft and food items on behalf of thousands of farmers and craft artisans in 30 countries. In the last financial year, its importing programme brought in 1007 tonnes of fairly traded organic green coffee.

New Zealand now boasts the highest sales of fair-trade craft per head of population in the world, and sales continue to charge up the growth chart – a record $19 million in the 2011/12 year. Trade Aid-imported coffee, tea, chocolate and other foods are sold in supermarkets, cafes, roasteries and health-food stores around the country. Because of the success of its trading model, Trade Aid has been invited to help develop fair-trade retail outlets in Africa and India; manager Geoff White now sits on the executive board of the World Fair Trade Organisation.


Vi Cottrell with a master Tibetan weaver in India
Vi Cottrell with a master Tibetan weaver in India

But the most significant signs of success, says Cottrell, are the hardest to evaluate. “When fair trade is operating at its best, it offers people the option of doing something different. The key to that is the savings and microcredit schemes. You see a woman who began making hammocks in something like a chook house and now she has a vegetable garden. She has a goat – not a goat that some agency has given her but a goat that she has bought from her savings.”

Probably the most profound effects of fair trade have been on women, she says. “It is that self-confidence, that sense of self-worth, once they are earning and their husbands start listening to them and their children have a chance. They’re going to school, graduating. “For most of our partners, we are quite small players but visiting ZDPM [the Zanana Dastkari Production Markaz craft co-operative] in Kashmir, for which we are the major customer, I feel very proud in the way those women who come from a very oppressive society have coped with such difficulties. And the men, too – you see it in their pride in their children’s achievement and the improvements they have made to their houses.”

There is also the impact of collectivisation, as farmer and artisan groups come together to share costs, negotiate from a position of strength and offer social and practical support. Such achievements, she insists, are not measured against the prevailing development standards of the day but against criteria set by Trade Aid’s trading partners themselves. Over the past four decades, Cottrell has travelled far from the tourist trail – to urban slums in India and Guatemala, hill villages in Thailand and Vietnam, the delta regions of Bangladesh, the Altiplano of Bolivia and Peru – to better understand the needs of those who make or grow the goods that end up in Trade Aid’s Christchurch warehouse and to establish a trading relationship that counts fairness and transparency among its primary goals.

As she told a Trade Aid annual conference in 1993: “I have wide experience of very cheap hotel rooms, sometimes with netting over the top like a rabbit cage, sometimes in the company of insects and furry animal life, sometimes with a straw mattress and at times at close quarters with conversation, music and amorous cries from next door. I have learnt that heaven can be a bucket of cold water and a dipper to pour it over myself. Above all, I have learnt that hope and creativity can flourish in a slum, that the illiterate and poor can run their own [co-operative] and that people poor in material things can have a richness of tradition, culture and skill that makes me feel poor in comparison.”

Every time she has travelled, she says now, she has come back with a renewed passion for what she does. “The conversations you have with key people far into the night – that’s what gives you a sense of a network of people around the world who are really determined to do something about unjust practices.”


Vi Cottrell inspecting Tibetan carpets in the 1970s.
Vi Cottrell inspecting Tibetan carpets in the 1970s

Although she will remain on the Trade Aid board and continue visiting Trade Aid shops in New Zealand, those days of travel are now over, she says with regret. But Cottrell is pragmatic. She is not a crusader, having “given up fighting battles at dinner tables”, nor does she lapse into sentimentality. In talking about the farmers and artisans she has met, she speaks about respect and friendship but never pity.

“I don’t think I was ever emotional about poverty. I was angry at the injustice, at the unfairness of it all simply because of the accident of birth. But this isn’t about pity. I remember seeing an advertisement showing a white woman watching her children in a sandpit and putting her money in an envelope showing a black child – ugh! [Our trading partners] are frustrated we don’t place bigger orders but they don’t want us to feel sorry for them.

“There’s a philosophy that says it’s impossible to experience what the other is experiencing unless you have had that experience yourself. And I haven’t had the experience of poverty; therefore, I think that my connection with people who are poor and my earnest desire to do something about it comes more from a sense of injustice. “But that argument goes on to say that to tell the stories and advocate on behalf of the other is an abuse of those people. I don’t go along with that at all. I don’t think you have to pretend to deeply understand the feelings of somebody to be an effective advocate for what they are going through.”

Nor does she buy into big anti-poverty protests and concerts. In a shallow way, she says, they make people aware that there is poverty, “but what use is their awareness? There’s an argument that they actually prohibit people knowing anything more useful about poverty once they have gone to the concert or bought the bangle.”

There are ongoing battles, not least the current debate over the increasing ambit of Fairtrade labelling to include product lines of non-fair-trade organisations (as a 100% fair-trade organisation Trade Aid is now backing away from the Fairtrade label), “but I think Trade Aid is in a good place to grow. The policies are in place and the checks and balances are there at every level.”

Cottrell’s challenge now, she says, is getting used to the mindset “that says I have retired”. “One of my fears about retirement was ‘who am I?’ I became defined by Trade Aid, and aside from being a parent and grandparent, I defined myself by Trade Aid. And it all happened by chance, really. “I was giving a talk recently and was asked to give a message to young people. My message was if you are young and looking around, there are so many possibilities and some come by chance – you just have to be there to grab it.

“Trade Aid transformed my experience from being a frustrated at-home mother of small children to somebody who has travelled to 42 countries, who knows people all over the world, who has had the opportunity to learn about different cultures and different crafts and who has been in a position to make decisions that affect the well-being of others – and it was all by chance.”